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Robin Barnwell’s documentary “China Undercover” is astonishing. It will air on PBS on April 7.
by Marco Respinti
An entire nation tortured. Its culture and language forbidden. Surveillance cameras everywhere. ID checkpoints to enter shops and housing blocks. “Convenience police stations” every two hundred meters in its capital. And millions in concentration camps. No, it is not Nazi Germany, it is Xinjiang today. Yet, comparison with Nazi Germany is not inadequate.
Mr. Robin Barnwell is a well-known British director and producer. His China Undercover lifts the veil on the tragedy of those living in what the CCP government calls Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan. This is not just another documentary on Xinjiang. It is a new, better one.
Featuring well-known scholars, Mr. Barnwell’s movie concentrates on the two faces of the CCP’s drive toward annihilation of the Uyghurs: the infamous transformation through education camps and the “open prison” that lies outside those camps.
Reproducing footage from Chinese state TV channels, Mr. Barnwell illustrates how adults, and even children, are re-educated to parrot the CCP orthodoxy in what the regime claims are just “vocational schools”. If they don’t, they are denied food and face severe consequences. In January 2019, the regime even invited hand-picked journalists to visit some of those camps. It was just a sideshow, and reality is different. Reportedly, there are around 1,200 such camps. One million Uyghurs, Mr. Barnwell says, are detained within large compounds made of prison-like structures surrounded by barbed wires all over XUAR (some of the images are courtesy of Bitter Winter), but the documentary appropriately mentions that independent researchers speak of a much higher figure. At any rate, “just” a million Uyghurs means (according to the documentary) 10% of the total XUAR Muslim population (about 22 million people roughly divided into half Uyghurs and other Muslim Turkic minorities and half Han Chinese.)
People in those camps are harassed and tortured. Some go crazy. Few escape. Rohima, a young Uyghur woman, is one of those lucky few. In front of the camera, she tells why she got imprisoned in horrible conditions for one year: she was caught with WhatsApp in her smartphone, a “dangerous” sign of “rebellion” and freedom. We have seen nothing like this, says narrator Caroline Catz’s voice, since World War II, an unprecedented number of people detained, the segregation of an entire ethnicity.
The hell’s antechamber
But if detention camps are hell, life in XUAR outside the camps is the hell’s antechamber. A Han Chinese reporter and cameraman accepted to shoot on behalf of Mr. Barnwell, being able to move throughout the region much more unnoticed than a Brit. Under the pseudonym of “Mr. Li,” he was recruited in Thailand and landed in Xinjiang for the first time, visiting especially Urumchi, XUAR’s capital, and Kashgar, a city that lies at the heart of Uyghur traditional culture. Pretending to be a businessman looking for new opportunities while on vacation, he was able to put on film, for the first time, critical voices about the CCP policy in the region, as well as the testimony of an undercover local official of the regime. “What about human rights?” asked the reporter. “Uyghurs don’t have human rights,” the official answered. They are like mice, material for experiments for research purposes, added another undercover source, an expert in control systems. The war the CCP wages against Uyghurs is also a racist struggle for Han supremacy. They call it sinicization.
The man behind this large human laboratory, where the CCP regime is experimenting the most obnoxious ways of repression and sophisticated control techniques, is XUAR governor, Mr. Chen Quanguo, already famous as the “pacificator” of Tibet.
In Xinjiang he acts as the local manager of Beijing Big Bother, thanks to companies, like Leon and Huawei, which offer the most advanced equipment to control lives of people, or by adopting strategies like the “home-stay” program that infiltrates Uyghur families with spies.
Mr. Barnwell’s documentary premiered on UK’s ITV on July 15, 2019 as Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag. On April 7 an updated version will air on PBS, titled China Undercover. On March 25, History Channel broadcasted an Italian translation of the UK first version, under the title Gulag: il volto oscuro della Cina (“Gulag: The Dark Side of China”), which was aired again on the 26th. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, i.e. the devastation brough to the world by the CCP virus, whose responsibility is to be blamed on the regime, probably in tandem with the World Health Organization’s Director General Mr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the timing is perfect for the world to learn what a nightmare China is.
To complete the portrait, don’t forget to watch also Mr. Barnwell’s highly emotional and live documentary Battle for Hong Kong, which directly follows five young protesters in the streets of the former British colony during the high days of last year’s revolt. It adds another important piece to the Chinese jigsaw. It first aired on PBS on February 11, 2020 and is still available.