In its quest to take over the world, this country's shocking tactics have sparked global outrage.

If someone created a crossover between George Orwell's 1984 and the Netflix series Black Mirror, it would look a lot like parts of China right now.

As we speak, over a million Muslims in China's northwest region of Xinjiang are being held in camps where they allegedly face torture and suffering under the guise of "re-education".

Citizens are watched by tens of thousands of facial recognition cameras, with their movements controlled by the government. No one is immune, although academics, journalists and intellectuals are especially targeted. Residents can disappear in the dead of night for something as innocuous as making a phone call or giving up smoking.


Every resident is given a label: "Safe", "Normal" or "Unsafe", which is determined by their age, faith, religion, foreign contacts and overseas travel. Those in the "Unsafe" category can be sent to internment camps and see their privilege of taking public transport revoked.

According to US officials, China installed facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans, conducted DNA collections and increased an intrusive police presence.

The region is home to hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic group — and the Chinese Communist Party has a history of heavily criticising Islam, which it once compared to an "infectious disease".

The 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 became a convenient way to spark fears about Islamic extremists being imported into China.

But there's a lot more to the eerie crackdown than race or religion.


China's leader Xi Jinping has a grand plan in motion to put his country at the economic and political centre of the world.

These ambitions are best summed up by the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar project that seeks to connect countries across continents on trade, with China at its centre.


The ambitious plan involves creating a 6000km sea route connecting China to South East Asia, Oceania and North Africa (the "Road"), as well as through building railway and road infrastructure to connect China with Central and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe (the "Belt").

The project went into effect in 2013 and has around 65 countries either signed on or in negotiations with Beijing.

Geographically, Urumqi — the capital of Xinjiang — is a crucial intersection point in the "Belt" part of the project.

It also shares several international borders: Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The last thing the Chinese government wants for such a crucial region in this plan is unrest or the loss of control. And that's where the intense security crackdown comes in.

This explains why the crackdown escalated around five years ago, in line with the Belt and Road Initiative taking off.

Dr Anna Hayes, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at James Cook University, has conducted extensive research into the situation at Xinjiang.

She told the economics of the Belt and Road plan played an important role in the crackdown, noting the surveillance and detainment has intensified in line with the rolling out of the trillion-dollar project.

"There's been more than 7000 police stations put in after 2016 and huge amounts of money spent on surveillance technology," she said. "(Mr Xi) brought in Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang Party Chief that same year — a strongman like himself who could bring Xinjiang's Muslim minority under complete control.

"The territory of Xinjiang is such an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative — all those highways, gas pipelines, railways — they all have to go through Xinjiang, so they want it under firm control so there's no internal threat.

"The Belt and Road Initiative is now such a key dynamic of Xi Jinping — it's his signature policy," Dr Hayes added. "For the initiative to work, Xinjiang has to fall into line. It has to be made to work because it's the most important part of the Chinese pivot to Central Asia and Eurasia, so they don't want any obstacles there."

During the 2009 protests there were 197 fatalities and almost 2000 injuries before order was restored. Photo / AP
During the 2009 protests there were 197 fatalities and almost 2000 injuries before order was restored. Photo / AP

You might think China's decision to crack down so heavily on the state is counter-productive. Why detain millions of people and risk a massive global controversy if the rest of the world finds out? Seems like a huge gamble for such an expensive and ambitious project.

But Dr Hayes explained the Chinese government had long feared losing control of Xinjiang — a region where, historically, there is a lot of competing powerbrokers.

"Their reaction to the fear of losing Xinjiang is to crack down hard so it will be brought under total control," she said. "When you put fear and repression over the population, they very quickly fall into line.

"There have been several missteps by the Chinese Communist Party throughout history," Dr Hayes added, noting the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Cultural Revolution. "This is an authoritarian state. That's how they work."

As a result, everyday citizens in Xinjiang can disappear at the drop of a hat. According to Dr Hayes, this can be as simple as making the decision to give up drinking alcohol or smoking, which could spark suspicion as being a way to practice the Islamic faith.


China has gone to great lengths to ensure countries signed onto the Belt and Road Initiative don't criticise the government about Xinjiang.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported the Chinese government had organised tours around the region — including to the "training centres" — from 12 non-western countries including Russia, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Kazakhstan.

The highly-controlled tours were held up by China as proof they had nothing to hide in the region.

The report noted none of the students appeared to have been mistreated and instances of singing and dancing "that seemed to have been put on especially for the visit".

All the interviewees said they were there of their own accord after learning of the centres from local officials.

It was also noted reporters were closely chaperoned at all times. Representatives from the United Nations and human rights groups were not invited.

Dr Hayes said the countries signed on to the trillion-dollar project should be making their involvement conditional on the release of the Uighur people. She noted many of the states that had signed on were repressive regimes themselves, making this unlikely, but said there was hope Western countries would be more vocal.

PM Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker on our relations with China. / Mark Mitchell