STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're here on a day when China is showing off to the world. President Xi Jinping welcomed foreign leaders to the Belt and Road Forum. In a vast convention center, he's promoting infrastructure linking China with much of the world.
The walls here are covered with immense photographs of Chinese landscapes, Chinese pagodas, and immense, modern-day construction projects.
The pictures of bridges and skyscrapers advertise Chinese skill at building. Now let's discuss something not pictured. Many of China's new roads, railways, and pipelines point westward toward Pakistan and Central Asia. To get there, they passed through a province where China has imposed some of its harshest security measures. Many ethnic Uighurs have been sent to camps. Infrastructure meant to open the world passes through an area that is emphatically closed. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been visiting the province for years. So, Rob, what is it like to travel to this really remote province?
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, Xinjiang is nearly the size of Alaska. It is huge - it's the farthest place on Earth from an ocean. It's home to one of the largest deserts in the world. It's got snow-capped mountains, thousands of glaciers. And underneath all of that, you've got mineral and fossil fuel deposits. And that's why China's government is interested in the development of the area.
The region's been occupied for millennia by a variety of Central Asian ethnicities, most recently dominated by the Uighur people. And just 75 years ago, Uighurs made up 75% of Shinjuku's population. Now they make up less than half. And that gets to the nature of the problems there. Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and whose culture and language have more in common with Central Asian cultures than Chinese culture, have become the minority. Beijing sent millions of Han Chinese there to fortify control over the region. And this influx of Han Chinese has led to tensions and violence between two very different ethnic groups.
INSKEEP: Well, how intense has the security been in recent years as Chinese authorities have played up fears of terrorism?
SCHMITZ: Well, in the past five years, it's developed a security presence that's sort of on par with a place like North Korea. In Xinjiang cities, cameras are everywhere. You can never really escape them. Police stations are a few hundred feet apart from each other. Police constantly check IDs and routinely ask people to open their phones, so they can check photos, messages. The government has its own app that's used to spy on people's personal data. And police at these checkpoints force people to download that.
In 2017, before we knew the government was about to detain hundreds of thousands of people, I spoke to local residents about what all of this meant for their daily lives. One ethnic Kazakh businessman who, for his own safety, did not give me his name, told me he used to regularly travel outside of China on business, but not anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The police have now taken our passports from us. We can't travel, so it's impossible to do business or make money. Even if they do give your passport back to you, when you come back from a foreign trip, police will interrogate you about what you did there. It's troublesome. And it makes me not want to leave anymore.
INSKEEP: So that's the situation that has evolved in Xinjiang province, Rob, but what does that have to do with the Belt and Road project?
SCHMITZ: Well, the success of the Belt and Road project hinges on a stable and prosperous Xinjiang. China will need that in order to convince foreign companies to come and invest there and in order for its own economy to do well.
INSKEEP: And now, as I understand it, the government has invited you on a kind of tour of these reeducation or detainment camps.
SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. China's government cares very much how the outside world sees this issue. And this trip is part of an effort to justify its actions. It should be a pretty interesting trip.
INSKEEP: That was NPR's Rob Schmitz a couple of days ago. Now, since then, he has joined a Chinese government-led tour of camps for Uighurs in far western China. This is an exceptionally rare look inside, although we must note Rob is only able to see what the government shows him and then apply his own knowledge of the story to what he's seeing. Rob is in Kashgar, which is in far western China, and an important Belt and Road city, by the way. Rob, what have you seen today?
SCHMITZ: Well, Steve, our government-led group just finished a tour of what's known as the Kashgar City Vocational Education and Training Center. This is one of a network of internment camps that are in Xinjiang and that we've been reporting on now for about a year. This one is outside the city of Kashgar. It holds 1,500 people between the age of 20 and 40. And what was known as the principal gave us a tour of all of the classes that are offered to the people that are interred there. And some of them were tourism classes, classes on how to make clothes. I saw folks get trained to be electricians. One was a culture class where they were learning singing and dancing.
What was interesting is that when we asked the principal - why are people here? - he told us that everyone here has been infected with extremist thought. One woman that I met there - her name is Iagulli Abd al-Rahman (ph) - she's 30 years old. She's been at this facility for several months. She has two children, 9 and 7 years old, at home. And her husband is at home, taking care of the children. She gets to go back on the weekends, but she has to spend all of her weeks at this training camp. I asked her why she was there. And here's what she said.
IAGULLI ABD AL-RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken.)
SCHMITZ: And, Steve, she's saying here that her thoughts are extremely serious in their violation of - basically, they're very extremist thoughts that she had. And when I asked a follow-up question about - what kind of thoughts were those? - she said that there was an incident where she did not allow her two children to take part in a cultural event where they were asking the children to sing and dance Uighur songs. These are typical songs that many especially Han Chinese tourists like to see when they come to these types of areas. And she didn't allow her children to take part in that.
INSKEEP: So people are suspected of extremism for what sounds like rather minor violations and placed in these camps. But is this a course of study, and then they're released? Is this a prison? What is it?
SCHMITZ: When I asked the students, for example - how long will you be here? - many of them didn't know. They just said, well, we have to keep studying. We're not sure when we - they use the word graduate. We're just going to purify our thoughts to make sure that we don't have any more extremist thoughts in our head. Judging from the outside, it's got an enormous, 15-foot fence around it. When you get inside, there are seven rather large, beige buildings. All of the windows have wrought-iron bars or fencing around it so that you can't easily get out.
INSKEEP: Well, how does this tour compare, Rob, with what you've learned about the camps in other ways that you've been able to report on them?
SCHMITZ: Well, this is starkly different from the people that I have spoke to who have been inside these camps. Many of them told me that they were tortured, but that is something that I also did not see today. But obviously, this was a very choreographed tour.
INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in the farthest western part of China, where he's been getting a government-led look inside internment camps for Uighurs. Rob, thanks so much.
SCHMITZ: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.