The day Maysem was taken away for re-education, she was not given a chance even to take a change of clothes.
A phone message ordered her to report, like all Uyghur Muslim students in the Xinjiang region of north-west China, to the ‘street administration’ centre in Kashgar.
A local government officer told her that, because she had studied abroad, she needed to enrol for a month-long politics course. This was mandatory, and it began with immediate effect.
A protest demonstration in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, USA. Since 2001, China has been waging its own ‘war on terror’, using extremism as an excuse to persecute the Uyghur Muslims
The blindfolded and shackled detainees are from China’s minority Uighur Muslims, according to a source. Video was posted anonymously on Twitter and YouTube
As she left the building, she recognised a woman from her apartment block — Mrs Ger, the designated ‘neighbourhood watcher’. Mrs Ger pulled her aside and said: ‘This isn’t my doing. Big changes are coming.’ Her voice was polite but menacing. Then Maysem was bundled into a car.
The young Chinese student, whose passion for reading had always worried her parents, knew that the ‘big changes’ had already begun. It was September 2016 and one week earlier a new governor had been appointed, Chen Quanguo. It was rumoured that he intended to crack down on the underground dissidents campaigning for political independence and greater freedom for Muslims. Protesters were being denounced as terrorists.
Maysem was an observant Muslim but her social science studies, which had taken her to university in Turkey, were her consuming interest. As she was ordered into the back of a car, to be taken to the re-education centre, her main concern was that this compulsory month-long course would put her return to Turkey and the start of her final year’s postgraduate education at risk.
It took only an hour to realise that the dangers ran much deeper than that. The car pulled up at a school outside the old city walls, but this school had soldiers in camouflage uniforms standing guard at the gates.
Inside were policemen in black carrying assault rifles and spiked, electric-shock batons.
Maysem was escorted from the vehicle to a pair of black iron doors where she was scanned with metal detectors. Above the entrance hung a sign: ‘The defence of our nation is the duty of every citizen.’
The doors slammed shut behind her. On one was a slogan: ‘I am a citizen. I love my country. I will make my nation great.’
She was ushered into a lobby with one receptionist and cameras in each corner of the room. Maysem began to explain that she had done nothing wrong, and asked why she had been brought here.
‘Don’t ask questions. You sit and wait,’ snapped the receptionist.
Ten minutes later, a few dozen elderly, well-dressed men and women flooded in, escorted by guards. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ shouted an older woman wearing ostentatious jewellery.
‘Do you know who I am? My husband works for the vice-governor!’
Around ten officers in black SWAT uniforms stood at the front of the room. One announced the indoctrination sessions would run for six hours a day. Then he said: ‘We have a problem. This place is getting dirty. We have to clean up. Who wants to volunteer?’
He pulled Maysem out of the crowd. ‘You look like the youngest person here! You can wash the windows.’
When she protested that she was a student, not a cleaner, he asked her: ‘Do you have any important relatives?’ Then he summoned another officer and said: ‘Take her to the detention centre.’
After a short car journey, she was pushed through another set of steel doors and down a corridor — this one decorated with murals of Muslim girls cowering before a veiled teacher. On the opposite wall were happy Han Chinese women, leading a class of beaming children.
Protesters gather outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, Ontario, ahead of a motion calling on Canada to recognise China’s actions against ethnic Muslim Uighurs as genocide
A Uyghur woman during a demonstration in Parliament Square, London, ahead of a House of Commons debate, bought by backbench MP Nus Ghani, on whether Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province are suffering crimes against humanity
Maysem was led into a walled compound. In the middle stood a medieval apparatus built from wood, iron and leather straps. With a shiver of horror, she realised this was an infamous ‘tiger chair’.
It was around noon. A boiling August sun stood high in the sky. Ten guards surrounded her as she began to protest: ‘It’s a mistake, I shouldn’t be here, I’ve done nothing wrong, I come from a good family.’
