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China calls it re-education, but Uighur Muslims say it’s ‘unbearable brutality’

By Nick Schifrin and Dan Sagalyn

Uighurs are Muslims who trace their roots back thousands of years in Central Asia, most currently living in the Chinese province Xinjiang. The group represents less than 1 percent of China's population, but they have endured what the U.S. calls one of the worst human rights crises of modern times. Nick Schifrin reports on how Communist China has persecuted this religious and cultural minority.

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  • Judy Woodruff: Tonight, we continue our series "China: Power & Prosperity" with what the U.S. calls one of the worst human rights crises of our time. Uighurs are Muslims who trace their roots back through thousands of years to Central Asia. Today, most of them, about 11 million, live in the Chinese province Xinjiang. They represent less than 1 percent of the population in a country that is more than 92 percent Han Chinese, the ethnicity that China traces back to an ancient Chinese empire. Communist China has long persecuted people based on their religion. But the U.S., international groups, and Uighurs say this is different. They accuse China of throwing Uighurs into camps and targeting their religion and entire culture. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Nick Schifrin reports from a city many Uighurs have fled to, Istanbul.

  • Nick Schifrin: Istanbul is 2,500 miles from Xinjiang, China. Muslim Uighurs who live here are free, but their minds are still imprisoned.

  • Gulbahar Jalilova (through translator): I never imagined this could happen in the 21st century: innocent people subjected to cuffs on their hands, shackles, and black hoods over their heads.

  • Nick Schifrin: Gulbahar Jalilova lives alone in a small apartment. The injuries she suffered in Chinese detention two years ago have healed, but she hasn't gotten over the memories.

  • Gulbahar Jalilova (through translator): I saw them, 14-year-old girls to 80-year-old women. They take them for interrogation. They would come back, and their bodies were bruised, their heads swollen. After three months, they put a black hood over my head and took me away.

  • Nick Schifrin: Is it still upsetting? What are you thinking about?

  • Gulbahar Jalilova (through translator): I feel like I'm in there right now, there in the cell. I will never forget this as long as I live. They destroyed my life.

  • Nick Schifrin: Abdulsalam Mohammed also found sanctuary here on the banks of the Bosphorus. He and every Uighur we spoke to live in self-imposed exile, because they are too scared of the Chinese government to go home. Can you describe for us what that detention center was like?

  • Abdulsalam Mohammed (through translator): They brought everyone in there because they called us suspicious. There is unimaginable oppression inside. Every day, they'd toss us a little bread and water, so that we didn't die, and, every day, they would interrogate 15 or 20 of us with unbearable brutality. We are a people who've lost their freedom. We became their target because we'd studied religion and because we had influence in our society. They locked us up in jail. Then, after taking us to a camp, they'd tell us that we hadn't done anything wrong, that they were just educating us.

  • Nick Schifrin: The Chinese say they are reeducating Uighurs by teaching them Chinese and vocational skills. This is state media video. The detainees we interviewed and international researchers call it staged and scripted, a facade that hides what's really happening. As seen in the only video that exists of a camp under construction, the entrance has an iron gate, the windows have bars, and the cells look like jails. And in this drone video the U.S. believes is authentic, prisoners in blue with shaved heads are kept blindfolded and are led away, one police officer per prisoner. Mohammed says what the Chinese call schools for reeducation are actually prisons for brainwashing.

  • Abdulsalam Mohammed (through translator): The 10 hours of class they would teach one day were the exact same 10 hours they'd teach the next. The goal was to change our minds, our faith, our beliefs. It was a plot to force us to renounce our religion.

  • Nick Schifrin: The Chinese call some Muslim Uighurs extremists and terrorists. In 2009, Uighurs in Xinjiang's capital rioted. Almost 200 died, and hundreds more were injured, mostly Han Chinese, the ethnic group that represents 90 percent of the country. Uighur militants affiliated with al-Qaida took credit for this 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square that killed two people. And China blames male and female Uighur militants for this 2014 knife attack that killed more than 30. Those attacks are claimed by Uighurs who call Xinjiang East Turkestan, which self-declared independence in the early 20th century. China says it's administered Xinjiang since 60 B.C., and Foreign Minister Wang Yi says China is fighting separatists.

