Transcript

China Undercover

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This program contains graphic imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.

KAZAKHSTAN-CHINA BORDER

MUYESER:

[Speaking Uyghur] Yesterday, I passed out. I fainted twice. I miss you all so much.

NARRATOR:

A message from a woman to her husband, secretly sent from somewhere over these mountains.

MUYESER:

[Speaking Uyghur] I’m leaving you this message to see how the children are.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] I haven’t been able to contact my wife for almost two years.

NARRATOR:

This is Sadyrzhan. Two years ago, his wife, Muyeser, went to visit her parents in China. She never returned.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] Our children have been deprived of a normal childhood without their mother’s love. They're traumatized.

NARRATOR:

She left behind three children.

MUYESER:

[Speaking Uyghur] I was hoping to see you all. [Crying]

NARRATOR:

Soon after she disappeared, Muyeser managed to smuggle out a short video from what looks like a detention camp.

Over the past three years, an estimated 2 million Chinese Muslims have been held in camps like this, which the Chinese government has described as “vocational education and training” centers.

Muyeser’s message ends with a farewell to her family.

MUYESER:

[Speaking Uyghur] Take care of the children and yourself.

NARRATOR:

March 2019. Sadyrzhan is on his way from his home in Kazakhstan to the Chinese border.

He’s a Uyghur, a largely Muslim ethnic minority in China that has been targeted by the Communist regime.

He’s now looking for information about his wife and when she might be released.

Filming is discouraged on the border, so we’re shooting discreetly on a phone.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] I need a Chinese SIM card.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Uyghur] Why do you need one?

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] I’ve got friends there, that’s why.

NARRATOR:

Sadyrzhan wants to call a contact inside China who knows his wife. But the Chinese authorities monitor calls made from foreign numbers, so he needs to use a phone with a Chinese SIM card.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] What’s the number?

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Uyghur] Hello.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] Hello. How are you?

NARRATOR:

He gets through to his contact.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] Sadyrzhan here. Is everything OK with you at home?

NARRATOR:

Chinese technology is advanced enough to be alerted by certain words, so they speak in code.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] How is Muyeser?

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Uyghur] She is studying.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] Do you know when she will finish studying? Hello? Hello?

NARRATOR:

"Studying" means she is being detained.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] Without giving any reason, he hung up. It was obvious from his voice that he was scared when he was speaking.

NARRATOR:

Sadyrzhan’s become a vocal advocate for Uyghur rights.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] The Chinese authorities target Uyghurs and Kazakhs, people from ethnic groups who are Muslims.

Currently, Xinjiang is an open prison.

NARRATOR:

Xinjiang is the region of China just beyond this border. It means “new territory.”

Uyghur Muslims, with their own culture and language, have been living there for over a thousand years. But the territory was invaded by China’s Qing dynasty around 250 years ago and brought under Chinese control.

The regime tightly guards access to Xinjiang, and journalists are not able to work freely there.

NORTHERN THAILAND

NARRATOR:

We decide to go undercover.

We’ve been warned that Uyghurs are under regular surveillance and foreigners would be followed. Here in northern Thailand, we are introduced to someone willing to help, a businessman who often works with journalists. He’s part of China’s Han ethnic majority, which will give him more freedom to travel and film.

But it’s still dangerous. We’re disguising his voice and calling him "Li."

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] This job is challenging but significant. We’ll be especially careful. This investigation will be very stressful.

NARRATOR:

If caught secretly filming, he could be imprisoned.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] We’re going to find out what the real situation is in Xinjiang.

NARRATOR:

Xinjiang is China’s largest region. While Uyghurs and other Muslims are the majority, for over 60 years the government has encouraged Han Chinese to settle here. They make up around 40% of the population.

XINJIANG, CHINA

NARRATOR:

In early 2019, Li touches down in the regional capital, Urumqi.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] Xinjiang was a mysterious place for me. I felt very nervous. I felt police were everywhere.

The atmosphere was nerve-wracking.

NARRATOR:

Li is posing as a businessman looking for new opportunities while on vacation.

Some things can be filmed openly here. But photography in many places is forbidden.

The police are everywhere; shots of them have to be taken quickly.

