Heartbreak, Disinformation, and New Punitive Measures in the Wake of Xinjiang Police Files Release

With the release of the Xinjiang Police Files on Tuesday, the world has seen what Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps look like from inside official Chinese government databases: mugshots of thousands of faces, spreadsheets filled with personal data on detainees, and training guidelines  for guards, including “shoot to kill” directives in the event of a detainee escape. The photos and files have elicited a range of empathetic emotions from Uyghur communities in exile, Chinese netizens, and foreign governments, and an increased resolve for accountability. For the Chinese government, however, the release of the files has provided another opportunity to deny the evidence and distort the narrative about human rights violations in Xinjiang

For Uyghurs, the files were a vivid reminder of the injustice their community has suffered from the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang. But not everyone was eager to look. “Everyone is going through those pictures thinking is there a family member, is there a neighbour or someone that they studied with or somebody they may know that are in the pictures that are being released,” said Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association. Erin Handley from Australian national broadcaster ABC described the trauma many Uyghurs experienced as they looked through the photographs

“I couldn’t stop my tears,” said [Rayhangul Abliz, who searched for her parents, residents of a neighboring area].

“All of them look like my dad or my brothers, every [pair of] eyes looks like [they are] asking me … ‘Please help me’.”

[…] Ramila Chanisheff described the “devastation” many felt when looking at long sentences handed down for “absurd” reasons.

“It was extremely painful to read the report and see the thousands of innocent faces on the screen,” she said.

“We have relatives over there. So [we’ve been] scouring through the pictures.

“You can hear the anxiety and the stress and sadness in their voices.”

[…] Fatimah Abdulghafur, whose father was detained in Xinjiang in 2017 and died the following year, said looking at the photos was “retraumatising”. [Source]

Writer and linguist Abduweli Ayup and other Uyghurs identified some of their friends and family members among the new photographs:

In a powerful Twitter thread, Babur Ilchi summarized the mixed reactions many Uyghurs had to the photographs:

On Weibo, Chinese netizens shared feelings of heartbreak, powerlessness, and even complicity after reading through the Xinjiang Police Files. CDT editors have compiled and translated some of their Weibo comments, with the names of the commenters anonymized to protect their identities: 

Iha****say:Seeing this made me so very sad. They did nothing wrong, but were deprived of their freedom and all the possibilities of life, and then that was covered up and buried. Why was this done to them?

DE****S:A feeling of powerlessness.

hus****hu:That first photo—once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be able to forget it.

sinc*****icui:Looking into her eyes, I felt as if I’d been pulled into the abyss …

sinc*****icui:After seeing those photos and reading those files, I opened up my Weibo and WeChat and wanted to vomit. I feel like none of us is innocent, and I am guilty, too. [Chinese]

Many Uyghurs worked to capitalize on the global spotlight to push for greater accountability. Two days after the leak of the Xinjiang Police Files, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) began its “Uyghur Summit” in Munich, bringing together over 200 activists, experts, and policymakers to discuss international advocacy strategies and the responsibility to protect. “Condemnation and empty statements cannot stop genocide,” WUC president Dolkun Isa said, adding, “There is no excuse anymore for governments, countries and international organizations to look the other way.” Mentioning the Xinjiang Police Files at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Jewher Ilham, daughter of detained Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, stated: “Today, what we need is action. Together, we may actually have what it takes to free my family and friends who are locked up, who are trapped in this endless life of captivity.” 

In a significant move following the release of the Xinjiang Police Files, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz issued Germany’s first top-level denunciation of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Economy Minister Robert Habeck said Germany would change its China policy to give greater priority to human rights and to cut dependencies, stating: “Our China policy must change. Appeasement for economic interests is no strategy.” Michael Roth, Chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, stated that these changes would apply to German companies in Xinjiang, for whom “consequences must be drawn.” Members of the European Parliament have also been vocal following the release of the files. Reinhard Bütikofer called on EU member states to impose additional human-rights-related sanctions on China, and Raphaël Glucksmann called on the UN Human Rights office to end its “complicity” with Beijing by publishing its report on Xinjiang.