‘Let’s show this bitch who’s boss,’ one of the guards said. Two of the men pushed her on the ground and pulled off her shoes. ‘Slut!’ the guards shouted. ‘Bitch! Whore!’
The guards picked Maysem up and dragged her to the chair. It forced her back upright, with her legs stretched along a bench at an excruciating, raised angle. Cuffs were fitted around her forearms and shins. ‘The discomfort was extreme. We had all heard of the tiger chair. That’s how they make an example of you, torturing you by contorting your body,’ she told me.
Other prisoners gathered round to watch. ‘They were like patients who’d recovered from the head trauma of a car crash and lost their personalities,’ she said. ‘They didn’t seem able to think, ask questions, show emotion or speak. They just watched me with an empty stare, and then they were herded away back into the building.’
The guards left Maysem in the sun until her skin reddened and burned. When they finally removed the straps, they ordered her to get on her feet. ‘You’re going to raise your arms and stand still for another few hours,’ said one.
He stood behind her with a baton. ‘You know what happens if you move,’ he told her.
‘How did I get here?’ she kept asking herself.
In Xinjiang, a region in north-west China whose nearest borders are with Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, people call their dystopia ‘the Situation’.
The majority of the region’s population are Uyghurs (just under one per cent of China’s 1.4 billion population) and since 2017, an estimated 1.1 million of them — one in ten — have been accused by the government of harbouring ‘ideological viruses’ and ‘terrorist thoughts’, and taken away to hundreds of concentration camps. Once there, they are sentenced, without trial, to anything from a few months’ detention to seven or more years.
Many of the camps were repurposed high schools and other buildings, turned into detention centres for torture, brainwashing, and indoctrination.
Chinese policemen push Uighur women who are protesting at a street on July 7, 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region
It is the largest internment of ethnic minorities since the Holocaust. Thanks to strenuous efforts by the Chinese government to suppress all reports of the Situation, the outside world knows little of it. But over three years, up to September 2020, I interviewed 168 Uyghur refugees, technology workers, government officials, researchers, academics, activists, and a former Chinese spy who was preparing to defect. Some requested that I use pseudonyms if I published their interviews.
Their stories remained consistent down to fine details, in dates, places, addresses and names. Most of these details were verifiable on satellite imagery, in leaked Chinese state documents and in annual reports published online by Chinese corporations, and in my own observations and travels inside Xinjiang.
Even for those who don’t end up in a camp, daily life there is hellish. If you’re a woman, you might wake up every morning next to a stranger appointed by the government to replace your partner who has been ‘disappeared’ into a camp. The Chinese authorities maintain that when this happens, the men do not take advantage of the women.
Every morning before work, this minder will teach your family the state virtues of loyalty, ideological purity, and harmonious relations with the Communist Party.
He’ll check on your progress by asking you questions, ensuring you haven’t been ‘infected’ with what the government calls the ‘viruses of the mind’ and the ‘three evils’: terrorism, separatism, and extremism. After your morning indoctrination, you may hear a knock on the door. The local neighbourhood watch official, appointed by the state to keep an eye on a block of ten homes, will check your house for ‘irregularities,’ such as having more than three children or owning religious books. She might say that ‘the neighbours reported you’.
At noon each day, if you are female, you are required to take a government-mandated birth control pill. Still, you are one of the lucky ones: the government frequently summons female co-workers to a local clinic for mandatory sterilisation. The government says it wants to cut down on minority birth rates, claiming it will lead to prosperity.
If you drive to the petrol station or the grocery store to grab something for dinner, at each place you are required to scan your ID card at the entrance, in front of armed guards. A display next to the scanner flashes up the word ‘trustworthy,’ meaning the government has declared you a good citizen, and you will be permitted entry.
A person who receives the notification ‘untrustworthy’ is denied entry and, after a quick check of records, may face further problems. Maybe the facial recognition cameras caught him praying in a mosque. Or the cameras recorded him buying a six-pack of beer and the artificial intelligence (AI) system suspects he has an alcohol problem. He may never know the reason. But everyone knows that any little hiccup can cause the state to lower your trustworthy ranking.