  • Wang Yi (through translator): The education and training centers are schools that help the people free themselves from the influence of extremism and terrorism, and acquire professional skills. The centers are anything but horrific concentration camps.

  • Nick Schifrin: But in Xinjiang and a neighbor province, residents say China's launched a campaign against Islam. The government has partially or completely destroyed at least a dozen mosques. And Uighurs say the Chinese only targeting their religion. In Istanbul, Uighurs describe how China criminalized Uighur language and all Uighur culture. International researchers have called that campaign cultural genocide. China has even banned Uighur music. Yusup Sulayman sings about a culture that's been lost, and a people who've been silenced.

  • Yusup Sulayman (through translator): They're disappearing our famous artists, composers, and songwriters before anyone else. They're disappearing our intellectuals. They have burned what they wanted to burn, and scrubbed what they wanted to scrub.

  • Nick Schifrin: He gave us photos of all his family members who have disappeared into camps. He hasn't heard from any of them in more than two years.

  • Yusup Sulayman (through translator): The absolute worst thing is that I don't know whether they're dead or alive. Our communication is completely cut off.

  • Nick Schifrin: The attacks on Uighur culture extend to clothes and the core of a conservative Muslim culture. When is the last time you were able to speak to your wife? Yasin Zunun came here hoping to expand his business and then bring his wife and his daughter. But as soon as he left, he says the government kidnapped them and threw them into camps. That was more than 3 years ago.

  • Yasin Zunun (through translator): We've been each other's life. I don't feel for anything besides my wife and children. Even when I wake up 2 in the morning, I check my phone to see if I can find videos of them.

  • Nick Schifrin: One night, he did find something. Photos online of his son in a Chinese school, dressed in a Han Chinese costume instead of traditional Uighur clothes. And a video of his wife and other Uighur women wearing traditional Chinese makeup and costumes. That's his wife. He calls her a sheep forced to wear the wolf's clothing.

  • Yasin Zunun: They are trying to make us deny our own culture, and they are targeting and assaulting our women. Instead of suffering from this kind of shame, I wanted to just die and be over with everything. If I can't protect my woman, how can I call myself a man?

  • Nick Schifrin: Abliz Ablikim says many Uighur men have been powerless to protect their families from the Chinese government. Can you tell me how a Han Chinese basically ended up as a member of your family?

  • Abliz Ablikim (through translator): Ever since the government began locking up most of the men, women, children, and the elderly have been left behind. The government has sent officials to be ears in these households. They sent one to my uncle's house.

  • Nick Schifrin: Ablikim takes out his phone and opens a grainy photo, his aunt in Uighur clothes, his uncle in Uighur clothes holding his baby cousin, and then a Han Chinese man posing like a member of the family. But he's not a member of the family. Was he forced onto your family?

  • Abliz Ablikim (through translator): He was forced. He wouldn't be able to live there if he weren't.

  • Nick Schifrin: State media does stories on Han Chinese inserted into Uighur families, and calls the program United As One Family; 1.1 million Han Chinese have been sent by the government into Muslim homes. In your opinion, why is the Chinese government doing this?

  • Abliz Ablikim (through translator): They refer to Uighurs as criminals. If we ask them what our crime is, they say openly: Aren't you Uighur? That's crime enough.

  • Nick Schifrin: In Xinjiang's capital, a huge statue of Chairman Mao looms over the city. In multiple interviews across China, we heard the same thing: China is fighting terrorism and fake news. Su Ge is a former ambassador and former head of one of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's think tanks.

  • Su Ge: China and the United States, I think that we feel the same about extremists. We also have this danger of terrorism. The best way to eradicate radicalism is to provide education, to provide development.

  • Nick Schifrin: There have been cases of imprisonment that are on a mass scale, not just of terrorists or suspected terrorists, but actually entire families and entire cities.

