ISTANBUL — Qelbinur never dreamed that the last link she’d have to her 6-year-old daughter would be a short video on WhatsApp.
When she fled her home in northwest China’s Xinjiang region in 2016, she expected her husband would follow with their children to safety in Turkey. As Uighurs, a large Muslim Turkic minority who have lived in Xinjiang for centuries, they faced constant surveillance, the possibility of arrest, and harassment from the state.
Three years later, Qelbinur is still in Turkey, her husband’s been disappeared to one of China’s secretive “re-education” camps, and the whereabouts of her five children are unknown.
In the last few years, China has effectively closed off Xinjiang from the outside world as the government accelerates its crackdown on Uighurs.
Beijing says it’s trying to combat terrorism by targeting Islamic extremism and “separatism.” The reality, however, is nothing short of an Orwellian nightmare: Uighurs are subjected to near-total surveillance, with cameras watching their every move and police waiting to detain them for even the slightest sign of dissent. At least 1 million people in Xinjiang are currently detained in what the U.N. called a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” Even less is known about their children.
“I realized that they had likely taken my children to other cities, that the Chinese government took my children away”
This crackdown is part of what Adrian Zenz, a researcher and expert on China’s minorities, has described as “the most intensive social re-engineering effort of the Chinese state since the Cultural Revolution.”
For Uighurs like Qelbinur living abroad, WhatsApp is their last lifeline. Each day, they share articles, videos, news clippings — anything that might reveal the slightest piece of information about their friends and families back in Xinjiang.
Last year, the group shared a video that appeared to show students in a classroom playing a game. Instantly, Qelbinur recognized the girl second from the left. It was her daughter Aishe.
“I was very happy,” she said of simply knowing her daughter was alive. Then the anxiety set in: “I realized that they had likely taken my children to other cities, that the Chinese government took my children away.”
Qelbinur’s case is not unique. Inside Xinjiang, even having foreign numbers on your phone or receiving a call from a number abroad is grounds to be sent to a re-education camp, so parents abroad have almost no contact with their children, let alone knowledge of their whereabouts. And as more and more Uigher adults are interned in Xinjiang, their children are rendered parentless. So they’re effectively treated as orphans and forced to live in state-sanctioned facilities.
Earlier this year, we traveled to Turkey to meet with Uighur exiles who believe their children are being held captive in such facilities. That’s when the video for Aishe turned from a moment of motherly relief into a possible clue.
Screengrab of video that shows Aishe, second from left, following along with her classmates in a classroom in an unknown location in Western China's Xinjiang region.
There are no legible signs to tell us the name of the facility or the location seen in the video, but the room has the hallmarks of a kindergarten. In the video, a teacher off-screen can be heard telling the children to touch their “eyes, neck, nose, cup!” And in the background, bunk beds are visible, indicating that this might be a boarding facility.
Then there’s the source. The video was originally uploaded to Douyin, a Chinese social media app similar to Instagram, in December 2018.
Digital security experts were unable to pull any geolocation information from the original video’s metadata. But other videos on the poster’s profile showed what appear to be school exteriors.
Working with a satellite imagery expert, we were able to identify two locations by matching the outlines of their roofs, turrets and landscaping of the grounds outside.
Both were located in Hotan, a city nearly 300 miles from Qelbinur’s hometown outside of Kashgar. Qelbinur couldn’t understand how her daughter could be living so far away. She wanted to know where her other children were, and who was taking care of them.
She’d left them in the care of her parents and family, and even though she hadn’t heard from them in years, she’d hoped it was a result of extreme caution. But this video of Aishe, and the apparent location of this kindergarten all but confirmed her worst fears: that her family had been interned and her children had been taken by the state.
Kindergartens and cameras
Satellite imagery experts were able to pinpoint specific locations in Hotan by comparing the building's structure and colorful markings on the ground outside.
According to data from the Statistics Bureau of Hotan Prefecture, between 2016 and 2017 the number of kindergartens more than doubled to 1,265 from 481. And the number of students admitted to them increased by 98 percent, to 251,900 from 127,000.
The timing syncs up with the explosion of adult re-education camp facilities, first identified in 2017. Meaning that just as the government began rounding up hundreds of thousands of adults, they were also building large-scale school facilities for children, raising suspicions that the design all along was for the state to step in as a de facto foster care system.
Through satellite imagery, we identified several similar facilities that bore a resemblance to those two kindergartens from the Douyin account. They were all built in 2017 and they’re large complexes, mostly walled off, with the signature colorful turrets on top and brightly colored patterns on the ground.
We traveled to Hotan on tourist visas to see these facilities firsthand, but we were immediately met by plainclothes security officers, who followed our every move. The constant surveillance made it virtually impossible to get to some of the locations further outside Hotan’s city center, including the ones we suspected Aishe might be living in.
But we managed to get to multiple sites and were able to confirm that they were all operational kindergartens. One of the facilities we visited had been reported on previously by the AP, which discovered local reports describing the operation as “‘free, full-time kindergarten” for children whose “parents cannot care for them for a variety of reasons.’”
The name of the kindergarten had been changed with two characters in a slightly different color, in an apparent effort to avoid further media attention.
At several sites, we could see and hear children inside at odd hours, including weekends. Signs out front listed specific entrance and exit hours to the facility Monday through Friday. At another school, we didn’t see any parents or children entering or exiting the premises at the end of the school day.
We visited a number of other kindergartens around the city, built prior to Xinjiang’s security crackdown. These facilities looked a lot more like the kinds of schools you might expect. Several sat right on the street without walls around them, we could see people going in and out freely, and there was significantly less security.
“It’s deeper than language; it’s the culture itself”
Uighur children participate in a weekly flag raising ceremony at an elementary school in Hotan.
China’s propaganda campaign against the Uighurs is no less subtle. Nationalist posters lined the school’s walls: “Eradicate gangs and evil forces to win the hearts and good will of the people,” read one. “Children are glad and grateful to the motherland,” said another.
Many of them emphasized speaking Mandarin. “Learn the national language.” “Please speak Mandarin when you are in school.”
During a weekly flag-raising ceremony at a nearby elementary school, we saw Uighur children chant in unison “My Motherland is the Republic of China. I am a member of the Chinese national family. I will protect the unification of the Motherland and unity among ethnicities.”
Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington and researcher on Uighur society, said the campaign throughout Xinjiang goes beyond just indoctrination.
“It’s deeper than language; it’s the culture itself. They’re being taught that Uighur culture is backward,” he said. “A fear that a lot of older generation have is that as this progresses, over the next generation — 10 years or 20 years down the road — Uighur kids will begin to internalize backwardness associated with Uighurness.”
For Uighur parents, the threat is more urgent than the potential loss of their cultural identity.
Since she saw the video in December 2018, Qelbinur has received no new updates about the whereabouts of her five children and family in Xinjiang. Instead, she’s forced to wait and pray, hoping that her children will one day be reunited with their mother. When asked what she would say to them now, she replied, “Please forgive me.”
This segment originally aired June 27, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Cover photo: Qelbinur shares the video of her daughter Aishe with VICE News.