The watch towers, double-locked doors and video surveillance in the Chinese camps are there “to prevent escapes.” Uighurs and other minorities held inside are scored on how well they speak the dominant Mandarin language and follow strict rules on everything down to bathing and using the toilet, scores that determine if they can leave.
education” is mandatory, but “vocational skills improvement” is offered only
after a year in the camps.
job training is the reason the Chinese government has given for detaining more
than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims. But a classified
blueprint leaked to a consortium of news organizations shows the camps are
instead precisely what former detainees have described: Forced ideological and
behavioral re-education centers run in secret.
classified documents lay out the Chinese government’s deliberate strategy to
lock up ethnic minorities even before they commit a crime, to rewire their
thoughts and the language they speak.
papers also show how Beijing is pioneering a new form of social control using
data and artificial intelligence. Drawing on data collected by mass
surveillance technology, computers issued the names of tens of thousands of
people for interrogation or detention in just one week.
a whole, the documents give the most significant description yet of high-tech
mass detention in the 21st century in the words of the Chinese government
itself. Experts say they spell out a vast system that targets, surveils and
grades entire ethnicities to forcibly assimilate and subdue them -- especially
Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority of more than 10 million people
with their own language and culture.
confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide,” said Adrian Zenz, a leading
security expert on the far western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland. “It
really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan.”
said the documents echo the aim of the camps as outlined in a 2017 report from
a local branch of the Xinjiang Ministry of Justice: To “wash brains, cleanse
hearts, support the right, remove the wrong.”
has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where the Uighurs have long
resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. After the 9/11 attacks in the United
States, Chinese officials began justifying harsh security measures and
religious restrictions as necessary to fend off terrorism, arguing that young
Uighurs were susceptible to the influence of Islamic extremism. Hundreds have
died since in terror attacks, reprisals and race riots, both Uighurs and Han
Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what he called a “People’s War on Terror”
when bombs set off by Uighur militants tore through a train station in Urumqi,
the capital of Xinjiang, just hours after he concluded his first state visit
steel walls and iron fortresses. Set up nets above and snares below,” state
media cited Xi as saying. “Cracking down severely on violent terrorist
activities must be the focus of our current struggle.”
the crackdown intensified dramatically after Xi named Chen Quanguo, a hardline
official transferred from Tibet, as Xinjiang’s new head. Most of the documents
were issued in 2017, as Xinjiang’s “War on Terror” morphed into an
extraordinary mass detention campaign using military-style technology.
practices largely continue today. The Chinese government says they work.
the measures have been taken, there’s no single terrorist incident in the past
three years,” said a written response from the Chinese Embassy in the United
Kingdom. “Xinjiang is much safer. ...The so-called leaked documents are
fabrication and fake news.”
statement said that religious freedom and the personal freedom of detainees was
“fully respected” in Xinjiang.
asked about the documents on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng
Shuang reiterated that issues surrounding Xinjiang are “purely China’s internal
media used underhanded tricks to sensationalize the Xinjiang issue,” Geng said
during a regular news briefing. “The plot to smear and slander China’s
anti-terrorism and deradicalization efforts in Xinjiang will not prevail.”
documents were given to the International Consortium of Investigative
Journalists by an anonymous source. The ICIJ verified them by examining state
media reports and public notices from the time, consulting experts,
cross-checking signatures and confirming the contents with former camp
employees and detainees.
consist of a notice with guidelines for the camps, four bulletins on how to use
technology to target people, and a court case sentencing a Uighur Communist
Party member to 10 years in prison for telling colleagues not to say dirty
words, watch porn or eat without praying.
documents were issued to rank-and-file officials by the powerful Xinjiang
Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the region’s top authority
overseeing police, courts and state security. They were put out under the head
official at the time, Zhu Hailun, who annotated and signed some personally.
documents confirm from the government itself what is known about the camps from
the testimony of dozens of Uighurs and Kazakhs, satellite imagery and tightly
monitored visits by journalists to the region.
Qurban, an ethnic Kazakh who moved back to Kazakhstan, was grabbed by police on
a trip back to China to see his mother and accused of committing crimes abroad.
He protested that he was a simple herder who had done nothing wrong. But for
the authorities, his time in Kazakhstan was reason enough for detention.
told the AP he was locked in a cell with 10 others last year and told not to
engage in “religious activities” like praying. They were forced to sit on
plastic stools in rigid postures for hours at a time. Talk was forbidden, and
two guards kept watch 24 hours a day. Inspectors checked that nails were short
and faces trimmed of mustaches and beards, traditionally worn by pious Muslims.
who disobeyed were forced to squat or spend 24 hours in solitary confinement in
a frigid room.
wasn’t education, it was just punishment,” said Qurban, who was held for nine
months. “I was treated like an animal.”
