“Xinjiang Police Files” Show The Human Faces of Mass Detention, Raise Stakes for Bachelet’s Visit

On Tuesday, a consortium of 14 international media outlets released the “Xinjiang Police Files,” a cache of tens of thousands of confidential files from police computer servers in Xinjiang. Dating back to 2018, the files include photos of Uyghurs and police disciplinary methods, security directives for police in internment facilities, and internal speeches by senior CCP officials. Together, they provide new insight into the opaque network of “re-education camps,” illustrating their highly militarized nature and the human faces of their detainees. The publication of these files coincides with a highly anticipated visit to Xinjiang by UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who has ignored criticism from human rights groups that her heavily restricted visit would not enable meaningful investigation and would only serve to bolster CCP propaganda. 

The files were originally acquired by an anonymous individual who obtained them from several police servers in Xinjiang before sharing them with Adrien Zenz, a researcher at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC). A VOC press release summarized the contents and significance of the files:

For the first time, the files provide researchers with thousands of images of detained Uyghurs, as well as photos of police guards wielding automatic weapons and handcuffing and shackling detainees during camp security drills. The files also contain unusually candid speeches reflecting the state of mind of leading officials. They show Xinjiang’s former Party Secretary Chen Quanguo’s impassioned demands to treat persons from ethnic groups like dangerous criminals, to prevent any camp escapes, and to readily open fire to stop escapees and to safeguard the camps – outlining the extremes to which the state has gone to enforce stability maintenance goals. 

A classified speech by China’s minister of public security, a leading central government official, directly states that Xi Jinping gave orders to provide Xinjiang’s overcrowded detention facilities with more security guards and funding, and to expand the region’s prison and internment system. The files show that Beijing considers “over two million” Uyghurs to be impacted by “extremist” religious thought, and therefore potential targets for re-education. Police spreadsheets indicate that in 2018, over 12 percent of the adult population of one majority-Uyghur county was in an internment facility. [Source]

The files include 5,074 mugshots of Uyghurs, taken between January and July 2018, alongside data confirming the detention of 2,884 of these individuals. They include children in their mid-teens and adults as old as 73. Their names feature in a set of 452 spreadsheets that also include addresses, ID numbers, detention facilities, and ostensible reasons for detention. For some detainees, no reason is given. Others appear to have been punished for crimes alleged to have occurred decades ago. John Sudworth from the BBC described these photographs and highlighted several of the reasons listed for detention

Some of the re-education camp photos show guards standing by, armed with batons.

[…] There are countless examples of people being punished retrospectively for “crimes” that took place years or even decades ago – with one man jailed for 10 years in 2017 for having “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010.

[…] Tursun Kadir’s spreadsheet entry lists some preaching and studying of Islamic scripture dating back to the 1980s and then, in more recent years, the offence of “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism”.

For this, the 58 year old was jailed for 16 years and 11 months. Photographs in the cache show him both before and after the Chinese state determined his expression of Uyghur identity to be illegal.

[…] The images show that Uyghurs still living in their homes were summoned in large numbers to be photographed, with the associated image timestamps showing whole communities – from the very elderly to families with young children – called into police stations at all hours, including in the middle of the night.

A similar file-naming system as that used for the photos taken in the camps and prisons suggests a possible common purpose – a huge facial recognition database that China was building at the time. [Source]

Some readers on Twitter highlighted photographs of several children who were somehow caught up in the police database:

The Chinese government has insisted that its re-education camps are schools for voluntary vocational training, but the files demonstrate otherwise. Police directives and training manuals from one “re-education” camp in southwestern Xinjiang reveal intense policing methods more suited for prisoners than students: watchtowers guarded by police equipped with sniper rifles and machine guns; one detainee strapped to a tiger chair; and another shackled detainee receiving an injection while several armed guards tower over him. In a separate article for the BBC detailing the policing inside the camps, John Sudworth described how officers were instructed to use weapons in the event of attempted escape:

When the alarm is triggered, the papers say, the perimeter roads must be sealed off, the buildings locked down and the camp’s own armed police “strike group” sent in.

After a warning shot is fired, if the “student” continues to try to escape, the order is clear: shoot them dead.