Traveling with a Uyghur taxi driver, Li is told there’s one rule for Han Chinese like him at checkpoints and another for Uyghurs.

MALE UYGHUR TAXI DRIVER:

[Speaking Mandarin] You go straight through. But for us, we have to take everything off, including shoes and clothes. They open and check our bags.

NARRATOR:

Li secretly films himself going through several checkpoints on the streets.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] I found that for the Han Chinese, like us, you could freely move through security. But Uyghurs were rigorously checked. Their ID cards and belongings needed to be scanned by the security machine.

NARRATOR:

In another taxi—this time with a Han Chinese driver—the conversation turns to relations between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.

MALE HAN CHINESE TAXI DRIVER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Xinjiang’s main focus now is on maintaining stability. There was a very big incident 10 years ago.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] An incident, in Urumqi?

MALE HAN CHINESE TAXI DRIVER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Yes, it was awful, a lot of people died.

NARRATOR:

In 2009, thousands of Uyghurs rioted after police suppressed peaceful protests against the killing of two Uyghurs in another part of China. According to the government, almost 200 people, mainly Han Chinese, were killed.

During the violence and police crackdown that followed, an unknown number of Uyghurs were killed and thousands imprisoned.

RIAN THUM, Ph.D., Author, "The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History":

This was a watershed moment in the recent history of Xinjiang. The view of Uyghurs among Han Chinese changed dramatically.

NARRATOR:

Then, three years later, China got a new leader.

RIAN THUM:

Xi Jinping comes to power in 2012, and he’s invested a lot of energy in establishing greater controls over speech. There’s a lot less room for dissent in Xi’s China.

Now what is China? It’s a place that is defined by Han Chinese traditions, the Han Chinese official language of Mandarin and there is increasingly little space for Uyghurs in this imagination of what China is.

NARRATOR:

After Xi Jinping became president, a series of high-profile, violent attacks took place across China. Some were carried out by Uyghur separatists and Islamist militants.

One was here in the heart of Beijing in Tiananmen Square. In total, more than a hundred, mainly Han Chinese, were killed in the attacks.

DARREN BYLER, Ph.D., University of Colorado:

From Xi’s perspective, what's being fought in China is a new version of the war on terror and that the Uyghurs are a problem that are not going to go away and that need to be dealt with.

NARRATOR:

According to Chinese government files leaked to The New York Times, President Xi told officials to unleash the tools of dictatorship to eradicate radical Islam in Xinjiang.

Chinese officials have dismissed this as “total nonsense and a pack of lies.”

Following the militants’ attacks, the Chinese authorities cracked down on the entire Uyghur population and launched a systematic assessment of every Muslim in Xinjiang.

DARREN BYLER:

You start out with 100 points and you're a safe person, and then for each category that applies to you, you're deducted 10 points. Some of the categories are, for instance, are you a Uyghur? Are you between the ages of 15 and 55? Do you have Islamic knowledge? Do you pray regularly? Do you have relatives living abroad? Do you have a passport?

The government quickly realized that the number of unsafe people that they were finding was quite large. So the state began to build out camps on a large scale.

NARRATOR:

The Chinese government initially denied these camps even existed. But over the course of a year, satellite imagery revealed enormous prisonlike structures being built. Drone footage from Xinjiang appears to show large numbers of shackled prisoners. And thousands of Uyghurs living abroad suddenly lost contact with relatives in China.

MUNICH, GERMANY

NARRATOR:

This is Gulzire, a Uyghur refugee living in Germany. Over two years ago, she received a chilling voice message from her sister.

GULGINE:

[Speaking Uyghur] When I go home, if I disappear, don’t tell anyone or say anything. There are people listening everywhere. Everyone has someone following them.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] She repeatedly said things like, "Don’t look for me or you will cause problems for us." I became very scared.

NARRATOR:

Gulzire’s sister, Gulgine, was living in Malaysia but had decided to go back to Xinjiang when their parents stopped replying to messages.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] We agreed when she returned home that she would change her profile picture every week. This would let me know that she was safe and well.

In January 2018, her profile picture suddenly changed to a dark, half-shaded room. So I started looking for my sister.

