New Leaks Further Uncover Xinjiang Detentions and Surveillance

Last week, The New York Times published its report on leaked documents including 403 pages of speeches, directives, and internal reports shedding new light on the evolution and execution of the ongoing mass detention campaign in Xinjiang. On Sunday, two more leaks came to light, one through Adrian Zenz, a longstanding analyst of the detentions, and the other through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Zenz described his own findings in an op-ed at The New York Times and a more detailed paper in the Journal of Political Risk, explaining the new information on the social and economic impact of the detentions, and providing a new, revised estimate of the total number of current or former detainees: 900,000 to 1.8 million. From the NYT:

No more denying, no more dodging. The Chinese Communist Party can no longer hide its relentless campaign of mass internment against the ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, or claim that the effort is an innocuous educational program. What was already widely known, vastly reported and confirmed by firsthand accounts has now been proved beyond doubt by the government’s own records — gigabytes of files, reams of reports, thousands of spreadsheets — some of them classified and highly confidential.

[…] In Yarkand, a county of about 800,000 people in southwestern Xinjiang, 96 percent of the population is Uighur. Six official spreadsheets about six villages dated 2018 show that, on average, nearly 16 percent of the rural adult population was either interned or in prison. In two villages in Kosherik Township — which the documents describe as “heavily polluted by extremist ideology” — nearly 60 percent of all households had one person or more interned.

[…] Thanks to these new document disclosures, we now have hard evidence — and the government’s own evidence — that in addition to implementing a vast internment program in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party is deliberately breaking up families and forcing them into poverty and a form of indentured labor. For all its efforts at secrecy, the Chinese government can no longer hide the extent, and the reach, of its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.

[…] The documents that have been disclosed these past few weeks reveal the staggering scale of the repression in Xinjiang and its ruinous effects on the region’s ethnic communities, well beyond the camps themselves. Consider this: Official statistics show that the combined net population growth rates of Hotan and Kashgar, two of the largest Uighur regions, dropped by about 84 percent between 2015 and 2018. [Source]

In the, JPR paper, Zenz declares his goal of “decisively refuting” Beijing’s claims that the camps are innocent and beneficial educational institutions. In one section, he notes the thick veil of secrecy surrounding them:

The classified document features a special section titled “Strictly confidential. The vocational skills education and training center work is highly sensitive in nature.” It states that staff and others are “strictly forbidden to bring video and video equipment such as mobile phones and cameras into the teaching and control places.” Also, any information related to the VTICs [“Vocational Training Internment Camps”], in particular statistical data, must not be “aggregated” or “disseminated”, and are “not open to the public”. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the staff’s “awareness of secrecy” (baomi yishi 保密意识).

The injunction against aggregating data indicates that the Xinjiang government seeks to conceal the scale of the internment campaign. Even VTIC staff must not compile or know this information, which explains why it is so difficult to obtain.

Other documents complain that the work of protecting secrets is not done stringently enough. A file containing a list of “problems” from Hotan County, dated November 1, 2018, notes that government staff have not been stringent enough about “protecting secrets” related to the internment campaign.[49] The document mandates that “no person is under no circumstances permitted to disseminate information about detention or re-education via telephone, smartphone, or the internet”, and officials are “strictly forbidden” to receive “related media interviews” or to engage in any form of “unauthorized disclosure” related to the internment campaign. [Source]

Zenz concludes:

[…] The ongoing human rights atrocity in Xinjiang is nothing less than a litmus test for the world’s most basic shared values. If the international community does not decisively respond to this, then it better stop claiming that it actually cares about human rights for all people. As a religious devotee worded it thousands of year ago: “Faith without works is dead.” [Source]

Meanwhile, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provided an overview of the documents acquired by the ICIJ, which describe aspects of the campaign including presumption of guilt, targeting of dual citizens and others with connections abroad, and restriction of communications. (ICIJ also published a separate explainer article providing broader context for the leak.)

The manual, called a “telegram,” instructs camp personnel on such matters as how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, how to control disease outbreaks, and when to let detainees see relatives or even use the toilet.  The document, dating to 2017, lays bare a behavior-modification “points” system to mete out punishments and rewards to inmates.

[…] The leaked documents include:

• The operations manual, or  “telegram,” nine Chinese-language pages dated November 2017 that contain more than two dozen detailed guidelines for managing the camps, which were then in the early months of operation.

