Oddly, a blockbuster leak based on classified Chinese government documents confirm charges that large-scale prison camps in the Xinjiang region use extreme regimentation and torture to turn its Muslim population, the Uighur, into the functional equivalent of Han Chinese, is not getting prominent play in most Western newspapers even though the number incarcerated may exceed one million. Nevertheless “most viewed” tallies show these China Cable revelations are getting traction.
The leaked official documents, of which the centerpiece is a nine-page operating manual from 2017, when the prison camps were opening, were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which in turn shared them with 17 partners, many of whom did further digging. . The main document plus four shorter, later “bulletins” describe the policies for the prison camps. From the ICIJ overview:
The China Cables,…include a classified list of guidelines, personally approved by the region’s top security chief, that effectively serves as a manual for operating the camps now holding hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities. The leak also features previously undisclosed intelligence briefings that reveal, in the government’s own words, how Chinese police are guided by a massive data collection and analysis system that uses artificial intelligence to select entire categories of Xinjiang residents for detention….
The China Cables reveal how the system is able to amass vast amounts of intimate personal data through warrantless manual searches, facial recognition cameras, and other means to identify candidates for detention, flagging for investigation hundreds of thousands merely for using certain popular mobile phone apps. The documents detail explicit directives to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship and to track Xinjiang Uighurs living abroad, some of whom have been deported back to China by authoritarian governments. Among those implicated as taking part in the global dragnet: China’s embassies and consulates.
Former inmates now living abroad also state that Chinese officials would interrogate Uighur family members separately and intensively, including children, and would require the families accept “relatives” that would participate in family activities as well as take the children away for hours at a time. Refusing these “relatives” would lead to incarceration. Escapees also report torture, daily sexual abuse of women, and forced surgeries and drug use.
Needless to say, Chinese officials vigorously dispute these accounts. China’s ambassador to the UK called the reports “pure fabrication and fake news” and insisted the camps were voluntary educational and training centers. The Chinese ambassador to Ireland, by contrast, fell short of a denial:
The Chinese ambassador to Ireland, He Xiangdong, was asked to comment in advance of the publication of the China Cables. He was told the documents showed that people are being held against their will in harsh conditions, and that “ideological transformation” is necessary before a person is released.
“The issue Xinjiang faces is not about ethnicity, religion or human rights,” he said in a statement. “Rather, it is about fighting violence, terrorism and separatism.”
Thanks to the preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation efforts, “including establishing vocational education and training centers,” Xinjiang, a place that once suffered gravely from terrorism, hasn’t seen a single violent, terrorist incident over the past three years, the ambassador said.
“We will continue to handle our domestic affairs well. We will continue to implement our Xinjiang policy and ensure Xinjiang’s sound development.”
I take these leaks at face value because not only have human rights advocates been describing large-scale detention of Uighurs for the better part of two years, I have also heard about them from credible sources when I am not at all plugged into China. Because these contacts have and in come cases continue to operate in China, accounts like this are against their commercial interest. They come from individuals who have visited the Xinjiang region and depict the surveillance and oppression of the Uighur as well known. One called out McKinsey for signaling its support of the camps. From a contact:
That region has gotten lots of recent press because of the oppression of the Uighur minority. It’s worse than most press describe. It’s a police state like the storm troopers of Star Wars. Last fall  McKinsey held its annual senior partner meeting in the desert near Kashgar. For that to have been done was, to me, a clear signal to the Chinese government of McKinsey’s tacit approval of their actions there. It was appalling. No other part of China, including Tibet, is even remotely as oppressive.
We’ll summarize the disclosures and the related reporting, but for one-stop shopping for more detail, the Irish Times has done a phenomenal job, with an in-depth account as its lead story today and eight additional reports (their video also provides a fine overview).
Xinjiang has a substantial population of largely Muslim Uighurs, who speak their own language and have lived in the region for a millennium, by virtue of being on the old “silk road” trade route to the Middle East. It has become strategically important to China now by being the central axis of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative:
The Uighurs are the fourth largest ethnic group in China, totaling roughly 11 million. Tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese escalated after violence in 2009 and again in 2014.