NARRATOR:

A month later, Gulzire was told by a friend in Xinjiang that her sister was "studying"—the code word for being detained. No one knew when Gulgine would be released.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] The last message she sent was 47 seconds long. I haven’t heard her voice again.

I listen to the messages every day.

GULGINE:

[Speaking Uyghur] If you leave a message, I’ll listen to it from my friend’s phone tomorrow morning. Stay safe, may God protect you sister.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] It’s as if she’s talking to me. Listening to her voice comforts me. But it also breaks my heart.

NARRATOR:

During this time, China was believed to have built around 1,200 detention camps that held an estimated 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, what experts have described as the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] I’m in such a difficult position. In the 21st century, people can see loved ones in an instant, but I can’t see mine. Sometimes, I even talk to the birds in the sky, saying, "You can fly to my country; maybe you can give greetings to my sister and family."

NARRATOR:

Back in Xinjiang, our undercover colleague, Li, is trying to find people willing to talk about the camps.

A week into his trip, he has a chance meeting with a Uyghur who speaks English. But he’s afraid to speak openly.

MALE UYGHUR:

Can I trust you?

LI:

Of course, of course. Why you don’t trust me?

MALE UYGHUR:

No, I trust you. I’m afraid you came by the government.

LI:

[Whispers] By government? No.

NARRATOR:

Li discovers that this Uyghur man’s parents have been sent to a camp.

LI:

You tell me your parents are in a camp?

MALE UYGHUR:

There are many, many people’s parents.

LI:

Why?

MALE UYGHUR:

I don’t know.

LI:

So you mean every family in Xinjiang, they have somebody in a camp?

MALE UYGHUR:

Yes. Yes. Yes.

[Nodding]

MALE UYGHUR:

[Whispers] Just Uyghurs.

LI:

Uyghurs.

MALE UYGHUR:

Maybe I am lucky one. Maybe God protects me.

LI:

You don’t know whether they will take you next month or next year?

MALE UYGHUR:

Yes.

LI:

You don’t know.

MALE UYGHUR:

Everybody doesn’t know.

I miss my parents.

LI:

I can imagine. Where is the camp? You don’t know?

MALE UYGHUR:

No, we don’t.

MALE CHINESE NEWS BROADCASTER:

[Speaking Mandarin] In the education center the main focus is learning the national language, legal knowledge and vocational skills.

NARRATOR:

China has tried to portray the camps in a positive light.

FEMALE UYGHUR CAMP DETAINEE:

[Speaking Mandarin] I can’t imagine the consequences if I hadn’t studied here.

MALE CHINESE NEWS BROADCASTER:

[Speaking Mandarin] See the transformation.

FEMALE UYGHUR CAMP DETAINEE 2:

[Speaking Mandarin] My skills have improved. My thoughts have improved a lot.

MALE CHINESE NEWS BROADCASTER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Beautiful Xinjiang.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Mandarin] I feel very safe.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Society is very stable. Ethnic groups are harmonious.

CAMP DETAINEES IN CLASSROOM [chanting in unison]:

[Speaking Mandarin] I am a law-abiding citizen.

FEMALE UYGHUR CAMP DETAINEE:

[Speaking Mandarin] The Communist Party caught me in time and gave me a chance to change myself. I'm very thankful. Through my actions, I will show my deep gratitude.

NARRATOR:

But classified Chinese government documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reveal a much different picture of life inside the camps.

The documents depict the camps as involuntary indoctrination centers with high watchtowers, constant camera surveillance, harsh punishments and dedicated police bases to prevent escapes.

KAZAKHSTAN

NARRATOR:

It’s difficult to find former detainees inside Xinjiang willing to talk about the camps. But back in Kazakhstan, some Muslims who fled here after being released are more open about what they experienced.

RAHIMA:

[Speaking Kazakh] The main reason I was detained was for having WhatsApp on my phone.

RAHIMA

Detained for 12 months

RAHIMA:

[Speaking Kazakh] You were like a zombie in the camp, like someone who had lost their mind. You just think about being released and dream of that moment.

GULZIRA

Detained for 17 months

GULZIRA:

[Speaking Kazakh] There were cameras in the dormitories, five which rotated, as well as ones in the classrooms. There were bars and mesh wire all around us. If you exceeded 2 minutes in the toilet they hit our heads with an electric prod.