ROUNDED UP AND HOW
February 18, 2017, Zhu, the Han Chinese official who signed the documents,
stood in chilly winter weather atop the front steps of the capital’s city hall,
overlooking thousands of police in black brandishing rifles.
the powerful fist of the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, all separatist
activities and all terrorists shall be smashed to pieces,” Zhu announced into a
that began a new chapter in the state’s crackdown. Police called Uighurs and
knocked on their doors at night to take them in for questioning. Others were
stopped at borders or arrested at airports.
years since, as Uighurs and Kazakhs were sent to the camps in droves, the
government built hundreds of schools and orphanages to house and re-educate
their children. Many of those who fled into exile don’t even know where their
children or loved ones are.
documents make clear that many of those detained have not actually done
anything. One document explicitly states that the purpose of the pervasive
digital surveillance is “to prevent problems before they happen” -- in other
words, to calculate who might rebel and detain them before they have a chance.
done through a system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform or IJOP,
designed to screen entire populations. Built by a state-owned military
contractor, the IJOP began as an intelligence-sharing tool developed after
Chinese military theorists studied the U.S. army’s use of information
technology in Iraq and Afghanistan.
no other place in the world where a computer can send you to an internment
camp,” said Rian Thum, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Nottingham. “This
is absolutely unprecedented.”
spat out the names of people considered suspicious, such as thousands of
“unauthorized” imams not registered with the Chinese government, along with
their associates. Suspicious or extremist behavior was so broadly defined that
it included going abroad, asking others to pray or using cell phone apps that
cannot be monitored by the government.
zoomed in on users of “Kuai Ya,” a mobile application similar to the iPhone’s
Airdrop, which had become popular in Xinjiang because it allows people to
exchange videos and messages privately. One bulletin showed that officials
identified more than 40,000 “Kuai Ya” users for investigation and potential
detention; of those, 32 were listed as belonging to “terrorist organizations.”
scared people will spread religion through ‘Kuai Ya,’” said a man detained
after police accused him of using the app. He spoke to the AP on condition of
anonymity to protect himself and his family. “They can’t regulate it....So they
want to arrest everyone who’s used ‘Kuai Ya’ before.”
system also targeted people who obtained foreign passports or visas, reflecting
the government’s fear of Islamic extremist influences from abroad and deep
discomfort with any connection between the Uighurs and the outside world.
Officials were asked to verify the identities even of people outside the
country, showing how China is casting its dragnet for Uighurs far beyond
recent years, Beijing has put pressure on countries to which Uighurs have fled,
such as Thailand and Afghanistan, to send them back to China. In other
countries, state security has also contacted Uighurs and pushed them to spy on
each other. For example, a restaurateur now in Turkey, Qurbanjan Nurmemet, said
police contacted him with videos of his son strapped to a chair and asked him
for information on other Uighurs in Turkey.
the Chinese government’s insistence that the camps are vocational training
centers for the poor and uneducated, the documents show that those rounded up
included party officials and university students.
the names were collected, lists of targeted people were passed to prefecture
governments, who forwarded them to district heads, then local police stations,
neighbor watchmen, and Communist Party cadres living with Uighur families.
former detainees recalled being summoned by officers and told their names were
listed for detention. From there, people were funneled into different parts of
the system, from house arrest to detention centers with three levels of
monitoring to, at its most extreme, prison.
say the detentions are a clear violation of China’s own laws and constitution.
Margaret Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, said the
Communist Party is circumventing the Chinese legal system in Xinjiang.
you’re stamped as an enemy, the gloves go off,” she said. “They’re not even
trying to justify this legally....This is arbitrary.”
detention campaign is sweeping. A bulletin notes that in a single week in June
2017, the IJOP identified 24,612 “suspicious persons” in southern Xinjiang,
with 15,683 sent to “education and training,” 706 to prison and 2,096 to house
arrest. It is unknown how typical this week might be. Local officials claim far
less than a million are in “training,” but researchers estimate up to 1.8
million have been detained at one point or another.
bulletins stress that relationships must be scrutinized closely, with those
interrogated pushed to report the names of friends and relatives. Mamattursun
Omar, a Uighur chef arrested after working in Egypt, was interrogated in four
detention facilities over nine months in 2017. Omar told the AP that police
asked him to verify the identities of other Uighurs in Egypt.
Omar says, they began torturing him to make him confess that Uighur students
had gone to Egypt to take part in jihad. They strapped him to a contraption
called a “tiger chair,” shocked him with electric batons, beat him with pipes
and whipped him with computer cords.
couldn’t take it anymore,” Omar said. “I just told them what they wanted me to
gave the names of six others who worked at a restaurant with him in Egypt. All
were sent to prison.
