NYT: Leaked Documents Suggest Dissent on Xinjiang Detentions

On Saturday, The New York Times published a report by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley based on 403 pages of leaked documents on China’s ongoing mass detention campaign in Xinjiang. The 24 documents include speeches by Xi Jinping, directives, and internal reports.

The speeches detail Xi’s responses to a series of bloody attacks in or emanating from the region. Although he is quoted as saying that it would be "biased, even wrong" to respond by advocating restriction or eradication of Islam in general, he compares Islamic extremism to a disease and addiction requiring "a period of painful, interventionary treatment." As this and other reports have made clear, even very moderate expressions of Islamic faith have since been treated as symptoms of extremism. He urged officials to match the attackers’ harshness in their “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism,” deploying the “organs of dictatorship” with “absolutely no mercy.” The origins of the so-called re-education campaign can be found in Xi’s argument that economic development, previously the main thrust of the central government’s answer to unrest in Xinjiang, should be accompanied by ideological reform of the local population. These speeches were later distributed by Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo as he aggressively implemented Xi’s blueprint, building on his previous role as Party chief for the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Another highlight of the documents is a directive guiding local officials in their handling of young Uyghurs returning from studies elsewhere in China to find family members missing. The prescribed explanation was that these relatives were “in a training school set up by the government”; that they "were not criminals — yet could not leave these ‘schools’"; that the students’ behavior "could either shorten or extend the detention"; "that their relatives had been ‘infected’ by the ‘virus’ of Islamic radicalism and must be quarantined and cured"; and that the students "should be grateful that the authorities had taken their relatives away." The directive’s title "refers to family members who are being ‘dealt with,’ or chuzhi, a euphemism used in party documents to mean punishment." A related term, chuli, is commonly used to describe the "handling" of victims’ families in the aftermath of "sudden incidents," or accidents, disasters, and protests. The directive stresses the potential cost of failing to handle detainees’ relatives effectively, noting a "serious possibility [of] turmoil," and that any "incorrect opinions" that returning students might share on social media could spread rapidly, with effects that would be "widespread and difficult to eradicate."

The documents, both through their content and the way in which they came to light, hint at internal dissent over the Xinjiang campaign:

Though it is unclear how the documents were gathered and selected, the leak suggests greater discontent inside the party apparatus over the crackdown than previously known. The papers were brought to light by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.

[…] Mr. Chen led a campaign akin to one of Mao’s turbulent political crusades, in which top-down pressure on local officials encouraged overreach and any expression of doubt was treated as a crime.

[…] Thousands of officials in Xinjiang were punished for resisting or failing to carry out the crackdown with sufficient zeal. Uighur officials were accused of protecting fellow Uighurs, and Gu Wensheng, the Han leader of another southern county, was jailed for trying to slow the detentions and shield Uighur officials, according to the documents.

Secret teams of investigators traveled across the region identifying those who were not doing enough. In 2017, the party opened more than 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the “fight against separatism,” more than 20 times the figure in the previous year, according to official statistics. [Source]

The article focuses on the case of former Yarkand Party Secretary Wang Yongzhi, whose confession and condemnation in a summary of the investigation against him were among the leaked documents. Wang reportedly released some 7,000 detainees, driven partly by fear that his superiors’ harsh and inflexible quota-driven policies would poison ethnic relations, and partly by concern that the detentions’ economic impact would dent his own career. His subsequent denunciation included accusations of foot-dragging, insubordination, corruption, and moral vice in accordance with the traditional recipe. Despite his mixed motives, Wang is now receiving some recognition for his resistance, two years after his fall:

Both the risk of backlash and Han opposition to the crackdown arose in a recent interview with anthropologist Darren Byler by Yohann Koshy at The New Internationalist:

Just as the US-led ‘war on terror’ produced ‘blowback’, is Beijing not worried that its clampdown may lead to violence?

I imagine that many people in the administration are worried, though this is not something they would say publicly. What they say over and over again is that it’s working, it’s a model for dealing with extremism. Many people working in the apparatus that I’ve interviewed – Han intelligence workers, police – see it as a success. They feel they have a lot more power. They feel as though Uyghurs have become docile and productive in the economy. But if you look a little bit closer and talk to people who are more candid you hear concerns. One elderly Han woman from this region told me that she’s worried about what will happen if or when they let people out of the camps. She thinks there will be a major rise in violence.

[…] Is there any solidarity between Han Chinese people – such as labour or pro-democracy activists – and the Uyghurs?

The Han people who express most solidarity with the Uyghurs are the long-term residents of Xinjiang. Those locals grew up in or around Uyghur communities and identify with the way Xinjiang used to be before the 1990s, when the new folks arrived; they often see what’s happened to the Uyghurs as a real travesty. Many of them are working as allies in small ways – through forms of individual resistance like not co-operating as well as they should. They let Uyghurs use their phones to contact people on the outside and get messages out. So there is a level of risk they’re willing to take, but it’s small and not organized.

[…] Labour solidarity? I think it’s a nascent part of that movement. There’s still a lack of information, so many Han labour-rights activists don’t know the specifics of what’s happening to the Uyghurs. There are also, among some Chinese democracy advocates or activists, various forms of Islamophobia. Many people actually are in agreement with the government that something needed to be done against the Uyghurs. Those are some of the things that need to be pushed back against. [Source]

The interview also includes extensive background on the campaign’s development and historical context. Byler’s past work on Xinjiang includes an essay on "terror capitalism" in the region for Logic Magazine; see also another interview with him from Sinopsis, reposted at CDT last November.