RAHIMA:

[Speaking Kazakh] They beat us, hit us and shouted at us. Damn those people.

There was one Uyghur woman who went mad.

GULZIRA:

[Speaking Kazakh] I was forced to sit on a hard chair twice for 24 hours. I was only given water once and went to the toilet where I sat.

RAHIMA:

[Speaking Kazakh] Many people were affected. Not only young women but even young men tried to commit suicide. Some did.

NARRATOR:

Chinese officials would not agree to speak to us on camera about Xinjiang and the camps. But in written responses, a spokesman said, “Requirements on respecting and safeguarding human rights are strictly followed; the dignity of the trainees are fully respected; and insults and cruelties of any form are strictly prohibited.”

Across Xinjiang, there are growing concerns that the Uyghur way of life is under threat.

Our colleague Li heads to Kashgar, the Uyghurs' cultural capital. Children here are no longer allowed to learn the Uyghur language or culture at school.

Li visits a local mosque.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] When we visited, there weren’t any Muslims inside. I thought this was strange and asked people why they didn’t go to the mosque. They said they fear getting into trouble.

NARRATOR:

Li hears the same story from Han Chinese he meets during his travels.

FEMALE CANTONESE SHOP WORKER:

[Speaking Mandarin] They don’t talk about their religion anymore. In the past, they used to say their faith is Islam. Now, they say their religion is the Communist Party of China. That’s the only answer they can give.

NARRATOR:

There has been mounting evidence coming out of Xinjiang of a systematic attack on Uyghur culture.

Satellite imagery shows the partial or complete demolition of more than two dozen Islamic religious sites, including mosques. The Chinese government told us that only one mosque has been demolished for safety reasons, and the rest are being repaired and that “people of all ethnic groups enjoy full freedom of religious belief.”

MUNICH, GERMANY

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] Find me the bike. What color is it?

BOY:

[Speaking Uyghur] Red.

NARRATOR:

In Germany, as Gulzire awaits word on her sister, she is teaching her son to speak Uyghur.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] The Chinese government’s current policies of cultural genocide are destroying the environment and heritage.

What is this? It’s a horse.

Every aspect of Uyghurs’ lives have been targeted.

Unblock it.

My worst fear is that such a beautiful culture will disappear from the world forever.

XINJIANG, CHINA

NARRATOR:

In Xinjiang, the Chinese regime closely watches the Uyghurs. Li films sophisticated surveillance cameras on almost every street. It’s part of a technology revolution since President Xi came to power.

CHINESE PRESIDENT XI JINPING:

[Speaking Mandarin] The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is rushing through the waves and moving forward, striving towards the goal of building China to become the world’s leader in science and technology.

NARRATOR:

There are an estimated 1,400 tech companies, mostly Chinese, working in Xinjiang. Many are involved in the surveillance systems being used there.

It’s rare for anyone from these companies to speak openly about their work, but one insider agreed to talk to us about the surveillance technology he helped develop. He has since left China and spoke on the condition we conceal his identity and not disclose where he currently lives.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Uyghurs are not considered human by the Chinese government. They're like mice being experimented on for research purposes.

NARRATOR:

He says his work in Xinjiang revealed to him to the ways the government gathers data on the Uyghur population.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] First, there are cameras installed in front of their homes. Before going to a shopping center, even before entering their own district, they must swipe their ID cards.

Xinjiang is currently the most tightly controlled region in the world. The Chinese government is creating a surveillance regime against the Uyghur people.

KAZAKHSTAN

NARRATOR:

It’s not just the Uyghurs who are subject to this intense surveillance. In Kazakhstan, we interviewed Chinese Kazakhs, also Muslims, who say they experienced the same monitoring when they lived in Xinjiang.

SHOLPAN

Former Xinjiang resident

SHOLPAN:

[Speaking Kazakh] Because cameras are installed everywhere, the psychological effect is tremendous. We couldn’t feel free. We all thought that we could be taken away just like that, so we were fearful. We were mentally exhausted, because we were always scared. We couldn't sleep because we'd have so many nightmares.