From a report in February at Business Insider:
People in Xinjiang are watched by tens of thousands of facial recognition cameras, and surveillance apps on their phones. An estimated 2 million of them are locked in internment camps where people are physically and psychologically abused….
China has accused militant Uighurs of being terrorists and inciting violence across the country since at least the early 2000s, as many Uighur separatists left China for places like Afghanistan and Syria to become fighters.
But its campaign of repression only stepped up in the past two years, under the rule of Chen Quanguo, a Communist Party secretary who previously designed the program of intensive surveillance in Tibet.
Normal people in Xinjiang have found themselves disappeared or detained in internment camps for flimsy reasons, like setting their clocks to a different time zone or communicating with people in other countries, even their relatives.
Rushan Abbas, a Uighur activist in Virginia, told Business Insider: “This has everything to do with the Xi Jinping’s signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative, because the Uighur land is in the heart of the most key point of Xi Jinping’s signature project.”
In 2017, the crackdown began. Large-scale detentions began, with people and even families disappearing. Reporters, academics, and human rights campaigners identified the recent construction of large facilities:
In 2018, China could no longer deny the existence of these camps but asserted they were voluntary “vocational training centers.”
Every major city in the Xinjiang area has at least one “center,” identified from satellie images via their guard towers and razor wire perimeters, with over 100 located.
Intensive Surveillance and Pre-Crime
The ICIJ report confirms these accounts and provides more detail. A tweetstorm by the lead reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian (worth reading in full) describes the Chinese pre-crime system:
These secret intelligence briefings reveal the scope and ambition of the government’s AI-powered policing platform, which purports to predict crimes based on computer-generated findings alone. The result? Arrest by algorithm.
— B. Allen-Ebrahimian (@BethanyAllenEbr) November 24, 2019
Four separate bulletins reveal how the government uses a mass data collection program to identify people it deems to be potential extremists. Its data sources include checkpoints, facial-recognition CCTV cameras, spyware that some Uighurs have had forcibly installed on their phones, and “Wi-Fi sniffers,” according to Human Rights Watch. It has also been monitoring an app called Zapya, which was developed by a Beijing-based company, has 450 million users worldwide, and is very popular with Muslims, ICIJ reports.
Authorities then use artificial intelligence to comb through that data and suggest people to detain, ICIJ reports. One bulletin reports that over seven days in June 2017, 15,683 Xinjiang residents who had been flagged by technology were rounded up and put in internment camps.
Perhaps even more significant than the actual data collected are the grinding psychological effects of living under such a system. With batteries of facial-recognition cameras on street corners, endless checkpoints and webs of informants, IJOP [the Integrated Joint Operations Platform ] generates a sense of an omniscient, omnipresent state that can peer into the most intimate aspects of daily life. As neighbors disappear based on the workings of unknown algorithms, Xinjiang lives in a perpetual state of terror..
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said IJOP’s purpose extends far beyond identifying candidates for detention. Its purpose is to screen an entire population for behavior and beliefs that the government views with suspicion, including signs of strong attachment to the Muslim faith or Uighur identity. “It’s a background check mechanism, with the possibility of monitoring people everywhere,” Wang said.
China is particularly aggressive about targeting Uighurs living abroad. Again from the ICIJ:
Ominously, Bulletin No. 2 points to the role of China’s embassies and consulates in collecting information for IJOP, which is then used to generate names for investigation and detention. It cites an IJOP-generated list of 4,341 people found to have applied for visas and other documents at Chinese consulates or who applied for “replacements of valid identification at our Chinese embassies or consulates abroad.” The bulletin includes instructions for those people to be investigated and arrested “the moment they cross the border” back into China.
News organizations have already reported that camp inmate populations included some foreign nationals. Now Bulletin No. 2 shows that their presence in the camps was not accidental but rather an explicit policy objective…
The bulletin directed officials to find and investigate as many of them as possible, without apparent concern for any diplomatic fallout that might result from placing foreign citizens in extrajudicial internment camps.
