Dawn breaks in the crowded prison cell. Not everyone is asleep — conditions are so cramped in the 70-square-yard space that 15 of the 60 inmates have to stand to give others their turn to lie down.
The lack of privacy is absolute. Toilet breaks are rationed — two minutes at a time — and in full gaze of the others.
Glass walls, cameras and microphones mean that every word and deed is recorded.
Informants placed in each cell even note down what people say in their sleep and pass it on to guards.
As with every other day, the morning begins with compulsory singing of Communist Party songs, praising the glorious motherland and its wise leader, Xi Jinping.
Then their only meal of the day arrives. Watery cabbage soup, served with a small lump of steamed dough. If they’re lucky, they may get a few grains of rice as well.
On Sunday, Beijing’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming was quizzed by Andrew Marr about drone footage, taken in 2018, showing hundreds of Uighur men, kneeling, shaven-headed, shackled and blindfolded, being led from a train, in what appeared to be a transfer of prisoners
And then the medication arrives in a form of a white pill. To be sure they’ve taken it, the prisoners’ mouths are roughly forced open and searched.
The mysterious drug — a tranquilliser of some sort — soon induces a state of miserable mental numbness.
Thoughts and memories of life outside, the fate of loved ones, the pain of shattered hopes: all recede. Now the only aim is to get through the day.
Such a scene is being played out in any one of China’s secret concentration camps, dedicated to ‘re-educating’ a million or more of the country’s Muslim Uighur population in a network of hundreds of institutions built across 640,000 square miles of Western China: an area seven times the size of Britain.
Every detail of this harrowing description of life inside the ‘Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’ — its native Uighurs call it ‘East Turkestan’ — comes from accounts that have trickled out of the region and from a huge package of internal Communist Party documents leaked last year by a brave official, disgusted by the policies he was implementing.
They are confirmed by survivor testimony collated by Rahima Mahmut of the London office of the World Uyghur Congress and by Human Rights Watch, a New York based campaign group.
Internet detectives have also used publicly available satellite images to plot the growth of the camps.
On Sunday, Beijing’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming was quizzed by Andrew Marr about drone footage, taken in 2018, showing hundreds of Uighur men, kneeling, shaven-headed, shackled and blindfolded, being led from a train, in what appeared to be a transfer of prisoners.
After a lengthy and embarrassed pause, the ambassador responded with bluster and denial. ‘Uighur people enjoy peaceful, harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups of people,’ he insisted, dismissing the footage as ‘so-called Western intelligence’.
Certainly nothing ‘peaceful’ or ‘harmonious’ marks the inmates’ daily routine.
Morning is indoctrination. Inmates — hundreds of them, all shaven-headed — sit in a vast echoing room, listening to hours of lectures on the evils of religion. The instructors’ words are broken by rhythmic chanting of Communist Party slogans.
All communication is in Chinese. For the inmates to mutter even a word in their own ancient language — a dialect similar to Uzbek — would be a sign of defiance and bring terrifying retribution.
Morning is indoctrination. Inmates — hundreds of them, all shaven-headed — sit in a vast echoing room, listening to hours of lectures on the evils of religion
The monotony of the lessons is mental torture. At the end of the class, inmates are asked ‘is there a God?’ The only permitted answer is ‘no’.
Every waking moment is an onslaught on their cherished beliefs and traditions. The half-starved inmates are even forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, in defiance of their Muslim faith.
Afternoon brings interrogations. To break their mental resistance, inmates are forced to watch others being tortured before their own sessions of questioning.
They are made to denounce friends and family, to confess to fictitious crimes such as bomb-making and espionage, and to express abject contrition — even for such harmless acts as having a copy of the Koran. Any resistance brings beatings, electric shocks and sleep deprivation.
Nakedness is another dehumanising tactic. Nudity is taboo in Islam, but prisoners of all ages are made to parade before each other and in view of the guards.
For women, humiliating gynaecological inspections are mandatory. Rape is routine.
The prettier younger women disappear at nights and weep silently during the day. An injection every 15 days appears to be forced contraception — monthly periods cease.
Worst of all is the dreaded orange tabard. Prisoners assigned these soon disappear, never to be seen again.
Rumour has it that they are murdered for their organs — kidneys, corneas, hearts and livers are looted from their bodies, to fund the lucrative international black market, or serve the needs of the Communist Party elite.
For the nine million other Uighurs living in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang who are lucky enough not to be confined in such camps, life is another kind of prison.