The new tone was echoed in the European press. An editorial by Germany’s Der Spiegel read, “In the wake of the Xinjiang Police Files torture revelations, policymakers must ask themselves: What crimes are we accepting for our prosperity?” An editorial by France’s Le Monde launched an “appeal to reason,” noting that the Xinjiang Police Files “remind us that we must keep our eyes wide open to the reality of China’s repression of ethnic minorities.” Spain’s El País also concluded that the files “prove China’s repression against the Uyghurs.”

One domain where governments have been putting rhetoric into action is in the regulation of supply chains tainted by forced labor from Xinjiang. Much of the discussion has revolved around Xinjiang cotton, but as a recent report from C4ADS noted, the problem extends to at least eight other goods produced in disproportionately high volumes in Xinjiang that are part of global supply chains. In response to the Xinjiang Police Files, Franziska Brantner, state secretary of the German Ministry of Economy, said the European Commission “will present [a] law on banning products from forced labour,” adding that it “will be important to work on it rapidly.” In the U.S., the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) will soon come into force on June 21, unleashing a regulatory revolution funded by millions of dollars of enforcement capacity. Alexandra Stevenson and Sapna Maheshwari of The New York Times reported how the increased visibility of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the looming UFLPA are reversing the tide of American business expansion in China

Cotton from Xinjiang is widely used in the global garment industry. As of last fall, 16 percent of cotton clothes on store shelves in the United States had fiber from Xinjiang, according to a survey by Oritain, a company that does forensic testing to determine the origin of raw materials. But regulation soon to go into effect in the United States will allow customs officers to seize shipments of any goods that are made in Xinjiang unless companies can prove their supply chains are not tainted with forced labor.

The new rule, called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and the inability of companies to determine what is happening in their supply chains are unraveling decades of the clothing industry’s expansion in China.

“That era is drawing to a close because of the gravity of the forced-labor crisis and the broader human-rights crisis in the Uyghur region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a steering committee member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. “The increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese government across the board is creating a situation where business as usual isn’t feasible anymore.” [Source]

Predictably, the Chinese government received the release of the Xinjiang Police Files with scorn. At a press briefing on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called it “the latest example of the anti-China forces’ smearing of Xinjiang,” adding, “the lies and rumors they spread cannot deceive the world.” China has consistently claimed that the recurring evidence of abuses in Xinjiang is false. When UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet arrived in China earlier this week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed his hope that her visit would “clarify misinformation.” Meanwhile, the CCP has engaged in a global propaganda campaign to assert its own narrative regarding Xinjiang. A new report released Friday by The Brookings Institution and the Alliance for Securing Democracy demonstrates how Beijing continues to exploit search-engine results to shape views on Xinjiang and COVID-19. Covering the report for The Wall Street Journal, Karen Hao described how terms such as “Xinjiang” and “Adrian Zenz” (the academic behind the release of the Xinjiang Police Files) yielded a significant number of sources drawn from Chinese state media:

Searches for “Xinjiang” returned content from Chinese state outlets in the top results on YouTube almost daily over the duration of the study, which covered 120 days from November to February, as well as close to 90% of the time on either Google’s or Bing’s news sites.

The searched content that came up from state-controlled providers typically denied widespread media and scholarly reports of human-rights abuses in the region, casting them as part of a coordinated attempt by Western governments to smear China.

[…] On Thursday, shortly after the release of the trove, a U.S.-based search for “Adrian Zenz” turned up one Chinese state media result on the first page of Google and four of the top 10 videos on YouTube, attacking the scholar’s credentials and accusing him of lying.

[…] Chinese state media outlets were able to break through to top results regularly on web search, which prioritizes measures of a source’s quality, for more targeted terms like “Xinjiang terrorism” or Mr. Zenz’s name, reflecting Beijing’s creation of a robust information network, according to Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. [Source]

With translation by Cindy Carter.


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