Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 28 February 2021


Hong Kong protesters defy ban to show support for detained leaders

Pro-democracy activist Benny Tai arrives for a court hearing on Monday after he and scores of other opposition figures were detained and charged with subversion a day earlier © REUTERS

Hundreds of Hong Kongers have defied the threat of prosecution to protest against the charging of 47 pro-democracy politicians swept up in the city’s biggest national security law case.

Gathered outside a bail hearing for the arrested activists on Monday, protesters chanted slogans including “Regain HK, revolution of our times”, a phrase authorities said violated the security law.

The former elected lawmakers and activists — who included Joshua Wong, the opposition leader already jailed in a separate case — were charged with subversion on Sunday in a move that highlighted the government’s determination to crush dissent in the city, critics said.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said the detentions underscored China’s “broken promises to the world about Hong Kong’s autonomy & democratic rights”.

“We stand in solidarity with these brave activists,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter. 

In a separate statement, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, called for their immediate release. “Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes,” he said.

Beijing imposed the national security law last June to quell pro-democracy protests that kicked off in 2019. Most prominent activists are in prison, on bail or have fled overseas.

The US condemnation, which came despite Beijing warning the Biden administration last month not to interfere in the territory, followed criticism from the UK and the EU.

“It shows in the starkest terms the national security law being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary.

The 47 activists charged on Sunday were among 55 pro-democracy politicians arrested by police in January.

The activists were involved in an unofficial primary vote by the opposition to select the most popular politicians to run in an election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament.

Police charged the activists with “conspiracy to commit subversion”, a crime under the national security law that is punishable with up to life imprisonment. The authorities allege the primary was part of a strategy to topple the government.

John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer based in Hong Kong who was detained in January and became the first expatriate to be arrested under the security law, was not charged.

Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the arrests underscored the intensifying squeeze on the opposition.

“What constitutes a breach of the national security law depends on the determination of the authorities and it's relatively easy for them to use blanket legislation to incriminate politicians or activists who they think . . . have done something detrimental to the authority of the central government,” he said, referring to Beijing.

The bail hearing on Monday was tense. Police maintained a heavy presence to keep watch over the throngs of supporters, many of whom had lined up for hours outside the court.

On Sunday, the politicians hugged farewell to loved ones and waved goodbye to supporters before giving themselves up to police. Some swapped to eyeglasses with plastic frames and shoes without shoelaces in anticipation of being detained for a long period.

“No matter how difficult it will be. I want to tell all of the Hong Kong people, no matter where you are, to keep faithful and to be hopeful and to continue our struggle,” said Lester Shum, one of the arrested politicians, as he held his wife’s hands.

The introduction of the security law has unleashed a crackdown on the city’s previously freewheeling civic life. Teachers have been disqualified, journalists arrested and civil servants forced to swear loyalty oaths.

China has also signalled a deeper shake-up of the electoral system, saying it wants to ensure only “patriots govern Hong Kong”.



The Twilight of the Anti-Trump Idols

From Andrew Cuomo’s scandals to the European vaccine disaster, after Trump the failures of his foils have been laid bare.

Ross Douthat

Throughout the Trump presidency and especially in the Covid era, there was a quest for figures that could be held up as embodiments of everything that Trump’s opposition wanted to restore: reason, technical competence, idealism. Over time these figures took on the character of familiar dramatic archetypes — the Good Republican, the Heroic Whistleblower, the Beleaguered Expert, the Tough Blue State Governor, the Wise and Sophisticated Europeans.

The first month of the Biden era has been a hard time for these characters. A few have come through more burnished than before: If Mitt Romney was a Good Republican before, now he’s pretty much the Best. But elsewhere we’re seeing archetypes of anti-Trumpism exposed as idols, not just fallible but failing, not just imperfect but corrupt.

You may have noticed, for instance, the long-overdue collapse of the heroic story around Andrew Cuomo, the Tough Blue State Governor par excellence, whose pandemic news conferences inspired such fawning media coverage — from late-night hosts who declared themselves admiring “cuomosexuals,” from his own CNN-host brother — that the governor wrote a book about “leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic” while the pandemic was still going on.

For the sake of the heroic story, the fact that Cuomo and Bill de Blasio jointly botched New York’s initial response to the coronavirus was airbrushed out of the televised hagiography. The fact that the governor shipped potentially contagious patients back to nursing homes was reported on but didn’t dent Cuomo’s reputation, becoming a cause célèbre mostly in the right-wing press. And the bullying, berating side of Cuomo that’s suddenly front-and-center in stories about his alleged cover-up of nursing-home death numbers — well, that was portrayed as the seriousness a reeling country needed.


Only now is the more complete Cuomo story taking hold. Meanwhile, a similar deglamorization has arrived for the Good Republicans at the Lincoln Project, the collection of Republican strategists dedicated to using their skills to bring down Donald Trump. They started with a sermon about saving the Republic, lapped up Resistance lucre for their ad campaigns, and now — well, it now turns out they had an accused sexual harasser among their founders, a toxic workplace culture and a mission that sought “generational wealth” for its leaders as assiduously as it sought Trump’s defeat.

Finally, the wheel has also turned for the Wise and Sophisticated Europeans, whose governments were once portrayed as having vanquished the pandemic with Science, while Trump’s America was a failed state where the coronavirus held illimitable dominion over all.

That trans-Atlantic contrast diminished when Europe experienced its own autumnal wave, but now, in the race to vaccinate, the whole narrative has been reversed. America’s vaccine program looks far better than Europe’s catastrophic non-rollout, and the only major European country doing really well is Britain, which rather famously Brexited out of the Continent’s technocratic utopia not so long ago.

This twilight for the anti-Trump idols should be a teachable moment in two ways. First, it’s a reminder that the problem of media failure in the Trump era does not begin and end with the conservative bubble. As my colleague Frank Bruni wrote last month, Trump’s outsize awfulness often worked as a “concealer” over sins and follies not his own. But there should have been more scrutiny for what lay underneath: The issues with Cuomo were always apparent, the issues with the Lincoln Project somewhat so, and the fact that America and Europe were never so very far apart in their Covid response was discernible as well. Yet anti-Trumpism frequently produced narrative conformity in media outlets that congratulated themselves on not being like those sycophants at Fox.