  • Su Ge: Well, to us, that's just somebody's trying to write a story about it.

  • Nick Schifrin: Meaning you think they're fiction?

  • Su Ge: Yes. But I would say that, if you have only interviewed those people who, for some reasons, who are paid somehow…

  • Nick Schifrin: Do you think they're paid to tell these stories?

  • Su Ge: I do not know. I'm only saying that they must have a source for income. You ask them, how many policemen have been injured just by the — by terrorists?

  • Nick Schifrin: But in the name of pursuing terrorists, international researchers say China turned Xinjiang into an open air prison. Local residents say police keep a close eye on all Uighurs, interrogate them wherever they go, check their documents every few feet, and forcibly collect DNA samples. And researchers identify at least 85 camps and probably many more across Xinjiang. All of them are recently built. A barren field in August 2016 became, in one year, what researchers say is a former school turned into a camp with barricades and barbed wire. Just six miles away, researchers say another camp started being built in early 2017. By late 2018, there were barricades, watch towers, and barbed wire enclosures, and more than a million square feet of buildings. The U.S. says more than a million Uighurs have disappeared into Chinese detention. On the outskirts of Istanbul, Uighurs have been doing their own building to try and protect their identity. It's a school where hundreds of Uighur children are being raised and educated in Uighur language and history. The children are all right, because their memories aren't formed. But the adults stare into the distance, trying, but failing, to forget. Aqil Shamsky is the English teacher.

  • Aqil Shamsky: First, my mother was arrested. And three months later, they released my mother, dead, dead body. My mother was very healthy, felt like she was at home. Three months later, she died.

  • Nick Schifrin: It is impossible to walk through here without adults asking to share their stories. So we assembled five of them. Could you raise your hand if you have multiple members of your families currently in the camp in Xinjiang? Sirajidin Abdukadir fled Xinjiang after the Chinese threatened to take his passport. Today, he is the school security guard. He hasn't heard from his family since he left them three years ago.

  • Sirajidin Abdukadir (through translator): I told my children farewell, and we will meet again. That's the only thing I got to say to them. I never thought this would happen. I'm security here. They provide my meals. At this age, I cannot do anything else. That is what God gave me. I'm incredibly lonely.

  • Nick Schifrin: Everyone here has their own stories of family imprisonment, both of Tursun Yasin's brothers, 42-year-old Abdugeni Musa's daughter and other children. Ablet Tursun spent one month inside a camp. And 72-year-old Amina Emet is the principal's mother. Do you know where your children are?

  • Amina Emet (through translator): I don't know. I am searching for any kind of news every day.

  • Nick Schifrin: The Chinese say they have closed the camps and Uighurs have returned home. But everyone here says their family members are still missing. Emet's 19 children, grandchildren, and their spouses are still missing.

  • Amina Emet (through translator): I wish God would free us from the Chinese. The Uighurs are too weak to resist. There are no Uighur people left, no people left in our homeland. My eldest son passed away years ago. I basically raised the two of his kids myself. But even they were taken away.

  • Aqil Shamsky: Now every Uighur, no matter of inside of jail or outside of jail, is feeling the same thing, fear of disappear from the world.

  • Nick Schifrin: A few miles away, Gulbahar Jalilova's mind is still in detention.

  • Gulbahar Jalilova (through translator): I'm drinking tea. I'm eating bread. But those helpless people are desperate. They don't have enough to eat. I see them all in front of me, as if I were still in the camp myself.

  • Nick Schifrin: After she was released, she wrote down all the names of the people in her cell, just one of what could be tens of thousands of cells across Xinjiang, China. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Istanbul.

  • Judy Woodruff: Extraordinary. Tomorrow, on "NewsHour Weekend," our China series ends with Nick Schifrin reporting from Hong Kong. And on our Web site, we take a visual exploration of the so-called reeducation centers, where one million Uighurs are now being held. And you can watch all the stories from our series "China: Peace & Prosperity" online at


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