China Undercover

With undercover footage and firsthand accounts from survivors of China's detention camps, FRONTLINE investigates the Communist regime’s mass imprisonment of Muslims, and its use of sophisticated surveillance technology against the Uyghur community.

AIRED: April 07, 2020 | 0:54:22

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> China has enforced lock downs

in 14 more provinces and cities...

>> NARRATOR: Before China was at the center

of the coronavirus pandemic...

>> Beijing tries to show it's in control of the epidemic.

>> NARRATOR: ...a very different human tragedy.

>> The number of people that can be held is unprecedented.

>> NARRATOR: The crackdown on Chinese Muslims.

>> (disguised voice 1):

>> NARRATOR: "Frontline" goes undercover...

>> (disguised voice 2):

>> NARRATOR: To expose a next-generation

surveillance state.

Now, "China Undercover."

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> (Muyeser):

>> NARRATOR: A message-- from a woman to her husband--

secretly sent from somewhere over these mountains.

>> (Muyeser):

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: This is Sadyrzhan.

Two years ago, his wife, Muyeser,

went to visit her parents in China.

She never returned.

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: She left behind three children.

>> (Muyeser):

>> 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 two 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):

♪ ♪

>> 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):

>> (man):

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> 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):

(music playing on phone speaker)

>> (man on phone and Sadyrzhan):

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: He gets through to his contact.

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: Chinese technology is advanced enough

to be alerted by certain words, so they speak in code.

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> (man on phone):

>> (Sadyrzhan):

(dial tone humming)

>> NARRATOR: "Studying" means she is being detained.

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: Sadyrzhan's become a vocal advocate

for Uyghur rights.

(horse neighing)

>> (Sadyrzhan):

(people cheering and whistling)

>> NARRATOR: Xinjiang is the region of China

just beyond this border.

It means "new territory."

>> (speaking local language)

>> NARRATOR: Uyghur Muslims-- with their own culture

and language-- have been living there for over 1,000 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.

♪ ♪

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):

>> NARRATOR: If caught secretly filming, he could be imprisoned.

>> (Li):

♪ ♪

>> 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.

♪ ♪

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

♪ ♪

>> (Li):

>> (speaking local language)

>> 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.

>> (taxi driver):

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: Li secretly films himself going through

several checkpoints on the streets.

>> (Li):

(metal detector beeping)

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: In another taxi--

this time with a Han Chinese driver--

the conversation turns to relations between Han Chinese

and Uyghurs.

>> (taxi driver):

>> (taxi driver):

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: In 2009, thousands of Uyghurs rioted after police

suppressed peaceful protests against the killing of two

Uyghurs in another part of China.

(tear gas gun fires)

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.

>> This was a watershed moment

in the recent history of Xinjiang.

The view of Uyghurs among Han Chinese changed dramatically.

(fanfare playing)

>> NARRATOR: Then, three years later, China got a new leader.

>> 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, in Xi's China.

(fanfare continues)

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, of what China is.

(fanfare ends)

(explosions roar)

>> 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 100, mainly Han Chinese,

were killed in the attacks.

>> 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 unless 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.

>> You start out with 100 points,

and you're a safe person, and then for each category

that applies to you, you're deducted ten 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, prison-like 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.

This is Gulzire, a Uyghur refugee living in Germany.

Over two years ago, she received a chilling voice message

from her sister.

>> (Gulgine):

>> (Gulzire):

>> 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):

♪ ♪

(people talking in background)

>> 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):

>> (Gulgine):

>> (Gulzire):

>> NARRATOR: During this time, China was believed to have built

around 1,200 detention camps that held an estimated

two million Uyghurs and other Muslims--

what experts have described as the largest mass incarceration

of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.

♪ ♪

>> (Gulzire):

>> 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.

>> NARRATOR: Li discovers that this Uyghur man's parents

have been sent to a camp.

>> (reporter):

>> NARRATOR: China has tried to portray the camps

in a positive light.

>> (woman):

>> (announcer):

>> (group):

>> (woman 2):

>> (announcer):

>> (woman 3):

>> (man):

>> (all):

>> (woman):

>> 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.

♪ ♪

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):

>> (Gulzira):

♪ ♪

>> (Rahima):

>> (Gulzira):

>> (Rahima):

>> 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.

>> (speaking local language)

>> NARRATOR: Children here are no longer allowed to learn

the Uyghur language or culture at school.

Li visits a local mosque.

>> (Li):

>> NARRATOR: Li hears the same story from Han Chinese he meets

during his travels.

>> (woman):

♪ ♪

>> 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.

♪ ♪

>> (Gulzire):

>> (boy):

>> NARRATOR: In Germany, as Gulzire awaits word

on her sister, she is teaching her son to speak Uyghur.