I wrote last week, at Rush Limbaugh’s passing, about how the success of the conservative media has often been bad news for conservatism. One can also say, though, that the conservative media’s retreat into a dream palace has made portions of the mainstream-cum-liberal media stupider — slow to scrutinize their own narratives, question their own icons, or acknowledge the importance of stories that might vindicate the right.

But the other thing to recognize here is that the press was not wrong to desire heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right. The attempt to wish those leaders and institutions into being is a media failure, but the fact that the media looked for them is not.

In the failure to find them, and in the substitution of figures who ended up exposed as corrupt or just incompetent, we can see once again the importance of thinking about how we got Trump in the first place.

Saturday 27 February 2021


HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to be in east Asia by late summer
HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to be in east Asia by late summer

Britain’s defence strategy will “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region where the Royal Navy will have a regular presence in the future, the head of the armed forces has said.

General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, said China was a growing great power presenting an opportunity and a “strategic challenge” for the UK.

He said the long-awaited integrated review of Britain’s defence and foreign policy would outline how more military engagement in the Asia-Pacific region was a “no-brainer”.



After dissident vanishes in Canada, Saudi exiles fear they are now in jeopardy

Image without a caption
Saudi dissidents fear they could be the target of Saudi Arabia’s campaign to intimidate critics living abroad, even after an operation that killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was condemned by the international community. (Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters)
Feb. 27, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. GMT+8

The mysterious disappearance last month of a Saudi dissident living in Montreal after visiting the kingdom’s embassy in Ottawa has sent fear rippling across Canada’s community of Saudi exiles.

While the gravest concerns were allayed when Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi, 24, reappeared last week in Saudi Arabia, his fellow activists suspect he was coerced to return to the kingdom and are afraid he is providing Saudi authorities with information that jeopardizes them and their families.

These fears are most acute among Saudi activists who have tried to keep a low profile and avoid attracting unwanted attention from the Saudi government.

“They’re normal people from Saudi Arabia who left Saudi Arabia and disappeared out of sight,” said one dissident in Canada, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution by Saudi authorities. “But now, they’re exposed. Ahmed revealed their names. And they’re worried they’re going to be targeted, that at any moment something will happen.”

In recent years, Saudi authorities have repeatedly tried to intimidate critics living abroad, pressured their relatives who remain in the kingdom, and in some instances abducted dissidents and repatriated them to Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, the U.S. intelligence community gave Congress a report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved an operation that killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The report, prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted “the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”

Harbi, who entered Canada in 2019 and got asylum, had worked on several projects with other Saudi dissidents in Canada, according to friends. This included involvement in an opposition talk show on YouTube and participation in a network of volunteers active on Twitter to counter Saudi Arabia’s “flies,” the government-backed operation that attacks social media users critical of authorities.

“We have people who had fake names. They now know who they are,” said Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident and longtime Canadian resident who runs both the television show and the opposition Twitter network. Saudi authorities may also be in a position now to learn intimate details of these operations, he said.

Abdulaziz and two other of Harbi’s friends said in interviews that Harbi disappeared a few weeks ago, blocking them on Snapchat and leaving all of their common messaging groups.

Harbi then called at least two friends, Abdulaziz and Omar al-Zuhairi, and told them he had gone to the Saudi embassy, where he was interrogated and pressured to reveal the names and details about people in the activist network, the two friends said. Harbi said on the calls he had provided names of other activists.

In a recording of one call obtained by The Washington Post, Harbi, between long pauses, says that he was asked questions about Abdulaziz and his work. Harbi said he felt his family in Saudi Arabia was being subtly threatened. Describing his visit to the embassy, he said, “When you enter, you feel like you’re Khashoggi.”

Harbi told Abdulaziz that embassy staff gave him a plane ticket to Saudi Arabia and took him to the airport but that he told his escorts he had decided against returning to the kingdom and got away. Harbi then vanished for nearly three weeks.

On Feb. 16, Abdulaziz raised the alarm on his popular Twitter account.

Two days later, a new Twitter account for Harbi appeared. Absent were the previous references to Saudi dissidents, prisoners and Khashoggi. The new account was topped with a photo of the crown prince.

Harbi’s first tweet celebrated being back in his homeland. A photo showed an airplane ticket with his name dated Feb. 7.

Public Safety Canada referred questions about whether Canada would be probing how Harbi ended up in Saudi Arabia to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which declined to comment. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it could “neither confirm nor deny” whether he had sought asylum in Canada, citing “reasons of privacy.”

The Saudi embassy in Canada did not respond to a request for comment about Harbi.

Abdulaziz is the best-known activist in Harbi’s circle. Abdulaziz moved to Canada almost two decades ago and became an asylum seeker, then a Canadian citizen. Over time, he became active against what he perceived as injustices carried out by the Saudi government. His YouTube show criticizing the government has become extremely popular.

In 2018, he said his phone was hacked, and Saudi agents traveled to Canada to try to lure him back to the kingdom, according to a recording of that conversation. He said his family in Saudi Arabia, now under a travel ban, has stopped talking to him, and two brothers and more than 100 of his friends are in prison for having contact with him.

Another Saudi who has sought safety in Canada, former top Saudi spy chief Saad al-Jabri, has accused Mohammed of targeting him for assassination, filing a lawsuit last year against the crown prince. The lawsuit also alleges that two of Jabri’s children were detained in Saudi Arabia to pressure him to return. The Saudi government has accused Jabri of embezzling public funds.

The Saudi dissident who spoke on the condition of anonymity oversaw Harbi’s work with the Twitter network, known as the “bees.” The dissident said he had felt increasingly vulnerable in recent months, but it became far worse after Harbi returned to Saudi Arabia.

“Ahmed used to eat from my plate, and I his. He was truly with us. He knew our secrets. He knew our lives. He knew everything about us,” the dissident said.

He said he worries that Saudi authorities could now pressure — or even torture — Harbi to obtain information about the circle of dissidents. If their names are revealed, authorities could threaten their families in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has often placed travel bans on the relatives of dissidents as a way to intimidate them.

Fearing they could be targeted for violence even in Canada, the exiles said they already avoid Saudi diplomatic missions so they don’t end up like Khashoggi.

“I’ve never come out with my name or my photo or my resemblance or anything. Always incognito. Not even on Twitter do I have my name or information about me or my city, nothing at all,” said the anonymous dissident.