HAPPENS INSIDE THE CAMPS
documents also detail what happens after someone is sent to an “education and
in a recent white paper, China’s State Council said “the personal freedom of
trainees at the education and training centers is protected in accordance with
the law.” But internally, the documents describe facilities with police
stations at the front gates, high guard towers, one-button alarms and video
surveillance with no blind spots.
are only allowed to leave if absolutely necessary, for example because of
illness, and even so must have somebody “specially accompany, monitor and
control” them. Bath time and toilet breaks are strictly managed and controlled
“to prevent escapes.” And cell phones are strictly forbidden to stop “collusion
between inside and outside.”
was impossible,” said Kazakh kindergarten administrator Sayragul Sauytbay, a
Communist Party member who was abducted by police in November 2017 and forced
to become a Mandarin camp instructor. “In every corner in every place there
were armed police.”
called the detention center a “concentration camp ... much more horrifying than
prison,” with rape, brainwashing and torture in a “black room” where people
screamed. She and another former prisoner, Zumrat Dawut, also told the ICIJ
detainees were given medication that made them listless and obedient, and every
move was surveilled.
journalists who visited Xinjiang in December 2018 saw patrol towers and high
walls lined with green barbed wire fencing around camps. One camp in Artux,
just north of Kashgar, sat in the middle of a vast, empty, rocky field, and
appeared to include a police station at the entrance, workshops, a hospital and
dormitories, one with a sign reading “House of Workers” in Chinese.
satellite imagery shows that guard towers and fencing have been removed from
some facilities, suggesting the region may have been softening restrictions in
response to global criticism. Shohrat Zakir, the governor of Xinjiang, said in
March that those detained can now request time and go home on weekends, a claim
the AP could not independently verify.
first item listed as part of the curriculum is ideological education, a bold
attempt to change how detainees think and act. It is partly rooted in the
ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education -- taken before to
terrifying extremes during the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong.
the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, except now it’s powered by
high-tech,” said Zenz, the researcher.
showing students the error of their former ways, the centers are supposed to
promote “repentance and confession,” the directive said. For example, Qurban,
the Kazakh herder, was handcuffed, brought to an interview with a Han Chinese
leader and forced to acknowledge that he regretted visiting abroad.
indoctrination goes along with what is called “manner education,” where
behavior is dictated down to ensuring “timely haircuts and shaves,” “regular
change of clothes” and “bathing once or twice a week.” The tone, experts say,
echoes a general perception by the Han Chinese government that Uighurs are
prone to violence and need to be civilized -- in much the same way white
colonialists treated indigenous people in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
similar kind of savior mentality -- that these poor Uighurs didn’t understand
that they were being led astray by extremists,” said Darren Byler, a scholar of
Uighur culture at the University of Washington. “The way they think about
Uighurs in general is that they are backward, that they’re not
educated....these people are unhygienic and need to be taught how to clean
are to be allowed a phone conversation with relatives at least once a week, and
can meet them via video at least once a month, the documents say. Trainers are
told to pay attention to “the ideological problems and emotional changes that
arise after family communications.”
is mandated. Beijing has said “the customs of all ethnic groups and the right
to use their spoken and written languages are fully protected at the centers.”
But the documents show that in practice, lessons are taught in Mandarin, and it
is the language to be used in daily communication.
staffer at Xinjiang TV now in Europe was also selected to become a Mandarin
teacher during his month-long detention in 2017. Twice a day, detainees were
lined up and inspected by police, and a few were questioned in Mandarin at
random, he told the AP. Those who couldn’t respond in Mandarin were beaten or
deprived of food for days. Otherwise, speaking was forbidden.
the former teacher recalled, an officer asked an old farmer in Mandarin whether
he liked the detention center. The man apologized in broken Mandarin and
Uighur, saying it was hard for him to understand because of his age. The
officer strode over and struck the old man’s head with a baton. He crumpled to
the ground, bleeding.
didn’t see us as humans,” said the former teacher, who declined to provide his
name out of fear of retribution against his family. “They treated us like
animals -- like pigs, cows, sheep.”
are tested on Mandarin, ideology and discipline, with “one small test per week,
one medium test per month, and one big test per season,” the documents state.
These test scores feed into an elaborate point system.
who do well are to be rewarded with perks like family visits, and may be
allowed to “graduate” and leave. Detainees who do poorly are to be sent to a
stricter “management area” with longer detention times. Former detainees told
the AP that punishments included food deprivation, handcuffing, solitary
confinement, beatings and torture.
scores are entered in the IJOP. Students are sent to separate facilities for
“intensive skills training” only after at least one year of learning ideology,
law and Mandarin.
they leave, the documents stipulate, every effort should be made to get them
jobs. Some detainees describe being forced to sign job contracts, working long
hours for low pay and barred from leaving factory grounds during weekdays.
Kazakh herder, said after nine months in the camp, a supervisor came to tell
him he was “forgiven” but must never tell what he had seen. After he returned
to his village, officials told him he had to work in a factory.
don’t go, we’ll send you back to the center,” an official said.
went to a garment factory, which he wasn’t allowed to leave. After 53 days
stitching clothes, he was released. After another month under house arrest, he
finally was allowed to return to Kazakhstan and see his children. He received
his salary in cash: 300 Chinese yuan, or just under $42.
ordinary herder who thought little of politics, Qurban used to count many Han
Chinese among his friends. Now, he said, he’s begun to hate them.
never committed a crime, I’ve never done anything wrong,” he said. “It was
beyond comprehension why they put me there.”
story has been corrected to show that Sayragul Sauytbay was abducted in
November 2017, not October 2017.