• Four shorter Chinese-language intelligence briefings, known as “bulletins,” providing guidance on the daily use of the Integrated Joint Operation Platform, a mass-surveillance and predictive-policing program that analyzes data from Xinjiang and was revealed to the world by Human Rights Watch last year.

[…] • A Uighur-language sentencing document from a regional criminal court that details the allegations against a Uighur man imprisoned for inciting “ethnic hatred” and “extreme thoughts.” The allegations feature such seemingly innocuous acts as admonishing co-workers not to use profanity or watch pornography. The document is unclassified, but in a political system with little transparency, Xinjiang court documents are rarely seen by outsiders. [Source]

The Guardian, one of ICIJ’s partners in handling the leak, published annotated excerpts of the telegram together with its full text. (It also published a dismissive response to the reports from China’s embassy in London.) One notable passage dictates that the camps must “adhere to the daily concentrated study of the national language (Mandarin), law, and skills, make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority, and ensure time, content, and quality.”

Responding to the earlier NYT leaks at The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog last week, the University of Manchester’s David Stroup similarly argued that those documents and other recent evidence “suggest that authoritarian consolidation under Xi’s leadership has led to a sea change in China’s policy toward its ethnic minorities.” This shift from ethnic pluralism toward linguistic and cultural assimilation may find expression in a proposed “‘second generation’ of ethnic policies — which would end census tracking of ethnic identity and policy privileges for minorities.” Stroup notes that “the wider adoption of assimilation tactics first used in Xinjiang suggests that the CCP views Xinjiang as a replicable model for management of ethnic relations.”

In one report, The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison and Juliette Garside focused on the sentencing document obtained by the ICIJ, noting that the case to which it relates “was not exceptional but for the fact that its details have been made public.”

In late 2016, a 47-year-old Uighur employed on a road-building crew in China’s western Xinjiang region started hectoring his co-workers about their behaviour.

He warned them against watching porn or swearing, badgered them not to eat food cooked by non-Muslims, smokers or people who drink alcohol, and made offensive slurs against the country’s majority Han ethnic group.

[…] Two years later, the comments would land him in court, and earn him a 10-year sentence for “incitement of ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination”, according to a leaked summary of his trial.

[…] The 10-year sentence appears to have been simply for his proselytising – and came after his lawyer sought leniency for the first-time offender. [Source]

Elsewhere, Graham-Harrison and Garside described the ICIJ documents’ new details on the use of the Integrated Joint Operations Platform:

The cables reveal that in a single week in June 2017, IJOP flagged up 24,412 “suspicious” individuals in one part of southern Xinjiang alone. Of these, more than 15,000 were sent to re-education camps, and a further 706 were jailed.

[…] There is massive capacity to monitor online activity; another bulletin says that authorities identified 1.8 million users of a file-sharing app known as Zapya (or Kuai Ya in China), and then worked on the user-base information to identify thousands who were considered suspicious and flagged up for further checks.

Online data comes in part from the monitoring software everyone in the region is obliged to install on their phones – with police checkpoints regularly scanning for the obligatory app.

“The Chinese have bought into a model of policing where they believe that through the collection of large-scale data, run through artificial intelligence … they can in fact predict ahead of time where possible incidents might take place,” said James Mulvenon, an expert in the verification of Chinese government documents who serves as the director of intelligence integration at SOS International.

“Then they are pre-emptively going after those people using that data, before they’ve even had a chance to actually commit the crime.” [Source]

ICIJ’s Scilla Alecci also examined the leaked documents’ content on surveillance technology:

“The implications are dramatic,” said Adrian Zenz, an expert on Xinjiang and China’s policies. “With these digital information systems, [the Chinese government] believes it can really gauge what a person really does, what a person really believes. What are they doing on a regular basis? How are they really behaving? What are they saying when nobody listens?”

[…] The document instructs officials to use data stored by IJOP to investigate Uighurs “one by one,” as thoroughly as possible, to find what it describes as terrorism suspects. “If it is not possible at the moment to eliminate suspicion,” it says, “it is necessary to put [the suspect] in concentrated training and further screen and review.”

Reports that emerged later in the summer of 2017 appear to confirm that authorities in Xinjiang had begun to implement the IJOP guidelines. A few weeks after the IJOP document mentioning Zapya was disseminated, for instance, a few news sites and individuals reported that authorities were arresting and jailing Uighurs found to have downloaded Zapya onto their devices. The Uighurs were accused of using the app to distribute extremist content.