“But if I simply take one step forward and come out with my real name or photo,” he said, his words slowing down, “then it’s like I gave them the green light to take my family, to arrest my brother or sister or father or mother.”

Friday 26 February 2021

Viel Kritik an Pekings Uiguren-Politik

    Protest ist nur im Ausland möglich, hier in Istanbul Bild: EPA

    Das niederländische Parlament spricht von Völkermord, der französische Außenminister von „institutionalisierter Unterdrückung“. Und was sagt Berlin zu Xinjiang? Man ist „sehr besorgt“.

    1 Min.

    Für Chinas Diplomaten und ihre informellen Hilfstruppen bedeutet das, was das niederländische Parlament beschlossen hat, wohl Überstunden. Seit langem bemüht sich China mit lauteren und unlauteren Methoden darum, all das maßgeblich zu beeinflussen, was im Ausland über die Volksrepublik gesagt und geschrieben wird. Das hat die Parlamentarier in Den Haag trotzdem nicht davon abgehalten, die Situation in der chinesischen Region Xinjiang zu bewerten und zum Schluss zu gelangen, dort finde ein Völkermord an den Uiguren statt.

    Die Existenz großer Lager in der Provinz kann China nicht mehr leugnen. Und „Völkermord“ ist nach aktueller Definition nicht erst dann gegeben, wenn Massenmorde stattfinden.

    Die Bundesregierung liebt es leise

    Die niederländische Regierung macht sich den Begriff nicht zu eigen. Aber auch sie spart nicht mit Kritik an der Unterdrückung der Uiguren durch die Pekinger Zentralregierung. Ähnlich hat sich auch der französische Außenminister geäußert. Er spricht von einem „institutionalisierten System der Unterdrückung“.

    Und was macht der größte EU-Staat? Im Bundestag kommt das Thema Xinjiang immer wieder einmal auf die Tagesordnung. Die Bundesregierung liebt es aber leise, wie fast immer, wenn es um China geht. „Sehr besorgt“ sei man, hieß es im Mai 2020 in einer Antwort auf eine Anfrage der Grünen. Wenn alle so zahm wären, könnten sich Pekings Propagandisten ihre Überstunden ersparen.

    Erstmals hat ein Parlament in Europa den Umgang mit der ethnischen Minderheit der Uiguren als Genozid eingestuft – weil Peking Frauen massenhaft sterilisieren lasse. Auch in Frankreich wächst der Unmut. China reagiert empört. 

    Joe Biden’s Mixed Iran Messages

    He orders a strike against Iran-backed militias but makes concessions to Tehran.

    President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Feb. 25. PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
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    Friday morning’s airstrike against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria sends a clear message: President Biden will use force to defend American lives. But this welcome development is an exception to the rest of Mr. Biden’s emerging Iran policy.

    The President authorized the mission Thursday as a response to deadly rocket attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq this month. The strikes, meant to target the Iranian proxies Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, destroyed several weapons storage facilities.

    Opinion: Potomac Watch

    The Pentagon didn’t confirm casualty numbers, but media reports suggest well over a dozen pro-Iranian fighters were killed as the U.S. also struck trucks loaded with weapons. The message will be heard in Tehran and by other U.S. adversaries.

    On the other hand, there’s Mr. Biden’s seemingly eager desire to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. After announcing that Washington couldn’t “snap back” United Nations sanctions, the new Administration is consulting with South Korea about releasing at least $1 billion in frozen Iranian assets. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week the U.S. wants to “lengthen and strengthen” the accord—good—but then said President Trump’s sanctions on Iran had failed.


    How giving up sanctions will get Iran to agree to a better deal is left unsaid. And, no surprise, Tehran has responded to the overtures by curbing access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and threatening to further enrich uranium.

    The White House is also making the mistake of counting on Europe to help bring Iran into a better nuclear deal pact. Talk about false hope. The U.K., Germany and France failed to help Mr. Trump improve the deal. France and Germany also recently embarrassed the new Administration by rushing to sign a major investment deal with China.

    So much for “restoring alliances.” The Europeans have convinced themselves that the nuclear deal will change Iran’s behavior, but this diplomacy is about little more than serving their commercial interests with Iran.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. is giving the back of its hand to the countries most endangered by Iran—Israel and the Sunni Arab states. The Administration paused arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last month. It also withdrew support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen while lifting sanctions against the Houthis. On Friday the Administration released a scathing intelligence report about Saudi officials’ involvement in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing (see nearby). Amid a flurry of other activity, Mr. Biden also made a point of delaying his first calls to Saudi and Israeli leaders.

    All this looks and sounds like Barack Obama redux, though the Middle East has changed in four years. The Administration is still courting Iran, as if the regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have shown any desire to change their imperial behavior. These concessions jeopardize the progress of the landmark Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab countries and the containment of Iran, where sanctions have stoked public anger at the regime and undermined its ability to project power around the region.

    Mr. Biden says he wants to focus less on the Middle East and more on the Indo-Pacific. The way to do that is to build on the alliances of the Trump Administration and persuade the Europeans to join a united front against Iran. Otherwise Mr. Biden is on a path to strategic disappointment and time-consuming distractions in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian peninsula.



    Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State

    Xinjiang is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in China.

    In 2017 and 2018, authorities detained roughly a million
    Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim minorities
    in secret “reëducation centers.”

    In 2019, they claimed that detainees had “graduated.”
    Evidence shows that many were sentenced to long prison
    terms or forced labor instead.

    It is likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.

    In the spring of 2017, Erbaqyt Otarbai, a forty-three-year-old truck driver living in Kazakhstan, crossed the border into China to accept a job with a mining company in Xinjiang. His wife had recently undergone surgery to remove kidney stones, and he needed money to cover her medical expenses. For the next three months, he crisscrossed the region, hauling iron ore in a hundred-ton truck. By August, he had saved up enough to pay his debts.

    On the morning of August 16th, the county police in Koktokay, near the mine in northern China where he was based, summoned him to a meeting. At the police station, officers led Otarbai to a room lined with spongy, yellow soundproofing. There was a metal chair with arm and leg restraints, but the officers didn’t make him sit in it. One officer asked him questions in Chinese: When had he moved to Kazakhstan? For what purpose? With whom did he communicate? Did he go to a mosque? Did he pray? Otarbai answered honestly. He hadn’t done anything wrong and wasn’t worried. After two hours, the officers released Otarbai but kept his cell phone, saying that they would review its contents.

