The Chinese region of Xinjiang is home to millions of ethnic Muslim Uighur’s who have lived there for decades. Rights groups say hundreds of thousands have been detained in camps without trial, but China argues they voluntarily attend centers which combat “extremism”.
I’d been to the camps before, but the closest I’d managed to get on previous visits were snatched glimpses of the barbed wire and watchtowers from a passing car, while the plainclothes police officers tailing us tried to stop us getting any closer.
Now I was being invited inside.
The risks of accepting were obvious. We were being taken into places that appeared to have been carefully spruced up – with satellite images revealing that much of the security infrastructure had recently been removed.
And one by one the people we spoke to inside, some of them visibly nervous, told us similar stories. All of them members of Xinjiang’s largest, mainly Muslim ethnic group – the Uighur’s – they said they’d been “infected by extremism” and that they’d volunteered to have their “thoughts transformed”.
This was China’s narrative in the mouths of people selected for us, and for whom any cross-examination might pose a serious risk.
What might be the consequences if they did let something slip? How could we safely separate the propaganda from the reality?