(both speaking Uyghur)

>> (Gulzire):

(both speaking Uyghur)

>> (Gulzire):

(both speaking Uyghur)

♪ ♪

>> 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.

>> (Xi Jinping):

>> 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.

♪ ♪

>> (engineer):

>> NARRATOR: He says his work in Xinjiang revealed to him

the ways the government gathers data on the Uyghur population.

>> (engineer):

♪ ♪

>> 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):

>> 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.

>> (speaking local language)

>> 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.

>> (man):

>> NARRATOR: Visitors are described by the authorities

as "relatives."

In reality, they're working for the government.

>> The relatives are inputting data that they're gathering

that presents a biographical profile for each person that,

that they're monitoring.

>> (Sholpan):

>> (singing):

>> 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.

♪ ♪

>> 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.

>> 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, 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.

>> (official):

>> (official):

>> 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."

♪ ♪

(radio running in background)

One of the Chinese government's key contracts in Xinjiang

is with the technology company Leon.

>> In Xinjiang Autonomous Region,

Leon assists communication operators to jointly build

information society bases on fifth generation.

>> NARRATOR: Leon has helped the authorities build

what many experts consider the most complete surveillance state

in history.

>> ...local government with providing border security.

In Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps,

Leon helps Shihezi's project of tranquil city.

In Kashgar, Leon support local public security bureau

in constructing and operating security and protection system.

(phone camera rustling)

>> NARRATOR: Our colleague, Li, manages to get a meeting

with Leon executives,

saying he's interested in possible business with them.

>> (Leon executive):

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> 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.

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> NARRATOR: The engineer who helped develop

Xinjiang's mass-surveillance system

explained how these companies' technology works.

>> (engineer):

>> 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.

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> Leon participates in makers of cloud data room

in order to ensure the information enabled.

>> NARRATOR: A Leon promotional video gives some hints

about this revolutionary new system.

>> ...committed to informatization

to help the government establish more efficient

informatization system and provide perfect services

for operation and maintenance.

>> NARRATOR: The former engineer from Xinjiang said the system

is called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform.

>> (engineer):

>> NARRATOR: Powered by artificial intelligence,

or A.I., the system tries to identify behavior

the government considers threatening.

>> (engineer):

♪ ♪

>> It's an environment where cutting-edge

Chinese tech companies can demonstrate the capacities

of their A.I.-driven systems to control a population.

>> 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.

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.

>> To participate in...

>> NARRATOR: There's an expanding market

for this type of A.I. 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.

>> (Leon executive 2):

>> (Leon executive 1):

>> (engineer):

>> (Li):

>> NARRATOR: Already, Chinese companies--

many working in Xinjiang--

are supplying technology to more than 60 countries.

>> 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, to liberal democracy around the world.

>> 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.

(announcer speaking Mandarin)

Huawei insists that its work in Xinjiang

is only "general purpose and based on global standards,"

and "complies with all applicable laws."

>> 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.

We'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, in a prison.

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: Our undercover colleague, Li,

is now safely out of Xinjiang and China.

>> (Li):

♪ ♪

>> 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):

♪ ♪

>> 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.

(bell tolling)

(boy shouting happily)

>> NARRATOR: Many Uyghurs living abroad are skeptical

of the Chinese government claims.

(Gulzire and boy talking)

>> (Gulzire):

>> NARRATOR: Gulzire has heard through a contact in China

that her sister Gulgine might have been one of those released

from detention.

>> (Gulzire):

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: Back in Kazakhstan, Muslims who have left Xinjiang

say that when detainees are released from the camps,

they emerge transformed.

>> (Sholpan):

♪ ♪

>> 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):

♪ ♪

>> 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):

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> (talking, laughing)

>> (Sadyrzhan):

>> NARRATOR: He's also seen photos of his wife,

which were posted on Chinese social media.

>> (whining)

>> (Sadyrzhan):

♪ ♪

>> (speaking local language)

>> (Sadyrzhan):

(children singing in Russian):

(all talking in background)

(Fatima singing in Russian):

>> Go to for an interview

with the filmmakers of this program.

And find out about the U.S. response to China's treatment

of the Uyghurs.

Listen to new episodes of our podcast

"The Frontline Dispatch."

>> "Covering Coronavirus" is a series of conversations

with our journalists in the field.

>> When you hear the orders to stay at home the reality

for many of these people is they don't have a home.

>> Connect to the "Frontline" community

on Facebook and Twitter, and watch any time

on the PBS Video App, or

♪ ♪

>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at

♪ ♪

"Frontline's" "China Undercover" is available

on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪


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