    This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

    Later that evening, Otarbai drove a truckload of iron ore about four hundred miles south from Beitun, near the Mongolian border, to a processing plant outside of Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital. He arrived around dawn, after an eight-hour journey. While he was waiting to unload his cargo, he heard a knock on the side of his truck. It was a fellow-driver, who said he had received a call from the company dispatcher. The police were coming to pick up Otarbai, who should unload his truck and wait.

    When officers arrived at the processing plant, around noon, they told Otarbai that they’d found a problem with his household registration. They would drive him to Tacheng—about six hours away—to get it fixed. As he rode away in the police car, Otarbai realized that he’d forgotten his wristwatch in his truck. The police told him not to worry. “We have some paperwork to fill out, and then you’ll be free and your truck will be waiting for you,” he recalled one of the officers saying. On the highway, they switched on the lights and the siren. Otarbai began to feel nervous.

    Otarbai was born in a rural part of northern Xinjiang, near the borders that China shares with Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. His family’s roots were Kazakh, and, although he grew up speaking both Kazakh and Chinese, Otarbai felt closer in language and custom to Central Asia than to Beijing or Shanghai. Kazakhs are one of China’s fifty-six officially recognized ethnicities and the third-largest ethnic group in Xinjiang. Uighurs, the largest ethnic group in the region, like Kazakhs, speak a Turkic language and are predominantly Muslim.

    As an adult, Otarbai found himself drawn to Kazakhstan, where members of the Kazakh diaspora in China had increasingly migrated, particularly after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991. After Otarbai got married, he moved to his wife’s home town, Tacheng City, about eleven miles from the Kazakh border, and changed his household registration to match hers. Then, in 2011, Otarbai moved to Kazakhstan to build a house for his family. He found work driving pipeline segments across the border for a Chinese oil company. His family followed several years later, but they continued to travel back and forth to see relatives and take advantage of better health care in China.

    Beginning in 2015, however, crossing the border became fraught. Otarbai and his wife travelled to China for the birth of their second child. When the family tried to return to Kazakhstan, border guards held Otarbai behind. There were problems with his paperwork, which took three days to resolve, while his family waited in a hotel in Kazakhstan. He suspected that the change in his household registration had flagged him as suspicious, so he decided to apply for Kazakhstani citizenship. In April of 2017, Otarbai and his wife visited China for her kidney-stone removal.

    When he returned to China a month later to work for the mining company, his application for citizenship in Kazakhstan was still pending. Border authorities confiscated his Chinese passport. They told him that the government had issued new instructions for cases like his. Local officials would hold his passport at the police station in Tacheng, where his household was still registered, until he was ready to return to Kazakhstan. But before he could retrieve his passport, the police had detained him on August 17th, loaded him into a squad car, and turned on the siren.

    The officers took Otarbai to the Tacheng police station. He was surprised to see that the building, which he remembered from his time living in the city, had been outfitted with new metal security doors and a fingerprint scanner. Around 1 A.M., Otarbai was interrogated again. This time, he was secured to the same type of chair he’d seen in the Koktokay police station, which he later learned to call a “tiger chair.” His arms and legs were cuffed. When he asked what he’d done wrong, the officers replied that they were simply following instructions. One officer pointed to a camera mounted on the wall. “They are watching us,” he said.

    Otarbai learned that the police had found WhatsApp, a messaging client that is blocked in China, on his phone. Otarbai protested that the app was common in Kazakhstan, where he now lived. The officers asked if he knew what he had saved in his WhatsApp account. Otarbai immediately understood what they meant. In Koktokay, he’d told the police that he didn’t pray regularly. Now he remembered that there were a few videos of imams preaching and inspirational images related to the practice of praying five times a day. “I know there is some religious instruction,” he told them. “I know it is there.”

    Otarbai’s interrogation ended soon after he acknowledged his phone’s contents, and the police took him to a nearby hospital for a medical checkup. Although he was the only patient there in shackles and handcuffs, he still hoped that he would be freed. Instead, the police took him to Tacheng’s pretrial detention center. He spent the next three months there, sharing crowded jail cells with as many as twenty-two other prisoners. By his own account, Otarbai was a badly behaved detainee. He shouted at guards, demanding his release, which led to beatings. During one encounter, a guard told Otarbai that he would rot in jail, then struck his head with a metal baton, causing him to bleed. “Nobody interrogated me,” he said. “Nobody told me what was happening.” He assumed his detention was a mistake that would soon be corrected. On November 22nd, three months after Otarbai entered the detention center, police officers read aloud a list of prisoners who would be transferred to a “political learning center.” More than two dozen detainees were handcuffed, shackled, hooded, and loaded into police minivans. Otarbai was among them.

    The region now known as Xinjiang is the homeland of several Central Asian peoples, including Uighurs.

    From the Bronze Age into the 18th century, nomadic Hunic, Mongol, and Turkic powers vied to control the area’s fertile lowland oases.

    In the 1750s, a Chinese kingdom, the expansionist Qing Empire, conquered the region.

    In the spring of 2017, authorities in Xinjiang began detaining thousands of Uighurs and other Turkic and Muslim people.

    The name Xinjiang, or “New Frontier,” came into official use in 1884, toward the end of the Qing era, when the region became a formal province of the Chinese empire.

    In the first half of the 20th century, nationalists twice attempted to create an independent country named East Turkestan.

    Later, in the 1950s, China’s Communist rulers declared the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region the second of an eventual five autonomous zones for ethnic minorities.

    Today, Xinjiang is China’s largest region, bordering eight nations.

    It is also one of the most ethnically diverse regions in China.

    Xinjiang is home to roughly 13 million Uighurs, 9 million Han Chinese, and 1.5 million Kazakhs, as well as Hui, Kyrgyz, and Mongolian populations.

    By 2018, as many as a million people were held in a vast network of prisons and “reëducation centers.”

    Satellite images suggest that there may be more than 380 detention facilities in Xinjiang.

    In the nineteen-fifties, China’s new Communist government began encouraging migration to Xinjiang, a region leaders viewed as sparsely populated, underfarmed, and mineral-rich. Most of the settlers belonged to China’s dominant Han ethnic group. The government developed a sprawling system of state-owned agriculture, factories, mines, and oil fields in the region, all overseen by Han settlers. Breathtaking economic growth followed, and the area’s ethnic makeup underwent a profound change. In 1949, Han Chinese made up about five per cent of the Xinjiang population. By the early nineteen-eighties, they made up around forty per cent.