[…] Users initially thought of apps such as Zapya as liberating, not realizing that they were leaving a digital trail that later could be used against them, said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies the Uighurs. “So the internet provided a space for religious and cultural expression,” Byler told ICIJ, “but then later it became evidence of their ‘religious extremism’ or ‘cultural separatism.’” [Source]

Western companies’ links with Xinjiang’s surveillance regime through investments, sales, and research partnerships have come under mounting scrutiny in light of the mass detentions. The Wall Street Journal’s Liza Lin and Josh Chin examined the issue on Tuesday:

Some of the biggest names in U.S. technology have provided components, financing and know-how to China’s multibillion-dollar surveillance industry. The country’s authoritarian government uses those tools to track ethnic minorities, political dissidents and others it sees as a threat to its power—including in Xinjiang, where authorities are creating an all-seeing digital monitoring system that feeds into a network of detention camps for the area’s Muslims.

U.S. companies, including Seagate Technology PLC, Western Digital Corp., Intel Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., have nurtured, courted and profited from China’s surveillance industry. Several have been involved since the industry’s infancy.

[…] In October 2018, Seagate sponsored an award ceremony for firms including Hikvision and Huawei at the country’s largest public-safety exhibition in Beijing. Seagate also marketed its surveillance hard-drive products at the expo in a large booth.

[…] The Western products would help store and process the flood of video footage. The contractor [for a $34 million surveillance project in one Xinjiang county] is a local subsidiary of China-based PCI-Suntek Technology Co Ltd., which supplies facial recognition and other surveillance tools. “For the most part it’s Seagate or Western Digital. We don’t buy domestic,” said the employee. PCI-Suntek declined to comment. [Source]

Commenting on the recent leaks at China Law & Policy on Tuesday, Elizabeth M. Lynch noted the great danger to which the whistleblowers had exposed themselves. If identified, they could face state secrets or subversion charges, with the former potentially incurring the death penalty in cases deemed to have caused “particularly grave harm” to national security.

These whistleblowers must have known the high costs associated with leaking the documents. But still they determined that it was worth it; that the world must know precisely what is happening in the Xinjiang prison camps; that Uighurs are unnecessarily suffering at the hands of the Chinese government; and that it must be stopped. But since the release of the China Cables on Sunday, only the United Kingdom and Germany have demanded that China provide unfettered access to United Nations human rights observers. But where is everyone else? Where is the United Nations’ response? Will Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General who has stayed mum for the last two years about China’s treatment of Uighurs, finally condemn China’s actions? And while the United States issued a strong statement, it could do more. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is just sitting in the House; the State Department has yet to call call for the UN to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang; and Treasury makes no mention of Maginsky Act sanctions against some of the high-level officials named in the Xinjiang papers. And what about Australia, Japan, Canada, or any of the Arab nations? Finally, where is the International Olympic Committee? Do we really want Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to be a replay of Nazi Germany’s 1936 Games?

I can only hope that in the next few days I can add more countries to this post as ones that spoke out. But more than anything, I hope that these countries and organizations unite to take action to stop the crimes against humanity currently occurring in Xinjiang. Individuals in China have put their lives on the line. It’s time the rest of the world follow suit and have the courage to act. [Source]

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Georgetown University’s James Millward also commented both on the fact of the first leak itself, and on the internal dissent it had revealed.

Mr. Wang [Yongzhi, a Party official removed and punished for undermining the detention campaign] wasn’t alone in doubting. The Xinjiang papers mention that Gu Wansheng, the party secretary of neighboring Akto county, was also purged. They do not reveal if local Han-Chinese officials opposed the C.C.P.’s mass-internment policy because of pangs of conscience. But they show that officials resisted on practical grounds — and were punished for it. In fact, astoundingly, the documents mention that more than 12,000 investigations were conducted into the behavior of Xinjiang officials suspected of inadequately pursuing Beijing’s mandate.

With this, the leaked papers underscore the C.C.P.’s vast power: The party can round up hundreds of thousands of people and detain them indefinitely, while silencing other citizens and compelling obedience from officials. But they also suggest its weakness.

Not only have officials been quietly resisting policies imposed from the top — and now, too, have leaked these incriminating documents. But in sidelining and punishing such people, the C.C.P. isn’t just devouring itself: It is also declaring war on expertise and depriving itself of firsthand knowledge about local conditions in Xinjiang. Once again, as during the days of Mao, the party is cutting itself off from reality and choking off the information it needs to govern. [Source]

Foreign Policy’s James Palmer noted a similar detachment in Hong Kong on Monday in the context of a sweeping opposition victory in the territory’s District Council elections.


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