DARREN BYLER, Ph.D., Anthropologist of Xinjiang:

In 2017, the Chinese state began a data collection process, which is really what supports the technology in general. They asked all people in the province to go to their local police station and submit data, which ranged from DNA collection, blood and fingerprints, to speaking into a microphone to get a unique voice signature for each person and to have a facial scan.

NARRATOR:

The Chinese authorities also use more direct methods through two programs called Homestay and Becoming Family.

Han Chinese are sent into the homes of Muslims like this one.

XINJIANG VIDEO BLOG:

[Speaking Mandarin] Nowadays, Xinjiang is promoting national unity to become one family. This family are our adopted relatives.

NARRATOR:

The visitors are described by the authorities as "relatives." In reality, they’re working for the government.

DARREN BYLER:

The "relatives" are inputting data that they're gathering that presents a biographical profile for each person that they're monitoring.

SHOLPAN:

[Speaking Kazakh] They told us if we had the Koran, we needed to get rid of it. They would often tell us to give up our religion.

We never spoke Kazakh in front of the Han Chinese people because we were worried that they might write down something which would get us locked up in a camp.

UYGHUR GIRL:

[Sings in Mandarin] Xinjiang is good. Xinjiang is good. For everyone, Xinjiang is good. We sing and dance for a beautiful future.

NARRATOR:

The Chinese government did not respond to our questions about the programs. Publicly they say they’re promoting national unity and productivity.

Many Uyghurs’ houses are also individually marked with digital barcodes. Li films them.

DARREN BYLER, Ph.D., University of Colorado:

Police officers come on a regular basis to scan that code, and then the code would pull up your file on their smartphone, and then they would make sure that only the people that are registered for that house are in that house.

NARRATOR:

Uyghurs and other Muslims are also required to install an app on their phones to monitor for content the government deems suspicious.

GREG WALTON, Cybersecurity researcher:

There’s an emerging ecosystem of apps being developed by the police in Xinjiang, all of which lead to a level of intrusiveness into everyday life that is unprecedented.

NARRATOR:

While in Xinjiang, Li is introduced to a security official in the government. He secretly films the conversation.

We’re concealing the official’s identity. He’s surprisingly candid.

MALE COMMUNIST PARTY OFFICIAL:

[Speaking Mandarin] Uyghurs have to pass their phones to the police immediately. The police use a wire to connect your phone to a machine that reads everything on it. Many Uyghurs have been detained as a result.

The authorities say it’s a special situation here. What is happening is excessive and too extreme. The police summon Uyghurs on the street. If they refuse to be checked, they’ll be detained. They just lock them up. There is no procedure.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] Do you think Uyghurs feel their human rights have been violated?

MALE COMMUNIST PARTY OFFICIAL:

[Laughs] [Speaking Mandarin] They don’t have human rights. It’s not about violating, they just don’t have human rights.

NARRATOR:

In its responses to us, the Chinese government said, “The security situation in Xinjiang has been greatly improved” and “There is more effective protection of the freedom of religious belief and human rights of Uyghur Muslims.”

One of the Chinese government’s key contracts in Xinjiang is with the technology company Leon.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

In Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Leon assists communication operators to jointly build information society bases on 5G.

NARRATOR:

Leon has helped the authorities build what many experts consider the most complete surveillance state in history.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

—local government with providing border security.

In Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Leon helps realize project of tranquil city.

In Kashgar, Leon supports local public security bureau in constructing and operating security and protection system.

NARRATOR:

Our colleague Li manages to get a meeting with Leon executives, saying he’s interested in possible business with them.

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] Our security work in Xinjiang is the most important priority in the whole country. We provide facial recognition technology and structuring.

You can see there are cameras on every single street. Everywhere is covered by cameras.

When you see a camera, you might think it’s just a camera, but what you won’t know, as you walk past, is that it records all your information and analyzes it, including your facial expressions and behavior.

NARRATOR:

The executives tell Li that the cameras are provided by Hikvision, the world’s largest surveillance camera manufacturer. It’s one of eight tech companies blacklisted by the U.S. government over concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang.

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] Hikvision company has micro vision technology which you may have heard of. They make cameras and platforms.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] Do you work with them?