Police officers approach and question him. They double-check his identity on their smartphones with a programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which consists of mass data gathered by the government on every citizen using millions of cameras, court records and citizen spies, all of it processed by AI.
Under the ‘predictive policing programme’, the AI determines he will commit a crime in the future and recommends sending him to a camp. The police officers take him away. He may return at some point after a period of re-education, or he may never be seen again.
If that happens to someone in the queue beside you or at work, it is best to take no notice. Someone else might report you, hoping for a reward from the government or a stronger trust ranking.
That evening, at home, your children tell you about the party virtues of patriotism and harmony they learned that day in school. You don’t argue over their lessons. The teacher told the students to report parents who didn’t agree with them.
After eating dinner and watching the evening news, in front of a government camera installed in the living room, you lie down in bed with your government minder. He has the power to do whatever he wants here in bed because he was sent by the state. If you resist his advances, he will invent an allegation and report you, and you will be sent to the camps.
Since 2001, China has been waging its own ‘war on terror’, using extremism as an excuse to persecute the Uyghur Muslims. During the past 20 years, this has escalated into a programme to erase their entire identity, culture and history, and to force the assimilation of millions of people.
‘You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one. You need to spray chemicals to kill them all,’ one official said in January 2018. ‘Re-educating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops.’
As a young woman at college in Beijing, Maysem was never accepted as fully Chinese by her professors. She was pale-skinned and Uyghur, and thus foreign. Despite this, she earned high marks and even won permission to pursue a masters degree abroad, at Ankara in Turkey.
There, she adopted the Islamic veil — but when she announced she would continue to wear traditional Muslim dress on her return to China in 2014, her parents were horrified.
Instead, they urged her to wear bright reds and pinks that were regarded both as feminine and as symbolic of ‘good communist values’. They also expected her to smile at police officers. A smile and a bright red dress were the surest way to win acceptance.
But the red dress was not enough. While the family were staying at their holiday home in the country, a local party official knocked on the door. He had received reports from neighbours, he said, that their interior courtyard wall was painted light blue.
Blue was symbolic of the Uyghur independence movement. The fact that Maysem’s family did not even own a Uyghur flag was irrelevant. The courtyard had to be repainted — red, the trustworthy colour.
People belonging to the Chinese Uyghur Moslem minority protest in Urumqi, China, in 2009
A few weeks later, Maysem’s mother answered the door to a group of policemen. Her daughter had been taken for re-education, they explained, ‘to cleanse her mind of ideological viruses’.
Her mother immediately began calling friends and contacts, pleading to get Maysem released or at least moved to a centre where she would have more lenient treatment. Eventually, she spoke to an aide to the city’s assistant mayor. ‘My daughter has not been charged with any crime,’ she pointed out.
The official was unconcerned. ‘Why is your daughter special?’ he asked. ‘We have to take care of 5,000 women in the centres. The orders come from the top, not from our office. It isn’t something we can control.’
Maysem shared a cell with about 20 women, watched over by two cameras. The space was about the size of a living room, so that the women stood almost shoulder to shoulder. Most of them stared blankly into space, in silence. ‘
I didn’t talk to them, and they didn’t talk to me,’ she said. ‘No one trusted anyone. The police appointed a cell boss, whose job was to manage the cell, watch the prisoners, and tell the guards if they broke any rules, like fighting with the other cellmates or not studying the propaganda hard enough.’
On the first night, Maysem couldn’t sleep. Next to her bunk bed was a bucket which the female prisoners used throughout the night. The stench was awful.
The alarm rang at 6am. Fluorescent lights went on and the women tumbled out of bed. After showering, they performed callisthenics and stretches while a female voice read instructions and propaganda over the loudspeakers.
‘Now stretch to the right! Stretch to the left! Hold! Repeat after me! Love our Chairman Xi Jinping! Love the Communist Party! Let us free ourselves of the viruses in our minds! We must all be good patriots!’