    Many Uighurs and Kazakhs saw the government’s development policies as unfairly benefitting the Han newcomers. Some Kazakhs left Xinjiang for Kazakhstan, which was then still under the control of the Soviet Union. For decades, the Soviets supported calls from Uighurs for independence. By the nineteen-nineties, some Uighurs felt they were becoming marginalized in their own homeland. Inequality was rampant and fell largely along ethnic lines.

    In 1990, clashes between Uighur dissidents and the police left more than twenty dead. Several years later, the Chinese government débuted the first of a series of “Strike Hard” campaigns against the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Islam became a matter of state concern. For centuries, the dominant cultural identity in Xinjiang had been an amalgam of Turkic and Muslim traditions. Beginning in the late nineteen-nineties, imams had to undergo training and state certification in order to practice. Religious weddings and funerals became highly regulated affairs, requiring written permission from the state. After the September 11th attacks and the rise of America’s war on terror, the Chinese government changed its rhetoric to emphasize terrorism and blamed Uighur separatists for a series of attacks on Chinese security forces.

    On July 5, 2009, around a thousand people gathered in Ürümqi to protest the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers in Guangdong, a manufacturing province on the coast of the South China Sea. The two men died in a brawl after a rumor spread that Han women working in a toy factory had been raped by Uighurs. Initially nonviolent, the protests devolved into riots and clashes between Uighur and Han residents. Nearly two hundred people were reported dead by state media; however, Uighur deaths were likely undercounted. The riots triggered a region-wide crackdown on all expressions of Uighurness.

    More violence ensued. In 2013, a family of Uighurs drove a sport-utility vehicle into a crowd at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, killing two tourists and everyone in the car. The following year, more than thirty people were killed, and more than a hundred injured, in a coördinated knife attack at a train station in Kunming, in Yunnan Province; the authorities blamed Uighur separatists.

    After the Kunming attack and other incidents of violence, the government declared a “people’s war on terror.” In 2014, a region-wide system of roadblocks and checkpoints went up, and Uighurs who lived in Xinjiang’s urban centers were required to return to their home towns and receive new checkpoint passbooks, called “people’s convenience cards,” which severely restricted their freedom of movement. By 2016, even Uighurs with passbooks could no longer leave their home towns. Later that year, many in the southern portion of the region had their passports confiscated, making travel abroad nearly impossible. Kazakh and Hui people began to find themselves under surveillance as well. Chinese state social-media accounts increasingly reported on a “reëducation” campaign for Uighurs.

    In 2017, detentions of Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui, and other minorities began to escalate. The first wave targeted Uighur imams and the religiously devout. Soon, prominent academics, novelists, and film directors were also taken into custody. Police and security officers used broad pretexts to justify the detentions, including travelling abroad, having a beard, and owning a prayer rug.

    Scholarly estimates of the size of Xinjiang’s internment drive––called the Transformation through Education program by Communist Party officials––fall in the neighborhood of a million extrajudicially detained people, a figure disputed by the Chinese government. An internal report by Xinjiang’s agriculture department, taken at the height of the internment drive, lamented that “all that’s left in the homes are the elderly, weak women, and children.” It is likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War. After leaving the camps, some detainees are forcibly transferred to farms and factories, or kept under house arrest. Some ethnic minorities who aren’t sent to camps are sentenced to long prison terms. In a joint letter last September, twenty-three human-rights groups said that they believe the Chinese government’s actions may meet the U.N. definitions of crimes against humanity and genocide. Chinese authorities, however, argue that they are necessary tactics in a grave contest of survival, which one textbook promoted by the Ministry of Information describes as a “zero-sum political struggle of life or death.” Initially, the Chinese authorities managed to keep the scope of their actions largely secret. As a result, when Otarbai began working for the trucking company he had little sense of the danger he faced.

    In May of 2017, around the time Otarbai arrived in Xinjiang, a Kazakh woman named Aynur, who asked to be identified by only her first name, returned to China as well. Born in 1964 in a small Xinjiang village near the border with Kazakhstan, Aynur married Nurlan Kokteubai, a math teacher, when she was twenty-two. She joined her husband in Akkoi Farm, a neighboring village in Chapchal County, and started teaching at the primary and middle school where he worked. They had three children together. After Aynur retired from teaching, in 2011, the family moved to Kazakhstan, where they lived off the pension that Aynur received from China.

    In early 2017, Aynur began receiving telephone calls from the Party secretary of her former school, who told her that she needed to return to Akkoi Farm. It wasn’t clear what he wanted, but he called and wrote her on WeChat incessantly. Finally, she acquiesced. “They just said I would stay for two weeks and then go back,” she said. After she crossed the border, she went to her former school, where the Party secretary confiscated her Chinese passport. Local authorities told her that everyone with a registration in Akkoi Farm, including her husband, needed to come back to cancel their household registration. She stayed with her brother-in-law in Akkoi Farm; three months later, her husband crossed into Xinjiang to join her.

    Less than a month after Kokteubai reunited with Aynur, the police summoned him to a meeting. Several hours later, Aynur received a phone call from her husband. He said police officers were taking him to a nearby secondary school that had been turned into a detention camp. He asked her to bring him some warm clothes.

    A wall topped with barbed wire surrounded the school. At the front gate, Kokteubai waited for Aynur under guard. She brought him socks and underwear and took his phone, then watched him disappear into the facility. Authorities made Aynur sign a document from the county security bureau. “Notice to family of the student-trainee,” the document reads. “In accordance with Article 38 of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Measures to Implement the ‘People’s Republic of China Anti-Terrorism Law,’ our bureau has, from the 6th of September, 2017, started education and training for Nurlan Kokteubai as he is”—the next section of the form was handwritten—“under suspicion of having dealings with individuals suspected of terrorist activities.”

    The charges baffled Kokteubai. To his knowledge, he had never met a terrorist. On his second day of detention, a member of the camp administration came to see him. Kokteubai asked when he would learn what he was accused of doing. He was surprised to learn that he wouldn’t be questioned at all. “If you hadn’t committed a crime, you wouldn’t have ended up here,” the administrator told him. “So there is something you are here for.”