Indoctrination and Torture
As we indicated, the Irish Times has done impressive additional reporting. It main article shows excerpts from the source documents in Chinese, which then morph into the English translation and back. It is particularly strong on the abuses in the camps and the chilling effect on communication. For instance:
“Dormitory doors, corridor doors, and floor doors must be double-locked, and must be locked immediately after being opened and closed.”
“Strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes during class, eating periods, toilet breaks, bath time, medical treatment, family visits, etc.”
The quotes are from instructions issued by a top security official in the Xinjiang province of China, where since 2017 more than a million people from Uighur and other ethnic minority groups are being kept in camps….
The Irish Times’ experts viewed the aim of the “education” as the eradication of the Uighur identity:
Alexander Dukalskis, an assistant professor in UCD’s school of politics and international relations, and a specialist on Asian politics, reviewed the Zhu document [the nine-page memorandum] for The Irish Times.
“This is about enforcing another language on a minority group as part of stamping out their independent culture. The document doesn’t mention teaching maths, or science – it focuses on language and ideology. It is about wiping out their language so as to control their culture and enforce political loyalty.”
The ultimate aim, according to Dukalskis, is to destroy any possibility of serious opposition to the government in Xinjiang by Uighurs, forever.
“This sounds exaggerated, but there is really no other way to put it. The strategy is to eliminate dissent, enforce loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, via indoctrination camps and other coercive methods, and to stamp out the independent practice of Islam and Uighur culture.”
Under the heading ideological education, Zhu instructed party colleagues to “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past behaviour”.
Experts also see the documents as confirming first-hand accounts of torture:
Adrian Zenz, a recognised authority on what is happening in Xinjiang, told the ICIJ he believes the reference in the instructions to not allowing “abnormal deaths” has to do with torture.
The telegram does not mention torture, “but the fact that it mentions the avoidance of abnormal deaths, in my opinion, is an indication that [the camp system] is using forms of physical force on people that, however, is not supposed to kill them.”
People are being put in chain-suits, are being made stand in certain positions, and are being beaten, said Zenz. Other harsher forms of torture are being meted out in prisons and detention centres.
In October a former detainee, Sayragul Sauytbay, a muslim of Kazakh descent who has been granted asylum in Sweden, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that some inmates were made sit on a chair of nails. “I saw people return from that room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails.”
The fact that China is using forced Uighur labor is not news. From the New York Times last December:
China has defied an international outcry against the vast internment program in Xinjiang, which holds Muslims and forces them to renounce religious piety and pledge loyalty to the party. The emerging labor program underlines the government’s determination to continue operating the camps despite calls from United Nations human rights officials, the United States and other governments to close them…..
Serikzhan Bilash, a founder of Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, an organization in Kazakhstan that helps ethnic Kazakhs who have left neighboring Xinjiang, said he had interviewed relatives of 10 inmates who had told their families that they were made to work in factories after undergoing indoctrination in the camps.
They mostly made clothes, and they called their employers “black factories,” because of the low wages and tough conditions, he said.
From July in Business Insider, China is running forced labour camps in the remote province of Xinjiang — and retailers like Ikea, Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest and H&M are embroiled in the scandal, based on a report on Australia’s weekly documentary show, Four Corners:
The investigation by the public broadcaster has uncovered instances of detained Uighurs being funnelled from so-called re-education camps to involuntary labour in factories in Xinjiang.
The report names six retailers operating in Australia that source cotton from the troubled region — Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M.
The Chinese party line on the “re-education” is that the detainees learn new skills so they can pursue vocations other than farming. While the documents did not directly describe forced labor, the bulletins describe policies consistent with them, like making sure the “graduates” find employment and ““not leave the line of sight for one year” after leaving a camp.
With human rights abuses, even a large accumulation of eye-witness accounts regularly fails to galvanize public opinion. After all, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, documents that experts deem to be genuine are another matter. But what happens next is anyone’s guess. China is certain not to modify its program to secure a region it regards as critical, since the government has never cared much about human cost, particularly of the non-Han. But confirmation of such large scale abuses should give prospective allies pause.