Every movement is under video camera surveillance backed up by intrusive searches.
Police vans patrol the streets, searching for any sign of suspicious behaviour and mounting random checks. Checkpoints are every 200 yards.
Worse are the ubiquitous plainclothes police, silently observing public behaviour.
A single careless word or deed — perhaps a small show of faith — is punishable by incarceration and brain-washing.
Little word leaks out of the fate of those who are taken away. Their families are sometimes told that they died in traffic accidents. Those who return are so traumatised that they rarely speak of their ordeal.
Possession of any books, newspapers or any electronic material that could signal disloyalty to the Chinese regime is punished.
No expression of religious belief is permitted. Almost all mosques, along with cemeteries, have been bulldozed. Mosques are empty shells, with worship staged only to deceive outsiders. Even a Koran or a prayer mat is a dangerous sign of disloyalty.
The micro-management extends to household possessions. Kitchen knives with blades longer than four inches, for example, must be engraved with a barcode identifying the owner, and must be chained to a wall or table.
Children are used as informers. School classes are shown Arabic script and asked if they recognise it.
China’s view is that the Muslim population in the country’s western region is a hotbed of dangerous terrorism and separatism
Those who do have unwittingly highlighted that their families are believers who read the Koran.
Such ‘disloyalty’ often leads to children being removed — in effect kidnapped — and sent to state-run boarding schools, even at the age of five. There they are indoctrinated to despise their families, religion, culture and native language.
Asking about the fate of the people who have disappeared is dangerous. They are referred to as ‘yoq’, meaning ‘not around’. Incarceration in the concentration camps is called ‘studying’.
The fate of women left at home when their menfolk are sent to the camps is particularly horrific.
They are assigned a Chinese official to live in their home to monitor the family. These unwelcome guests intrude into every aspect of domestic life — and often insist on occupying the empty place in the marital bed.
Such grotesque abuses of human rights have been under way for years. But they have leaped into public view in the West thanks to dogged work by investigators and the bravery of those who have fled.
Only recently, one fortunate escapee, Sayragul Sauytbay, said: ‘Perhaps it is becoming even worse than the Nazis because they can combine the latest technology — such as 24-hour surveillance everywhere — with the most primitive methods of torture.’
In the face of such devastating criticism, it is little surprise that the Chinese authorities go to great efforts to conceal and deny the accelerating pace of atrocities, as the Chinese ambassador’s performance on Sunday showed.
China’s view is that the Muslim population in the country’s western region is a hotbed of dangerous terrorism and separatism. Re-education measures, Communist officials insist, instil useful vocational skills and eradicate anti-social behaviour.
It is true China has faced violent unrest among Uighurs, including terrorist attacks in Beijing and elsewhere.
But the actions of fanatics do not justify the repression of an entire ethnic group — including the imprisonment of non-violent activists, scholars and public figures who have spent their careers urging compatriots to work peacefully with the authorities in Beijing.
In truth, the simmering resentment in the region is the inevitable response to the brutal colonial misrule inflicted by the Chinese Communist Party after its occupation in 1949.
But the actions of fanatics do not justify the repression of an entire ethnic group
For decades, East Turkestan was a neglected, exotic backwater, favoured by adventurous Western tourists, thrilled by the central Asian charms of ancient Silk Road cities such as Kashgar.
But China’s grip has tightened there in the past 20 years, first with the systematic demolition of historic landmarks and then the imposition of increasingly harsh controls on everyday life.
Communist authorities have mandated the influx of millions of ethnic Chinese migrants with the aim of diluting and eventually eradicating any sense of local identity — a tactic also used on Tibet, another captive of the Chinese empire.
Perhaps the most astonishing feature of this story is that, faced with this state-sponsored programme of mass repression and cultural extermination, the Muslim world has been almost silent.
Heavily dependent on China for trade, investment, infrastructure and security, countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been unwilling to breathe even a whisper of criticism about atrocities perpetrated against co-believers.
In Britain, however, Muslim leaders, notably the Oxford imam Taj Hargey, have spoken up forcefully against the abuses.
A report by the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, ‘A Grief Observed’, contains a harrowing compilation of inmates’ experiences.
But the Muslim countries on the UN Human Rights council — Afghanistan, Eritrea and Qatar — have said nothing to prod that body to make even a squeak of protest.
European countries such as Germany have also been shamefully silent — a reflection of China’s commercial clout.
As the hard-pressed Uighurs witness the destruction of their way of life, culture and language, they can only pray — secretly and silently — that more will speak up.