The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secret documents detail inner workings of China’s mass detention camps for minorities

A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a section of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region in December. This is one of a growing number of internment camps in the Xinjiang region. (AP)

A growing body of evidence from former detainees, human rights groups and reporters documents the Chinese government’s efforts to forcibly indoctrinate more than 1 million members of ethnic minorities in camps, exposing the reality of what officials call a massive job-training initiative.

Papers released Sunday pierce a culture of intense secrecy to add a new piece of corroboration: the government’s own classified directives.

Provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by an anonymous individual, the documents lay bare a crackdown in Xinjiang that has sought to stamp out minority culture, language and religion — with a particular focus on the Muslim Uighurs, whom the government blames for regional unrest. A manual, the first of its kind to be made public, details the inner workings of the three-year-old detention camps, while four intelligence briefings illuminate the mass surveillance that identifies people for internment on merely the suspicion that they may cause trouble.

The manual is especially enlightening in its specificity, experts say, describing strict surveillance of “students” and a system for assimilation to mainstream Chinese culture. “Vocational skills improvement” is not offered until a year into detention.

But each of the leaked documents helps confirm human rights abuses on an enormous scale, said Adrian Zenz, a fellow at the human rights group Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who researches China’s camps.

“A government can deny 100 testimonies and declare it false news,” Zenz said. “It can deny reporting as fake news. But it cannot deny its own communications. It can try to, but it’s ridiculous. It’s like the cover is blown.”

The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but ICIJ cites a government statement calling the documents “pure fabrication.” It calls Xinjiang a once-violent “battleground” made peaceful, reiterating justifications of the camps as education hubs meant to prevent terrorism after frequent attacks, including by Uighur separatists.

The ICIJ, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, partnered with 17 media groups to report on the internal papers, which it has posted online. The organization says it verified the documents by consulting with experts, looking at public statements from the state and its media, and confirming the authenticity of signatures. Stories from former detainees also backed up findings.

The unprecedented leak behind Sunday’s release points to cracks in the Chinese government’s efforts to keep the camps’ true nature hidden, said James Mulvenon, who runs the intelligence program for defense contractor SOS International and helped ICIJ authenticate the documents.

“It is really, really rare for us to see these kinds of documents,” he said. “That goes to the intentionality of the people who have been leaking them — which is to say, we have courageous people who think this is wrong or has gotten out of control.”

Zumrat Dawut was placed in an internment camp for Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang and was forcibly sterilized, but she made it out of China. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Tight control

Camps are heavily secured and full of surveillance, according to the manual signed by Zhu Hailun, who used to be in charge of security in Xinjiang.

Euphemisms pervade the document’s instructions for what ICIJ calls the biggest internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II. Staff members are told to monitor “students” as they eat, take bathroom breaks and bathe, lest they try to escape. Comings and goings from “training centers” are closely tracked.

Papers describe a world of double-locked doors — meant to stay shut as much as possible — and police stationed at front gates, in posts high up and all around facilities.

Activities outside of class are forbidden. So is unauthorized contact with the outside world. Detainees aren’t allowed access to cellphones, and even staff members must hand over their devices to prevent any “collusion between inside and outside,” the manual says.

Some communication with outsiders is allowed to put family “at ease.” Detainees are supposed to have phone conversations with relatives at least once a week and video chats every month.

Those who wish to leave the facility must request time off for “illness or other special circumstances,” and someone must “accompany, monitor and control them” on the outside, the manual says.

The document outlines ways to prevent safety hazards, including fires and the spread of sickness. Staff members observe detainees’ health, placing drug users and those with diseases such as AIDS into isolated living quarters and classes.

Then there are the strategies to “prevent trouble.”

Program of indoctrination

The camps’ goal, according to the manual, is “repentance and confession,” as detainees come to “understand the deeply illegal, criminal and dangerous nature” of their old behavior. Along the way, they are fed a curriculum of Chinese ideology and “manners,” all in Mandarin, and tested weekly on their skills in the national language.

The manual prescribes uniformity down to minute details, saying detainees’ beds, seating in class and position in lines should remain “fixed.”

Inmates are separated into groups based on how dangerous officials believe them to be and scored on their perceived level of ideological transformation, classwork and obedience. Monthly and annual numbers are recorded in personnel files and factored into privileges such as family visits.

The files are used for evaluation at the end of detainees’ programs, which last at least a year. But assessment is also constant: Papers instruct staff members to “evaluate and resolve students’ ideological problems and abnormal emotions at all times.”

A slew of officials review detainees’ cases to determine whether they are ready to move on to vocational training. Documents say these training centers are mandated in every prefecture — an indication of how widespread China’s detention camps are, experts say.

Those who graduate from training to employment must “not leave the line of sight” for at least a year, the manual states.

Other documents echo the manual’s portrayal of a government intolerant of deviations from its model-citizen mold.

A court paper also released Sunday — not classified, but still rare, according to the ICIJ — illustrates the sort of “ideological crimes” for which China has punished Uighurs. It describes a 10-year sentence for a Xinjiang man detained on suspicion of “assembling a crowd to disturb the social order.”

The defendant’s promotion of “extremist religious thoughts” includes telling others to pray, abstain from watching pornography and avoid using “dirty words,” according to the sentencing paper.

The document reports that the man’s lawyer offered no defense.

The accused seeks “a chance to become a good man,” it says.

Mass surveillance

The leaks also show how China has harnessed technology to target Uighurs, Kazakhs and others — “to prevent problems before they happen,” as one documents puts it.

Four bulletins provide a window into the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that the government uses to identify a broad swath of people it considers suspicious. Although officials have pointed to terrorism as a justification for the government’s actions, no violent behavior is required to land in the camps.

Some fall under IJOP’s scrutiny while using apps that evade the government’s monitoring. More than 40,000 of the nearly 2 million people in Xinjiang using the app “Kuai Ya” to communicate privately were marked for investigation, according to one bulletin, although only 32 were said to belong to terrorist groups. The document zeros in on people with red flags such as foreign passports, and also focuses on religion, with counts of “unauthorized” imams.

“If it is not possible at the moment to eliminate suspicion, it is necessary to put in concentrated training and further screen and review,” the bulletin states.

IJOP is part of a pervasive dragnet of surveillance in Xinjiang. The system’s data comes from checkpoints, cameras equipped with facial recognition and technology that snoops on electronic devices, according to Human Rights Watch.

Interest in monitoring Uighurs is so intense that facial-recognition technology designed to identify members of the minority group has cropped up at security and surveillance expos around China, Mulvenon said.

“This is racial profiling on artificial intelligence steroids,” he said.

Uighurs are also subject to a “social credit” or “social scoring” system separate from the one widely used in western China to reward behavior the government likes and punish transgressions ranging from traffic violations to the spreading of false information.

Mulvenon says the surveillance outlined in the leaked documents carries a warning relevant far beyond China.

“It’s also a harbinger — to all countries — about the implementation of these machine learning technologies that allow you to do these very powerful and scary things,” he said.

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