    In 2016, Xinjiang’s Party secretary—a soon-to-be Politburo member named Chen Quanguo—imposed detention quotas. (Chen did not respond to a request for comment.) The quotas may have led authorities to coax Kazakhs who, like Aynur, were living abroad back to Xinjiang with vague but insistent messages. Chen, who had previously overseen a crackdown on civil society in Tibet, issued a directive to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”

    While Aynur’s husband was detained, Akkoi Farm officials required her to attend Chinese-language classes for four hours every day. For months, she heard nothing from her husband. Communist Party cadres showed up unannounced at the house where she was living and stayed for days at a time. As many as four strangers might appear, eating meals with Aynur and her relatives. When one group left, it was replaced by another. “They would interrogate us, mainly me, asking me what I was doing, why we went to Kazakhstan—they would ask about everything,” she said. After several weeks, the round-the-clock surveillance stopped, but cadres who called themselves Aynur’s “older siblings” continued to visit each week.

    The cadres were part of China’s Becoming Family program, which began in 2016. More than a million civil servants have been placed into the homes of minority families in Xinjiang in order to “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People,” according to one government slogan. The cadres are Party members, usually ethnic Han, sent to monitor and assess Turkic and Muslim families, instructing them in political ideology and Han cultural norms. Muslim men and women are pressured to drink and smoke. Hand-washing pitchers are confiscated and put on display as contraband, and cadres discourage residents from using traditional furniture. A 2017 report by the Communist Youth League of Xinjiang corrects Uighur families who eat or study at a traditional low platform, called a supa, because it is “inconvenient.” The cadres are enjoined to present their hosts with modern tables and rice cookers, gifts to help them advance toward a “healthy civilization.”

    Sholpan Amirken, a hairdresser from northern Xinjiang who married into a prominent religious family, told me that after several of her husband’s relatives were detained in 2017, a male Han cadre came to stay at her house. He advised Amirken and her husband, both of whom are Kazakh, to dispose of books written in Arabic, so she burned them. He also ordered her to take down wall ornaments with Kazakh phrases—“May Allah Bless You,” “May the Roof of Your House Be High”—along with embroideries of mosques. The cadre visited for days or weeks at a time, she said, always bringing luggage and sleeping in the main house. Amirken was nervous around the cadre, who came even when her husband, a long-haul truck driver, like Otarbai, was away. She began to sleep in a guest house. “We considered him a spy,” she said.

    In time, though, Amirken began to sense that some of the cadres had been pressured into the arrangement. “They have to make video calls from the house and report that they are there,” she said. “They are also doing it unwillingly.” Her cadre was far from the worst. Others, she said, “were very pleased with their jobs.” She had heard that some cadres threatened people with detention in the camps. At one point, fearing that her own detention was imminent, Amirken told her husband he would have to take care of their children. Human Rights Watch reported that children whose parents are both detained are institutionalized in state-run boarding schools where they must speak Chinese.

    Forced assimilation is a long-standing fear among Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in Xinjiang. For years, state media outlets have published uplifting stories about interethnic marriages between Han men and minority women, and offered cash rewards to couples for the first five years of their marriages. These relationships have raised fears of coercion. Since 2017, authorities have also pressured hundreds of thousands of Uighur women to get I.U.D.s, have abortions, and undergo sterilization, the Associated Press reported last year. In Hotan, a city in Xinjiang where the population is almost entirely Uighur, authorities instituted a “free birth-prevention surgery” program, which aimed to sterilize more than a third of all women of childbearing age by the end of 2019. Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uighur nurse who spent around ten months in a camp in Kunes, told me that many of the women she was detained with underwent forced I.U.D. insertions and sterilizations. “Irrespective of their marital status, they inserted this thing,” she said. “Only those who were sick or had problems with reproductive organs were exempt.” A government spreadsheet from Hotan listed the personal details of more than three thousand Uighur residents, roughly a tenth of whom were detained in camps. The most common reason listed for internment was violation of birth-control policies—namely, having too many children.

    In November, 2017, Otarbai, the truck driver, rode in a police minibus to a former retirement home that had been converted into a detention center, with high walls and watchtowers—the Tacheng Regional Vocational Skills, Education, and Training Center. During a medical exam, he learned that he had lost nearly sixty pounds during his three months in police detention. In the next three months, he shared small cells with a revolving cast of other detainees. In December, he met a new arrival named Orynbek Koksebek, a Kazakh émigré who was detained in Xinjiang while visiting family. Koksebek was a herder and farmer. Many of the camp’s detainees were Uighur or Hui; Otarbai was happy to have another Kazakh to talk with. Later, Otarbai also shared a cell with Amanzhan Seituly, a Kazakh businessman who imports carpentry tools and was detained after flying to Beijing on a work trip.

    Orynbek Koksebek
    Amanzhan Seituly
    Erbaqyt Otarbai

    In a series of separate interviews in Kazakhstan, the three men spoke about their detentions, describing the Tacheng camp in detail.

    Koksebek, the herder, didn’t speak Chinese, and found it difficult to recite the national anthem and other patriotic songs that detainees were forced to learn. As punishment, he did stints in solitary confinement. Otarbai spent hours in their cell teaching Koksebek the songs by heart, one syllable at a time. “I can say he taught me Chinese,” Koksebek said.

    Every morning, guards delivered meagre rations of vegetables and rice. The students received meat rarely, and Koksebek was concerned that it was not halal. For several hours each day, they watched state-produced news broadcasts, documentaries, and speeches by President Xi Jinping. Video cameras kept them under constant surveillance. In time, Otarbai learned the stories of his cellmates. Some had downloaded WhatsApp, like he had. Others had bought property in foreign countries. They shared stories and gossip while completing exercises in their Chinese workbooks or watching TV. The detainees were never allowed outside. “Of course, you are bored,” Otarbai said. “But they wouldn’t leave us alone.”

    In November, when Otarbai arrived, the camp was mostly empty. By the next month, when Koksebek joined him, the adjacent rooms began to fill. Daily classes began. Detainees spent ten hours in a classroom: four hours each in the morning and afternoon, and two hours of review at night.

    Students were divided into different classes. Koksebek, who had a second-grade education, was in the lowest level, where he learned basic Chinese words and numbers. For high-school and college graduates, like Otarbai and Seituly, classes focussed on political indoctrination and, to an obsessive degree, they said, the dangers of Islam. “ ‘Religion is like an opium,’ they tell us,” Seituly recalled. “They talk about jihadists. They say that if someone doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol, they might be having extremist thoughts.”