The documents also state that any apprehended escapees should then be taken away “for interrogation”, while camp management should focus on “stabilising other students’ thoughts and emotions” to ensure the school is “safe and stable”.

The police protocol documents also describe the rules for transfers from one facility to another.

Those being transferred should be blindfolded with their “hands cuffed” and their “feet shackled”, the papers say.

The documents reveal that even the sick must be restrained and escorted by four staff – again while wearing cuffs and shackles. [Source]

The files add to existing evidence that China’s highest-ranking leaders played a prominent role in Xinjiang’s mass internment campaign. Referencing newly-unearthed speeches by Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi and then-Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, given after a high-level inspection tour of Xinjiang, Zenz described in China File how “Xi himself has been personally aware of the details of this campaign, and […] issued instructions that enabled its continuation and expansion”:

Chen says that he was “sent” to Xinjiang by Xi himself, not as a routine assignment but on a special mission for the nation: “[…] the General Secretary sent me to Xinjiang in order to make a stable Xinjiang arise…”

[…] Zhao’s speech also offers evidence for General Secretary Xi Jinping’s informed and active role in directing policy in Xinjiang. Zhao says Xi’s “important instructions on governing Xinjiang according to the law, unifying and stabilizing Xinjiang, and building Xinjiang over the long term” provide the basis for numerous policy priorities outlined in the speech, including “bringing the Vocational Skills Education and Training Center management work into the orbit of legalization” (i.e., establishing them as legally operating facilities). Zhao describes Xi as directing Xinjiang authorities to “conduct de-extremification work,” which according to Zhao includes the “transformation through education” work conducted in the “re-education” facilities. According to Zhao, after central Party leader Guo Shengkun reported on the prison capacity challenges he witnessed during his visit to Xinjiang in April 2017, Xi himself ordered regional authorities to, “implement practical measures such as expanding the number of employed [staff in detention facilities], enlarging the capacity [of these facilities], and increasing investment [in these facilities] within the set time frame.” [Source]

In a peer-reviewed journal article that authenticates the Xinjiang Police Files, Zenz demonstrated that internal spreadsheets containing personal data on approximately the entire population of Konasheher county in southwestern Xinjiang indicated that over 12 percent of the county’s adults were subject to some form of detention. Last week, the Associated Press reported on a separate leaked police database from 2017 that contained the names of 10,000 Uyghurs from Konasheher county who had been detained on terrorism charges. AP noted that almost four percent of Konasheher county residents were imprisoned, giving the county the highest imprisonment rate in the world. On Twitter, AP’s Dake Kang subsequently discussed this assessment and the specific reference to imprisonment rather than broader detention. Extrapolated to the entire province, both of these figures are consistent with Zenz’s calculation that one to two million Uyghurs have been or are currently detained in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang Police Files are the latest in a series of leaked documents detailing the Chinese government’s mass internment campaign in Xinjiang. In November 2019, the New York Times published over 400 pages of internal government reports, directives, and speeches by Xi Jinping, who called for “absolutely no mercy” in the struggle against terrorism. One week later, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the “China Cables,” which included a classified operating manual for the camps. In February 2020, journalists published the “Karakax List,” containing detailed information on hundreds of detainees in one county in Xinjiang. In addition to these leaks, dozens of major press investigations have uncovered other hidden aspects of the government’s campaign against Muslim minorities and have documented details of individuals held in detention.

Overseas reports on the Xinjiang Police Files elicited some emotional responses on Weibo. Even Chinese netizens who were aware of the existence of the camps described being stunned by the sheer weight of the evidence, and shaken by the experience of seeing those thousands of photographs of detainees. CDT editors have compiled and translated a selection of Weibo comments, with the names of the commenters anonymized:

独**:Being confronted by each of those photos, each of those individual faces, left me heartbroken. To be living on the same soil as those who have been treated so cruelly and to be oblivious to their suffering, which was right in plain sight, makes me ashamed. Why do they have to be treated like that? I am full of rage, and helplessness.

S**:Going through and deleting some photos last week, I found my screenshots of the [related] New York Times story, and now today, there’s another story from the BBC. Shall we ask the obvious question: who is behind these “good policies?”