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] Yes, we are their biggest customer.

NARRATOR:

The engineer who helped develop Xinjiang’s mass surveillance system explained how these companies’ technology works.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] The distinct facial structure of Uyghurs was entered into the data bank, so just the faces of Uyghurs are being targeted for analysis. Based on the analysis, the computer categorizes a person as normal, of concern or dangerous.

The facial recognition system analyzes facial expressions. It checks to see if you’re nervous. If you run past, you’ll be regarded as dangerous. The security services will arrest the person and send them to a re-education camp or detention facility.

NARRATOR:

His account matches reports by other tech experts and human rights researchers.

The Leon executives tell Li about even more sophisticated technology their company has helped the government implement.

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] Xinjiang’s security industry uses technical solutions which are more sophisticated than those used elsewhere in China and the rest of the world. This includes research and development and experimenting with technologies.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] How are these security and prevention measures implemented?

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] It’s not convenient for me to say more, as it is considered to be a state secret.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

Leon participates in maintenance of cloud data room in order to ensure the information enabled.

NARRATOR:

A Leon promotional video gives some hints about this revolutionary new system.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

We are committed to informatization to help the government establish more efficient informatization system and provide perfect services for operation and maintenance, which our clients—

NARRATOR:

The former engineer from Xinjiang said the system is called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] It’s a computer system which is like a reservoir. All the data flows into it.

NARRATOR:

Powered by artificial intelligence, or AI, the system tries to identify behavior the government considers threatening.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] All information sent from phones, photos taken, phone calls made and locations, together with Uyghurs’ data, is collected on the Integrated Joint Operations Platform and analyzed by the system.

Anyone deemed suspicious is detained.

GREG WALTON, Fellow, The SecDev Foundation:

It’s an environment where cutting-edge Chinese tech companies can demonstrate the capacities of their AI-driven systems to control a population.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

We should strengthen communication with relevant countries and attract more countries and regions.

NARRATOR:

The Chinese government would not answer questions about the Integrated Joint Operations Platform; neither would anyone from Leon.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

—more countries and regions.

NARRATOR:

As for Hikvision, it told us it’s not involved in the operation of its equipment but takes its responsibility to protect human rights seriously and has hired an expert to ensure human rights compliance.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

—to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative—

NARRATOR:

There’s an expanding market for this type of AI surveillance technology not just in China but around the world.

In Li’s meeting with Leon executives, it’s clear they’re looking to take advantage of this.

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] We already know that the Xinjiang security model is being expanded across other parts of China. Xinjiang is next to Central Asia, where there is a high demand for anti-terrorism security products.

MALE CHINESE TECH INSIDER:

[Speaking Mandarin] Any tools used to crack down on people were first used in Xinjiang and tested on the Uyghurs, perfecting the technology, before being exported. The Chinese promote the products by highlighting how advanced the technology is for controlling people.

MALE LEON EXECUTIVE:

[Speaking Mandarin] Thank you for your time.

NARRATOR:

Already, Chinese companies, many working in Xinjiang, are supplying technology to more than 60 countries.

GREG WALTON:

Xinjiang has global implications because what we’re seeing is the early stages of a new form of governance control through advanced predictive algorithmic surveillance. Those systems will be exported, and that would be a massive setback to the cause of human freedom, if you like—to liberal democracy around the world.

LEON PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

We are coming. No distance. No disharmony. You and me.

NARRATOR:

Leon is just one of many tech companies in Xinjiang working with the state to enforce surveillance.

Another one of the Chinese companies connected to surveillance work in Xinjiang is Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications firm, which the U.S. has classified as a threat to national security.

Huawei promotional video, Xinjiang

NARRATOR:

Huawei insists that its work in Xinjiang is only “general purpose and based on global standards” and “complies with all applicable laws.”

SAMANTHA HOFFMAN, Ph.D., Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

Huawei’s activities in Xinjiang are actually quite extensive, despite some of the company’s claims. They’re involved in public security projects; they’re involved in cloud computing projects. Huawei’s activities are directly connected to the human rights violations that we’re seeing unfold in Xinjiang.

