A cache of leaked documents detailing draconian surveillance and reeducation practices in Xinjiang has shed fresh light of the scale of Beijing’s multiyear crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs in the region and cast a shadow over a highly orchestrated six-day trip to China by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet.
The files include thousands of mug shots of detainees held in a network of camps in Xinjiang, the youngest a 14-year-old girl, as well as details of police security protocols that describe the use of batons and assault rifles, methods of physically subduing detainees, and a shoot-to-kill policy for anyone trying to escape.
The trove of documents and images — published on Tuesday by the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a consortium of media including the BBC and USA Today — dates back to 2018 and includes policy notices and meeting notes that detail growing paranoia among Xinjiang officials over the ethnic Muslim Uyghur population and the formation of plans to carry out the mass detention program.
They dispute Beijing’s claims that people willingly attended the reeducation facilities. They also add to a growing body of witness accounts, public records and satellite imagery, and visits to the region by diplomats and journalists that have revealed the use of forced labor, the separation of children from their parents, repressed birthrates of Uyghur residents, and mass detentions in both “reeducation” camps and formal prisons since 2017.
“The significance of this is that we have unprecedented evidence on every level,” said Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who obtained and compiled the leaked information. “It’s now beyond any reasonable doubt what is going on there and the nature of the camps and the scale of the internment.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin strongly criticized the release of the documents and called it “the latest example of the anti-China forces’ smearing of Xinjiang.”
In a separate peer-reviewed research paper published by Zenz in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies on Tuesday, he detailed findings from a leaked database that indicated around 12 percent of adults, over 22,000 people, were likely detained in detention facilities or prisons between 2017 and 2018 in a single county called Konasheher in Xinjiang’s southwest. Zenz did not reveal the source for the information, but said it came from hacked police computers inside Xinjiang.
Bachelet, who began a six-day visit this week on the invitation of Beijing, will go to Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, and her trip will be conducted within a “closed loop” as part of coronavirus protection measures, a model used during the Beijing Winter Olympics in which only approved individuals are allowed in. No media members will be traveling with Bachelet.
Critics of her visit say the tour — the first by a U.N. human rights chief since 2005 — is at risk of becoming little more than a propaganda coup for the Chinese government. Beijing has repeatedly denied accusations of committing cultural genocide against its minority Uyghur residents in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million to 2 million residents have been incarcerated, according to rights researchers.
Bachelet spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping by video conference Wednesday, stating afterward that it was an opportunity to “discuss directly human rights issues and concerns in China and the world.”
“For development, peace [and] security to be sustainable … human rights, justice and inclusion for all, without exception, have to be at their core,” she said, according to her office’s Facebook page.
According to a summary released by China’s Foreign Ministry, Xi emphasized Beijing’s oft-repeated interpretation of universal human rights as being “gauged by whether the interests of its people are upheld, and whether they enjoy a growing sense of fulfillment, happiness and security.”
“When it comes to human rights issues, there is no such thing as a flawless utopia. Countries do not need patronizing lecturers, still less should human rights issues be politicized and used … as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” he said.
On the second day of her mission to China to look into human rights violations in Xinjiang, Bachelet posed for photos with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who gave her a book by the nation’s leader: “Excerpts from Xi Jinping on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights,” saying he hoped the trip would “help enhance understanding … and clarify misinformation.”
Beijing has previously said that such a trip would not constitute an investigation into rights abuse claims, which it calls “the lie of the century.”
Citing the newly leaked files on 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.
Rights groups are not optimistic about the long-awaited trip, either, which comes after more than three years of negotiations. Chinese authorities regularly block or intimidate journalists traveling in Xinjiang while also organizing highly choreographed visits by dignitaries and media outlets from friendly countries.
Areas of Xinjiang, including the cities Bachelet is set to visit, have undergone localized demolitions and remodeling, replacing sections of old city infrastructure with themed tourism villages that contrast sharply with other parts of the region.
“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.”
The leaked files provide rare glimpses inside active reeducation centers during the height of the campaign in 2018. Images show Uyghur detainees shackled during interrogation and groups of Uyghur men and women during reeducation sessions overseen by uniformed police officers. Some of the thousands of mug shots of the Uyghur detainees appear to show them crying or in distress.
When asked whether Bachelet would be able to visit detention centers and “reeducation” camps — centers that Chinese authorities claim are vocational training schools — China’s Foreign Ministry said it “rejects political manipulation.” Ahead of Bachelet’s visit, state media outlets have run articles headlined: “Xinjiang, the most successful human rights story.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday that U.S. and British calls for unfettered access were an attempt to “sabotage” the trip.
“It seems that the United States and the United Kingdom and other countries don’t care about the truth at all, but want to use the visit of the high commissioner for human rights to hype the so-called ‘Xinjiang issue’ and smear China,” he said.
Rights groups also point to the fact that Bachelet’s office has yet to release a landmark report on Xinjiang despite having said in December 2021 that the document would be “released soon.”
Zenz said the timing of the document trove was not originally designed to coincide with Bachelet’s visit to China, but said he hopes the new findings influence the outcome of the trip. Bachelet has yet to comment on the files.
Some rights advocates say that the visit is still important for raising awareness and that judgment should be reserved until after the trip is completed.
“We should give her the benefit of the doubt and look at what comes out of the visit. Even if she doesn’t get unfettered access, if she’s clear about what happened and is able to highlight the machinery of these visits that the Chinese government has implemented for years, it’s already a contribution,” said Christelle Genoud, former human security adviser at the Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing and a research associate at King’s College London.
Uyghur scholar and activist Abduweli Ayup, based in Norway, said that if Bachelet’s visit even marginally improves conditions for residents in a prison or detention centers, it will be worthwhile.
“The people there might have better treatment for at least one day. So it’s important,” said Abduweli, whose sister was sentenced to 12 years in prison during the crackdown. He is among many Uyghurs living abroad who are calling on Bachelet to help verify the whereabouts of missing relatives.
“If she can tell me she’s alive, I’ll be happy,” he said.