But Chinese officials still hide behind the Potemkin villages of their own making. They insist that the camps are actually job-training centers where amenable Xinjiang residents are working to better assimilate into mainstream society through vocational schooling and language instruction. They point to the necessity of such measures to counter the reach of radical Islamist groups in the region. We know now, though, that Chinese authorities don’t actually believe their own party line.
That’s because of the new details surfaced by an astonishing set of leaked documents obtained by the New York Times. The cache includes 403 pages of Communist Party directives, reports, notes from internal investigations and internal speeches given by party officials, including President Xi Jinping. The Times’s story by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, published this weekend, offers a rarely seen window into the deliberations of one of the world’s most opaque governments. And what we see is chilling.
It relays how a flurry of ethnic violence and terrorist attacks in the early part of the decade persuaded Xi to unleash the “organs of dictatorship” — his own words, in a private speech. This apparently involved mass roundups, the construction of a 21st-century Orwellian apparatus of control and surveillance and a systematic assault on the ability of the region’s residents to observe their Islamic faith. As a justification for the draconian clampdown, a top Chinese official in Xinjiang warned of the risks of placing “human rights above security” in a 10-page directive from 2017. The tranche of documents also points to internal disagreement about the repression in the region and was delivered to the Times by a figure from “the Chinese political establishment” who “expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”
Perhaps the most striking document is a classified directive issued to local officials in an eastern Xinjiang city on how to talk to Uighur students who return from other parts of China and discover their relatives and friends have been disappeared into detention camps.
They were instructed to tell the students that their relatives had been “infected by unhealthy thoughts,” framing the state’s distrust of Muslim minorities in terrifyingly clinical terms. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health,” read the directive.
The Times also reported on evidence of what appears to be a “scoring system” used by officials to determine who gets released from a camp. It incorporates not only the behavior of the detainees, but also the cooperation of relatives outside. “Family members, including you, must abide by the state’s laws and rules, and not believe or spread rumors,” officials were told to say. “Only then can you add points for your family member, and after a period of assessment they can leave the school if they meet course completion standards.”
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.
But Washington’s focus on the horrors in Xinjiang also comes at a time when the Trump administration has made it dramatically harder for refugees and asylum seekers to find sanctuary in the United States. Locked in a trade war with Beijing, President Trump has remained conspicuously silent on pressing matters of human rights, both in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. And, indeed, the protesters in Hong Kong, where clashes with police are turning all the more violent, see China’s unrelenting, unflinching approach taken in Xinjiang as an omen of darker days to come under Beijing rule.
The New York Times report does point to small acts of resistance. In 2017, Wang Yongzhi, a local official in a prefecture in southern Xinjiang, quietly released 7,000 camp inmates of his own volition. As a result, he was stripped of his position, prosecuted and later pilloried as a “corrupt” official. “I undercut, acted selectively and made my own adjustments, believing that rounding up so many people would knowingly fan conflict and deepen resentment,” Wang wrote in a signed confession he may have given under duress. “Without approval and on my own initiative, I broke the rules.”
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