    Although it was forbidden to talk with classmates, Otarbai recognized prominent local people in his class, including imams, intellectuals, and former mayors. “There were a lot of influential people,” he said. Just as he was at the pretrial detention center, Otarbai was a surly prisoner, demanding his release and better treatment for him and his cellmates. As punishment, he frequently spent time in solitary confinement, in a squalid cell too small to lie down in. During one interrogation, guards forced him to strip, drenched him in water, and beat him. Another time, he was shocked with an electric prod. Detainees at other camps described similar experiences.

    Toward the end of December, Otarbai began to experience sharp pains in his side. On January 1st, while he was singing the national anthem, during the weekly flag-raising ceremony, the pain became unbearable. He sat down and asked for a doctor. Although skeptical at first, the camp staff eventually called an ambulance.

    Otarbai spent fifteen days in Tacheng’s regional hospital recovering from an appendectomy. Guards watched him constantly. After he returned to the camp, he relied on Koksebek, the herder, to bring him food and massage his limbs. The men began calling each other “brother.” Each assured the other he soon would be released.

    In 2018, new detention camps sprang up across Xinjiang. According to satellite-photo analyses by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the square footage of suspected camps in Xinjiang more than doubled that of the year before. Former detainees described striking similarities in the design of the camps. Door-locking systems, furniture, color-coded uniforms, and classroom layouts were often virtually identical from camp to camp.

    Several weeks later, on April 12th, after many days of intense interrogations, Koksebek and Seituly, both Kazakhstani passport holders, were released. Although Seituly had heard of Koksebek from other cellmates, the day they were set free was the first time they met face to face. They were driven to the border with two other Kazakhstani citizens and allowed to cross. Otarbai, whose Kazakhstani citizenship had not been finalized when he entered China, remained imprisoned. Before their release, Otarbai had implored Seituly to contact his family if the businessman got out first. Seituly promised to try.

    On January 1, 2018—the same day that Otarbai was taken to the hospital for an appendectomy—more than a thousand people gathered at a flag-raising ceremony in a square outside the mayor’s office in Akkoi Farm to hear Aynur, the retired teacher, deliver a public confession. An employee at her former school made Aynur write out her statement in Chinese.

    In 2016, flag-raising ceremonies in Xinjiang became mandatory; every family had to send a representative. Absence was considered a black mark on a household, and was used as a pretext for interrogation. Like the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution—public humiliations of landowners and other class enemies—confessions at flag-raising ceremonies in Xinjiang made an example of those whose thinking had been polluted.

    Before she spoke, Aynur stood by herself under a large flagpole while the Chinese flag was raised. Then she explained that, because she was unable to control her husband, he had become involved with terrorists, and that this was why he was living in the camp a few miles down the road, with around five thousand other detainees. When Aynur finished, others rose to give speeches praising the Party. Although she had given brief confessions at previous ceremonies, she’d never been forced to call her husband a terrorist. Afterward, relatives in her village started avoiding her. Former colleagues from her old school stopped saying hello when they saw her on the street. “I felt like a criminal in front of all those people,” she said. “It was not a good feeling.”

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    A few days later, a camp administrator visited Aynur. The official said that Kokteubai was in the hospital. He’d had a cardiac event. She was ordered to go to the camp hospital to take care of him as he recovered, but cameras monitored them throughout her visit. “If I attempted to talk to him, a voice would come over the loudspeaker and tell us to stop,” she said. This was the third time that Kokteubai had been hospitalized for heart problems during his detention.

    In April of 2018, seven months after his detention began, Kokteubai was released, likely owing to poor health. When he left the camp, he could barely walk. The authorities made Aynur sign a paper pledging to be responsible for her husband’s continuing education. He began attending classes in Akkoi Farm with his wife. One day, a local official showed Kokteubai a photo of his daughter, claiming that she was a member of a terrorist group in Kazakhstan. According to multiple former detainees, such practices were used to intimidate or extract information about relatives living abroad. The stress caused Aynur to begin menstruating again, years after the onset of menopause. Almost a year after Kokteubai’s release, the couple was granted permission to cross back into Kazakhstan. A year and a half had passed. Their youngest son was now ten years old.

    Aynur refers to her husband’s detention as “the misfortune.” Before his arrest, her life had other partitions. She had once divided it into the time before she was married, followed by the time before she had children, and then the time before her family moved to Kazakhstan. Now the misfortune cleaved her life apart.

    At thousands of checkpoints and convenience stations in Xinjiang, police have collected DNA samples, voice recordings, fingerprints, and iris and facial scans of residents. Throughout the region, people’s homes are marked with QR codes linked to information about each resident. Mandatory smartphone apps monitor citizens’ movements and private messages. Chinese tech companies including Huawei have tested facial-recognition software capable of identifying Uighurs in a crowd. (Huawei claims that a third-party company used its services for testing.)

    After years of first denying the facilities’ existence, then claiming that they had closed, Chinese officials now say the camps are “vocational education and training centers,” necessary to rooting out “extreme thoughts” and no different from correctional facilities in the United States or deradicalization centers in France. “Respecting and protecting human rights in accordance with China’s Constitution and law is strictly observed in these centers,” the Chinese consulate in New York said, in response to a request for comment. “The trainees who received education and training for deradicalization purposes have graduated, found stable jobs with the help of the government, and are living a happy life.”

    In the spring of 2018, after Koksebek and Seituly were released, Otarbai was transferred back to the former retirement home where all three Kazakh men were initially detained. That fall, in an improvised courtroom inside the camp, Otarbai was convicted and sentenced in a pro-forma process that only vaguely resembled a trial. There was no defense; a representative from his old neighborhood administration read out a verdict stating that he “has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a seven-year sentence.”

    During this time, the camp was growing. According to an analysis of satellite photos, the facility had expanded fivefold since Otarbai was first held there, in 2017, and construction had begun on an approximately twenty-thousand-square-foot factory and warehouse. In November, Otarbai “graduated” from his studies and joined other detainees on the factory floor producing children’s clothing.