枪**:The BBC released a story about a certain place today. Please read it. Cruel & Heartbroken. When these allegations are corroborated by data, photos, and even Excel spreadsheets, how on earth can they try to deny them? (Honestly, this might be the finest, most detailed, most persuasive report in recent years. God, what a hell on earth!)

唐**: This post might get deleted or restricted, or my account might get shut down, but who cares?

Today’s ultimate psychological blow was the top story by a foreign news organization. Although I knew about these events, had known about them for years, I don’t quite know how to digest the experience of seeing those specific faces, those genuine tears, coupled with my own recent situation (which, of course, is nothing compared to what happened to them). Truth has been outpaced by lies. [Chinese]

The day before the Xinjiang Police Files were published, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet began her visit to Xinjiang. Bloomberg reported on the details of Bachelet’s visit, which she stated would not be an “investigation,” to the disappointment of the roughly 100 diplomats with whom she held a virtual meeting on Monday: 

The UN official also confirmed she’ll visit a detention center in Xinjiang and has set up meetings independently of Chinese authorities, one of the people said. Bachelet added that she will produce a report on Xinjiang, separate to the delayed one her office is already working on, without sharing publication dates of either.  

She’ll also deliver a lecture at Guangzhou University in the southern province of Guangdong, visit Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, and hold a press conference on Saturday to wrap up the trip, the UN Human Rights Office said in a Friday statement. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that Bachelet would travel in a “closed loop as agreed by the two sides” without traveling press. China is battling virus outbreaks in several cities, as it clings to a Covid Zero policy of eliminating the virus. [Source]

Noting these restrictions, Adrien Zenz stated: “Mrs. Bachelet’s visit comes with high risks of providing the Chinese propaganda machinery with a photo op, rather than actually being able to see evidence of the atrocity. Instead of going herself, she should have sent a few low-key investigative teams.” The optics are already problematic. On Monday, Bachelet posed for a photo op with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he gifted her a copy of a new book of Xi Jinping’s speeches touting China’s human rights record. The Chinese Foreign Ministry press release of their meeting stated that “Bachelet congratulated China on its important achievements in […] human rights protection,” and added that Wang hoped her visit would “clarify misinformation.” Another Foreign Ministry press release described how, during a video call with Xi Jinping on Wednesday, Bachelet expressed “admiration for China’s efforts and achievements in […] protecting human rights.” (Bachelet’s office later issued a “clarification” statement showing that she did not praise China’s efforts to protect human rights. The clarification was issued only after several media outlets had covered the Chinese government’s version of her remarks.)


Bachelet’s presence provides yet another opportunity for the CCP to instrumentalize the UN in defending its policies in Xinjiang. It was revealed last week that UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan went out of her way to participate in a Chinese government-sponsored propaganda event promoting policies in Xinjiang after she had received $200,000 from China. Last June, China upstaged a group of 44 UN states criticizing human rights violations in Xinjiang by rallying a counter-coalition of 65 UN member states in its defense. In 2020, China was also elected to the UN Human Rights Council, and won a seat on its influential Consultative Group.

Human rights groups have become increasingly vocal in criticizing Bachelet’s handling of her visit. With the leak of the “Xinjiang Police Files,” as Lily Kuo wrote for the Washington Post, government officials around the world are voicing similar concerns about Bachelet’s lack of meaningful access:

Citing the new evidence Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on China to allow Bachelet the freedom to investigate the claims. “If such access is not forthcoming, the visit will only serve to highlight China’s attempts to hide the truth of its actions in Xinjiang,” she said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about Bachelet’s visit and had “no expectation” that she would be given the access needed for an accurate assessment of the human rights environment in Xinjiang.

[…] “We don’t expect much from this visit. Ms. Bachelet will not be able to see much, or speak to Uyghurs in a free and secure environment, because of the fear of reprisals after the team leaves,” said Zumretay Arkin, spokeswoman for the World Uyghur Congress. “We believe that in this context, the visit will do more harm than good.” [Source]

Putting Bachelet’s claims of meaningful access to the test, many Uyghurs have publicly asked her to #VisitMyFamily in order to make her visit worthwhile:

Alex Yu and Cindy Carter contributed to this post.


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