The New York Times report has captured attention across the U.S. political spectrum:

Responding to the report, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang claimed that "The New York Times is completely deaf and blind" to the merits of China’s "preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts" in Xinjiang. "What’s worse," he added, "it used clumsy patchwork and distortion to hype up the so-called ‘internal documents’ and smear China’s counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts. What are they up to? […] The best response to ill-intentional slanders by some media, individuals and anti-China forces is the lasting prosperity, stability, solidarity and harmony in Xinjiang." The NYT also cited the Xinjiang regional government’s response, together with others:

A statement from the Xinjiang regional government of China was far more strident, saying the Times article had been “completely fabricated by hostile forces at home and abroad” and calling it “total nonsense and a pack of lies, with sinister motives behind it.”

The regional government’s statement did not specifically deny the authenticity of the documents on which the article was based, but repeatedly attacked what it described as fictitious reporting by The Times.

“Concocting fake news to attract eyeballs is a habitual trick of America’s New York Times, and this newspaper suffered a crisis of credibility for its fakery,” the statement said. “This time, America’s New York Times has again fabricated and concocted fake news about Xinjiang. This is nothing more than getting up to its old tricks, and is completely unworthy of refutation. This despicable conduct will surely be met with the contempt of wiser minds in the international community.” [Source]

Similar claims of fabrication have also come from China’s ambassador to the U.K. and the reliably indignant tabloid Global Times.

The NYT responded in turn with an editorial on Monday:

It becomes clear from the documents that Mr. Xi is far more concerned by any challenge to the Communist Party’s image of strength than foreign reaction. Already in May 2014 he told a leadership conference, “Don’t be afraid if hostile forces whine, or if hostile forces malign the image of Xinjiang.” Accordingly, the Chinese government made no effort to deny the leaked documents, but rather portrayed the crackdown in Xinjiang as a major success against terrorism and accused The Times of smearing China’s “antiterrorism and de-extremism capabilities.”

What the documents really reveal is not an effective antiterrorism campaign, but rather the paranoia of totalitarian leaders who demand total fealty in thought and deed and recognize no method of control other than coercion and fear. Mr. Xi and other top government officials reveal in these papers a conviction that the Soviet Union collapsed because of ideological laxity and spineless leadership, and a top security official attributed terrorist attacks in Britain to the British government’s “excessive emphasis on ‘human rights above security.’” And Mr. Xi argued that new technology must be part of the broad campaign of surveillance and intelligence-gathering to root out dissidence in Uighur society, anticipating Beijing’s deployment of facial recognition, genetic testing and big data in Xinjiang.

Whoever leaked these revealing documents obviously disagreed and had the courage to do something about it. His or her brave action is a cry to the world. [Source]

In a summary at The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor linked the NYT report to some of the Post’s recent coverage:

The new revelations fit into a wider, horrifying story of repression. China makes independent reporting in Xinjiang virtually impossible — and every foreign reporter invested in covering the story has to weigh the risk of endangering local fixers and sources, many of whom may have already been swept into detention . Meanwhile, analysis of satellite imagery led one researcher to conclude that the authorities have demolished 10,000 to 15,000 religious sites in Xinjiang in recent years. The Washington Post’s editorial page director Fred Hiatt declared: “In China, every day is Kristallnacht.”

A Washington Post report looked at the plight of one Uighur woman, Zumrat Dawut, who spent more than two months in a cell that was so cramped that the women there had to lie down in shifts. During the day, they recited propaganda slogans that included praise for Xi.

“When she was let go, she was forced to sign documents agreeing not to practice her religion and not to tell anyone what had happened in the camps,” my colleagues Emily Rauhala and Anna Fifield wrote. “After her detention, she was forced to pay a fine of more than $2,500 for breaking China’s family planning rules by having three, not two, children.”

Terrified by what would happen if she resisted, she complied with a suggestion to submit herself for a sterilization. Dawut, unlike countless of her brethren, managed to escape the country alongside her children and Pakistani husband and made her way to the United States, where she’s hoping to receive asylum. Her troubles captured the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who cited her as a victim of religious persecution. [Source]

In his response to the NYT report, Geng Shuang said that "over 1,000 foreign diplomats, international organization officials and media personnel agreed after visiting Xinjiang that the counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts there are an important contribution to the world and valuable experience for all to learn from." Reuters reported last week on ongoing negotiations for a trip by E.U. ambassadors, which sources say are likely to fail given the lack of free access and risk of fueling Chinese propaganda. (A lower-level E.U. delegation did visit earlier this year.) Last week, The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe reported on the "movie-like" production of “intricately managed scenes" put on for visitors, "with pedestrians, street vendors and drivers played by people – police officers, teachers, retirees – who have been screened by the authorities and assigned roles."

They said, “We will give you 20 renminbi for each time you pray,” Ms. Dawut recalled in an interview. “You will need to pray five times tomorrow. So we will give you 100 renminbi” – about $18.50.

[…] A former Chinese state media worker also told The Globe it was not uncommon for local propaganda authorities to arrange for government workers to act as civilians at important events. After speaking with The Globe, police interrogated the man for hours, asking him questions that indicated they had a recording of the telephone interview.

Beijing’s efforts in Xinjiang, however, have not always succeeded in convincing others that indoctrination facilities are akin to boarding schools. Albanian-Canadian journalist Olsi Jazexhi travelled to Xinjiang in August on an all-expenses-paid trip funded by Chinese authorities. A vocal critic of the U.S., he expected to agree with China’s account of its treatment of Muslims. In Xinjiang, however, he came to believe local authorities were shading the truth.

"They want to give to the world the impression that people here are well fed, are happy with the Communist government and are singing and dancing and we are all brother and sisters,” he said. But the official guides “were playing with us. They wanted us to reveal to the world a fake story,” he said. “Everything was staged.” [Source]

Jazekhi described his experience in more detail to Isobel Cockerell at Coda.

See also CDT’s more modest collection of Xinjiang-related leaks and other coverage of the mass detention campaign.


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