    A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found more than a hundred facilities in Xinjiang where factories abutted suspected camps or prisons. A government program called Xinjiang Aid has also transferred more than a hundred and fifty thousand “surplus rural workers” to jobs outside the region since 2018. Chinese officials claim that the laborers are migrant volunteers, not detainees. But one notice described the conditions under which the migrant laborers live and work as “concentrated, closed-off, military-style management.” A report issued by members of the U.S. Congress in March, 2020, said that top American corporations, including Nike and Coca-Cola, are suspected of benefitting from forced labor in factories in Xinjiang. Both companies maintain that they perform regular compliance inspections to insure they are not making use of forced-labor practices.

    Official claims that camp populations are declining may therefore be accurate, as detainees are increasingly sent to work in factories and on farms, or else sentenced and transferred to conventional prisons. At least three hundred thousand more people have received formal prison sentences between 2017 and 2019 than in typical previous years, according to an analysis of government documents, public sentencing records, and testimonies conducted by Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database. In 2018, family members of some detainees in Xinjiang learned that their relatives were now serving long prison sentences for offenses such as “propagating extremism” (fourteen years) and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (nineteen years).

    Firsthand descriptions of criminal trials in Xinjiang are rare. Amirken, the Kazakh hairdresser who married into a prominent religious family, told me that she attended the trial of her brother-in-law, Nurlan Pioner, an imam in the Altai Mountains near Mongolia. For years, Pioner had avoided trouble with authorities. He received training and a certificate from the state-run madrasa in Ürümqi and worked closely with Party officials, who approved his Friday-night sermons and his scholarly work translating religious books from Arabic into Kazakh. Nevertheless, Pioner was detained in June, 2017, and put on trial a year later. His family received a twenty-three-page prewritten judgment of his case. When the proceedings began, two guards with rifles carried Pioner into the courtroom in a chair. The accused was wearing a blue prison uniform that was soiled with urine. He appeared malnourished and was unable to walk; he spoke incoherently. The judge read the prewritten verdict. It said that Pioner was arrested for “gathering a crowd to instigate social disorder; taking advantage of extremism to hold back law enforcement; [and] illegally obtaining materials which propagate [an] extremist ideology.” He was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. According to researchers, Pioner’s case reflected the criminalization of religious practice in Xinjiang.

    A month after his conviction, Pioner was temporarily released into medical house arrest. While detained, he had developed upper- and lower-limb amyotrophy and lost the ability to control his body. “He had become almost a vegetable,” Amirken recalled. “He couldn’t hear. He couldn’t talk.” Fearing that they, too, would be arrested, Amirken and her family fled to Kazakhstan in January, 2018. Ten months after they left, law-enforcement officers returned Pioner to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.

    In December, 2018, just a few months after his sentencing, Otarbai was abruptly released into a halfway home for recently freed detainees. The reason remains a mystery, but his former cellmates Koksebek and Seituly, from the relative safety of Kazakhstan, had made statements calling for his release. Six months later, after more than two years away from his family, Otarbai crossed into Kazakhstan. His wife and two children, aged nine and four, were waiting at the house he had built for them, in a small town outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. His younger son, Nurtal, didn’t recognize him when he came home. “Who’s this uncle come to our house?” the boy asked his mother.

    In 2018 and 2019, I made several trips to Kazakhstan to meet people who had witnessed the rise of Xinjiang’s security state. I spoke with a dozen former detainees of camps; I met dozens more whose family members had been detained, imprisoned, or disappeared. In December of 2019, before COVID-19 restricted travel, I met Otarbai in a threadbare hotel room in a small, snow-covered town an hour outside Almaty.

    Today, Otarbai suffers from chronic pain and memory loss, which he attributes to his long imprisonment and the torture he suffered. Yet he was the funniest and most lighthearted of the former detainees that I met. While imprisoned, he decided that, if he were ever released, he would raise his children in an atmosphere of total freedom. “Almost all the doors of the furniture are broken now,” he told me. “But I never scold them, because I really understand what prison is. I want them to be free of everything.”

    Otarbai recalled that, when he was in the camp, inmates would sing songs to cheer one another up. He became well known for his singing voice, and his teachers would sometimes ask him to serenade his fellow-students. “You aren’t allowed to sing in Kazakh or Uighur, but you can in Mongolian, Chinese, or English,” he explained. “I have a favorite song by a Mongolian singer. The song goes, ‘I grew up on a vast grassland, I grew up freely, on the land of my ancestors, and I was nurtured by it.’ When I would sing these kinds of songs, my classmates would feel happy.” Then, with a voice as bright as a mountain stream, he sang it.

    Erbaqyt Otarbai
    Otarbai spent more than eighteen months in camps, where he endured solitary confinement, forced labor, and torture. In early 2020, Otarbai and his wife divorced, and since then he has been looking for work.
    Orynbek Koksebek
    Koksebek, a herder and farmer, has been hospitalized in Kazakhstan twice for ongoing physical and mental-health problems. He believes that his imprisonment left him unable to have children.
    Amanzhan Seituly
    Seituly, an importer, lost several of his clients in China as a result of his detention. He now lives in Almaty with his wife and four children.
    Nurlan Kokteubai
    Kokteubai and Aynur, the retired teachers, live in a small village in southeastern Kazakhstan, where they are raising their youngest son.
    Sholpan Amirken
    Amirken moved to Kazakhstan in 2018. She lost touch with her relatives in China and has had no news of her brother-in-law, Nurlan Pioner, who is believed to be in prison somewhere in the Altai region of Xinjiang.
    Tursunay Ziyawudun
    Ziyawudun, the Uighur nurse who spent ten months in a camp, fled Xinjiang for Kazakhstan in 2019. She is now living in the United States.
    Reporter Ben Mauk Animation Director Sam Wolson Artist Matt Huynh Producers Ben Mauk, Sam Wolson, Monica Racic, Sandra Garcia Executive Producers Soo-Jeong Kang, Monica Racic Art Director Sandra Garcia Designers Sandra Garcia, David Kofahl Developers David Kofahl, Rekha Tenjarla Story Editors Monica Racic, David Rohde Fact Checker Linnea Feldman Emison Copy Editor S. Whitney Holmes Additional Production and Research Naib Mian Lead Animator and Technical Supervisor Nicholas Rubin/Dirt Empire Assistant Animator Oliver Carr Lead Compositor and Color Grader Noel Paul VFX Artist Eddy Moya Artist Assistant M. J. Steele Singer Erbaqyt Otarbai
    Photographs by Sam Wolson; Ben Mauk (Aynur)
    This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.