You’re talking about a police state where many people are confined in camps, but even the people who aren’t are living virtually in a prison.

NARRATOR:

Our undercover colleague, Li, is now safely out of Xinjiang and China.

LI:

[Speaking Mandarin] Now I understand how they can control and monitor humans through new technology. I felt the power of their surveillance. They’ll use it in other parts of China and abroad. This will have a big impact on people’s lives and freedom.

NARRATOR:

After Li left Xinjiang, there was dramatic news. In December 2019, amid increasing international scrutiny, the Chinese government suddenly announced that everyone in the camps had been released.

SHOHRAT ZAKIR, Regional Government Chairman in Xinjiang:

[Speaking Mandarin] The education trainees have all graduated. With the help of the government they’ve achieved stable employment, improved quality of life and are living a happy life.

NARRATOR:

There has not been any independent verification of China’s announcement, and the government wouldn’t give us any additional information about the releases.

MUNICH, GERMANY

NARRATOR:

Many Uyghurs living abroad are skeptical of the Chinese government claims.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] Even if my sister has been released, I can’t say she’s now living freely, as she’ll still be living under surveillance. I believe she’s under extremely heavy surveillance.

NARRATOR:

Gulzire has heard through a contact in China that her sister, Gulgine, might have been one of those released from detention.

GULZIRE:

[Speaking Uyghur] If she’d been released and gained some freedom, she’d have found a way to contact me. Neither her profile nor her wall picture have changed.

I heard that that those who’ve "completed their studies" have been transferred to forced labor camps.

Sometimes, I think it might be better if she were dead. She’s had to endure unbearable cruelty. She could have lost her mind a long time ago.

I still want to feel hopeful because I want to hear my parent’s and sister’s voices. And I long to see them. But, I don’t have much hope. I’ve been searching for her these last two years. There’s not been a word from her.

KAZAKHSTAN-CHINA BORDER

NARRATOR:

Back in Kazakhstan, Muslims who have left Xinjiang say that when detainees are released from the camps, they emerge transformed.

SHOLPAN:

[Speaking Kazakh] People who left detention have changed a lot. They wouldn’t even talk. They wouldn’t even answer the question, “How are you feeling?”

Women who used to wear long dresses, now wear short skirts. Those who wore hijab and scarves have taken them off.

MARCH 2020

NARRATOR:

We last met Sadyrzhan on the Chinese-Kazakhstan border a year ago. He’s still trying to find out exactly what’s happened to his wife in Xinjiang.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] When Muyeser was sent to the detention camp, she said, "We’ll definitely be reunited again. I’ll come back." She expressed her love.

NARRATOR:

He believes she was released from detention but doesn’t know where she is now. The only thing he’s heard is this message she sent to a mutual contact.

MUYESER:

[Speaking Uyghur] After this message, I’ll delete you from my contacts. Don’t ask questions, we can’t give answers. Sadyrzhan mustn’t look for me, or contact our family. Don’t contact anyone in China.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] The reason she hasn’t called me is because I live abroad. If she did, she’d be incarcerated immediately.

In that message she didn’t ask, "How are the children?" I don’t think a mother can forget her three children.

NARRATOR:

He’s also seen photos of his wife which were posted on Chinese social media.

SADYRZHAN:

[Speaking Uyghur] When I saw these photos for the first time, my heart ached, as if it had been pierced by a dagger.

The old Muyeser, who used to dress like this, wore a headscarf and covered herself modestly, has suddenly transformed into this style. It’s certain that pressure from the Chinese Communist regime has forced Muyeser to forget her Uyghur and Muslim identity.

She’s even been forced to give up her motherly love and forget about her children.

Of course we miss her. Our hearts are burning.

SADYRZHAN'S CHILDREN:

[Singing in Russian] I love you so much, mommy. All mothers are good, but you’re the best. I wish you always stay young. Take care of your health, that’s the most important thing.

SADYRZHAN'S DAUGHTER:

[Sings in Russian] My dear mommy, the most beautiful, gentle and beloved one. My dear mommy.

54m
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American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil
FRONTLINE presents a post-election special on the lives, fears and hopes of Americans in the chaotic months leading up to the historic presidential contest.
November 17, 2020