Then the prisoners were ordered to stand behind a line and bend their knees, ready to sprint. A female guard shouted ‘Go!’ and for one minute, the prisoners sprinted around the courtyard until they arrived at their prize: slices of mouldy bread laid out on plates on the ground. Those who ran too slowly got no breakfast.
The days were filled with indoctrination classes. In one, the teacher placed two water bottles on the desk. One was empty and one was full. ‘I say the full water bottle is full of water. I also think the empty bottle is full of water. What do you think?’
One student raised his hand and stood up: ‘Both water bottles are full!’ This was the ‘correct’ answer.
In another test, detainees sat down in front of two tables. On the left-hand table were scattered models of a house and a yard. On the right-hand table were miniature AK-47 assault rifles and a grenade.
Maysem was given no instructions. The teachers simply watched what she did. She worked out that the ‘correct’ response was to rearrange the model house, trees, and bushes into a lifelike domestic layout.
But if she touched the toy weapons, she failed the test. The bizarre logic was that only someone with terrorist tendencies would feel comfortable handling guns and grenades, even model ones.
The punishment for failure was a day or more in isolation, followed by a repeat of the test, until her thoughts were ‘harmonised’.
The guards told Maysem that, if her ‘infected mind’ was not cured, she would be sentenced to forced labour — the government’s solution to the national shortage of factory workers.
According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019, into labour programmes that benefited at least 83 Western companies — including Amazon, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger.
Maysem’s mother continued to campaign for her daughter’s release, but the breakthrough came when Maysem was shown a propaganda video that included a face she recognised. One of her tutors from college in Beijing was in handcuffs.
His name was Ilham Tohti and seven years earlier, when Maysem was his student, he was a prominent economist and a respected Uyghur intellectual. He had since been sentenced to life imprisonment, accused of infecting the minds of the young. One by one, students in the video began to stand up and denounce him.
‘Professor Tohti was a terrorist who infiltrated our minds,’ declared one. ‘Now that I’m at a re-education centre, the Party is teaching me to cleanse my mind of Ilham Tohti’s virus.’
‘The three viruses of terrorism, extremism, and separatism once existed within me,’ proclaimed another student. ‘The virus was spreading, thanks to Professor Ilham Tohti. But the Party cured me. The Party set me on the right course.’
‘Love the Party! Love the country!’ they chanted. ‘Down with the scoundrel Ilham Tohti!’
Grasping what was expected of her, Maysem began to fill notebooks with declarations of remorse and contrition: ‘I have reflected on the teachings of the Party. I was wrong. The Party is great. The nation is great. The Party is my father and mother, and the Party has corrected me.’ Three days later, she was released. Now she could use her re-education to her advantage, to convince officials that her mind was purified — and that she could therefore resume her studies in Turkey.
Weeks of form-filling followed, as she presented endless documents to bureaucrats: ‘My birth certificate, housing registration, documents proving my attendance at my elementary school through university, even the death certificates of my grandmother and grandfather.’
Permission to fly was denied because she had not used her previous plane ticket. The officials did not care that she had missed that flight because she was in a detention centre. Eventually, she was allowed to board a bus for a four-day journey across the border into India. From there, she flew to Turkey.
For the next few weeks, Maysem exchanged messages with her parents, assuring them that she was safe and studying hard. Her mother sent back snippets of news, via the state-approved WeChat app. They were both careful to include suitably patriotic slogans in their messages, promising that they loved the Party and Chairman Xi.
One day, the tone of her mother’s messages changed. Maysem guessed at once that they were now being written by an official. She pleaded to know what had happened. The messages ceased. Maysem is now certain that both her parents are in a detention centre — and fears she will never see them again.
The Perfect Police State by Geoffrey Cain is published by Public Affairs on July 22 at £25. © Geoffrey Cain 2021. To order a copy for £21.25 (offer valid until July 25, 2021; UK P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.