Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people in China's far west have been spirited away without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely traveling or studying abroad, rights groups and academics estimate. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uighurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism. The government has referred to its detention program as "vocational training," but its main purpose appears to be indoctrination.
Along with the detention camps, unprecedented levels of police blanket Xinjiang's streets. Cutting-edge digital surveillance systems track where Uighurs go, what they read, who they talk to, and what they say. And under an opaque system that treats practically all Uighurs as potential terror suspects, Uighurs who contact family abroad risk questioning or detention. Reporters with the AP visited the village home of an Uighur student who was taken away by police after returning to China from Egypt. "Yes, that's him," said his mother, tears streaming down her face, after being shown a photo of the young man. "This is the first time I've heard anything of him in seven months. What happened? Is he dead or alive?"