The civilian group descended on the village under government instructions to “win the people’s hearts”, but it also had a darker mission: identifying and punishing threats to the Chinese state.
Four months after the Communist Party sent the “work team” to Akeqie Kanle, a fifth of its adult population — over 100 people — had disappeared into detention and re-education centres.
The team — comprising staff from a regional university — was among more than 10,000 such groups that poured into rural Xinjiang last year as part of the government’s battle against separatism and “religious extremism” in the region, home to several Muslim ethnic minority groups.
Called “research the people’s conditions, improve the people’s lives and win the people’s hearts”, the programme recruits officials and university professors — mostly from China’s Han majority group — to spread party propaganda, eliminate rural poverty and promote “ethnic harmony.”
The work is vital to a social engineering campaign that has permeated every aspect of daily life in the fractious far western state, with the aim of politically indoctrinating the entire population.
Last year, the party tasked participants with enforcing increasingly draconian restrictions on religious and personal freedoms in a process that echoes the decades of brutal thought reform under Mao Zedong.
Teams like the one sent to Akeqie Kanle from the Bingtuan Broadcast Television University (BBTU) have helped send vast numbers of people into jails and secretive re-education centres, breaking up families and decimating villages.
When the BBTU team arrived in early 2017, it helped hang crimson lanterns across the village to celebrate Chinese New Year and push the government’s promises to provide job training, clean government and safe water.
But its focus then turned to interrogating villagers for any signs of dissent.
“The work team is resolute,” BBTU’s publicity department boasted on social media in an unusual public accounting of the dark side of a work team’s operations.
“We can completely take the lid off Akeqie Kanle, look behind the curtain, and eradicate its tumours.”
The school and Xinjiang’s government declined to respond to AFP’s questions about the programme.
But hundreds of state media reports, government documents and official social media posts clearly illustrate its methods and devastating impact.
Akeqie Kanle is among hundreds of villages in Moyu County, part of a predominantly ethnic Uighur area of Xinjiang that has become one of the most policed places on earth.
Since riots shook the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Uighurs have been tied to mass stabbings and bombings that left dozens dead across the country. Civil unrest and clashes with the government killed hundreds more.
The resulting crackdown has triggered international alarm, with the US State Department last week saying it is increasingly concerned over “widespread detentions and the unprecedented levels of surveillance”.
Human right groups say anger over discriminatory Chinese policies stokes the violence, but Beijing faults Muslim extremists.
In December 2016, three Uighur men stormed a Communist Party office in Moyu, killing two officials in an attack which became a rallying cry for the crackdown.
The government deployed tens of thousands of additional security personnel throughout Xinjiang, rolled out tough regulations on religious practices, and increased the use of compulsory re-education.
While surveillance cameras multiplied in public spaces, work teams served as the state’s eyes and ears in rural households.
Team members helped build infrastructure, provided job training, and encouraged people to “feel thanks for the party”, according to media reports celebrating their work.
But they were also instructed to enter every village household at least once a week to seek evidence of illegal behaviour.
They were to pay daily visits to so-called “key individuals” and “untrustworthy elements”: religious people, passport holders, all males between the ages of 16 and 45 and the illiterate, which Xinjiang’s justice department described as particularly susceptible to being brainwashed by extremists.
In Akeqie Kanle, the BBTU team wrote it had posted fliers urging villagers who had engaged in illegal religious activity to turn themselves, or others, in.
Team members compiled dossiers, put suspicious individuals on watch lists and met daily to analyse their findings.
While the BBTU team did not detail its criteria, other local governments warned officials to watch for 25 illegal religious activities and 75 signs of extremism, including seemingly innocuous activities as quitting smoking or buying a tent.
A local government website said even minor transgressions would be punished with one to three months in an “educational transformation” facility.
Detainees can be held in such centres indefinitely without due process and are subjected to various kinds of thought reform, including military-style drills and compulsory classes on Marxism and Chinese language.
By June, the BBTU team wrote it had gathered almost 100 “leads” with the help of informants.
The group requested help from authorities, who detained suspects and “exposed a gang that has been engaged in long-running illegal religious activities”.
A re-education centre — surrounded by razor wire-topped walls — is a short drive from Akeqie Kanle. On a recent weekday families milled around the heavily guarded entrance.
The detentions have become so widespread that schools offer support programmes for children with missing parents, and work teams help those left behind with heavy farm chores.
“All that’s left in the homes are the elderly, weak women and children,” Xinjiang’s agriculture department said of some homes.
Officials have reached out to thousands of households with missing members, according to state-run media.
Work teams should “make (households) understand who it was who brought these consequences down on them, who they should seek out for revenge and who they should give thanks to for loving kindness,” one wrote on an official social media account.
But local authorities are bracing for blowback, with internal memos warning that resentment surrounding the programme has created a risky environment.
The agriculture department’s website has a list of precautions for work teams, including preparing an emergency plan in case of ambush and never travelling outside of their residential compound alone.
But the BBTU work team was confident it would win Akeqie Kanle’s hearts and minds.
Some 50 villagers had joined the Communist Party, it crowed last July. Another 117 were taken away. Soon, it said, that number “will be even greater.”