The Chinese government has detained an estimated two million Chinese Muslims in camps, which it describes as “vocational education and training” centers, over the last three years. Experts have described it as the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.
FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, China Undercover, features firsthand accounts from people who were held in the camps, and investigates the Communist government’s use of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence to monitor and track Uyghurs and other Muslims outside the camps in the Xinjiang region.
Producers Robin Barnwell and Gesbeen Mohammad describe what’s unfolding in Xinjiang as a new model of governance — “digital authoritarianism” — that is now being exported from China to other countries.
“We are basically seeing, through Xinjiang, a new form of governance being developed to control humans through technology,” Robin told FRONTLINE.
“I think people need to realize that this is not just a local story in Xinjiang, it’s a story that has global implications,” he added. “This is going have serious implications for human rights and democracy around the world.”
Robin and Gesbeen spoke to FRONTLINE about how they made China Undercover, why they decided to capture undercover footage, and what the story of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang means for the rest of the world.
What first got you interested in telling this story?
Robin: It was late 2018 when we started this investigation and more information was coming out in terms of the number of people who might have been missing, maybe detained, but still at that stage there wasn’t a huge amount of information, because the Chinese government had stopped information coming out of the region. Obviously, great academics like Adrian Zenz and others were starting to release information based on Chinese government sources, which were online on Chinese websites.
We thought, how can we break new ground on this story thinking not just about those who were detained in the camps, but also about those Uyghurs and other Muslims living outside the camps? When you think of hubs for tech companies in China, you think of Shenzhen, you think of Shanghai, to a degree Beijing. Inexplicably, Urumqi [the capital of] Xinjiang, was one of the tech hubs for Chinese companies developing surveillance technology, and that piqued our curiosity because we thought, “Why are those tech companies there? What are they doing?”