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Reporter on China's treatment of Uighur Muslims: "This is absolute Orwellian style surveillance"

A look at China's efforts to silence Muslims

According to the United Nations, more than 1 million Chinese Uighur Muslims are being detained in government internment camps. China calls these prison camps in Xinjiang province "re-education" facilities meant to fight extremism and separatism in the region. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China describes it as "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today." 

A new documentary by VICE News correspondent Isobel Yeung sheds light on this draconian policy instituted by the Chinese government. Yeung talked to CBS News on Wednesday about her experience in China. 

"What I witnessed there is just unlike any sense of fear I have witnessed before," Yeung told CBSN. "When it comes to going into this kind of dystopian reality, people are really, really afraid to do the wrong thing or to say the wrong thing or to even think the wrong thing."  

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Armed paramilitary policemen run in formation during a gathering to mobilize security operations in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in this June 29, 2013 file photo. The struggle against Islamist militants in China's violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang should become an "important part" of the world's war on terror, China's foreign minister said.  REUTERS

Xinjiang province is the largest province in China, home to 21.8 million people, including more than 11 million Muslims. The major languages are Chinese and Uighur and the major religion is Islam. In 2009, violent riots erupted in the area, and in the years that followed, China blamed Uighur separatists for terrorist attacks. 

Since the installation of hardliner Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang party chief in 2017, a network of detention facilities sprung up in the region. Police have increasingly used new forms of surveillance, including facial recognition technology and a DNA database, to control the population. The Wall Street Journal calls Xinjiang "a laboratory for new surveillance technology." Chinese authorities recently told Radio Free Asia they "have been ordered to send almost half of area residents to re-education camps." 

"Something bad has happened," a hidden Uighur man tells Yeung during a train ride in her VICE News documentary. "I can't talk about it. I can't talk about it." 

"They call them 'vocation centers,'" the man tells Yeung, his voice barely above a whisper. "These places are prisons." 

Yeung told CBSN that Muslim children are taken from their parents and suspected to be placed in state-run institutions, which are disguised as kindergartens but double as live-in re-education facilities. 

"It seems that within these places they are indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda and taught all-out loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party," she said. 

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SenseTime, one of China's most successful artificial intelligence companies, has created smart cameras for the government that can help catch criminals but also track average citizens. CBS News

The conditions are far worse for adult Muslims forced into the Xinjiang interment camps. A 2018 U.S. State Department Human Rights report detailed instances of torture, sexual abuse, repressive surveillance measures, forcible eating of pork and drinking of alcohol (both of which are forbidden for observant Muslims), confiscation of Qurans, and even deaths. 

"This is the strictest surveillance state in the world right now," Yeung told CBSN. "Security cameras are absolutely everywhere, facial recognition everywhere, voice recognition, face scanning, iris scanning, body scanning, the phone is scanned as well to check for any content that might upset the Chinese Communist Party." 

"This is absolute Orwellian style surveillance."