Xinjiang Police Files: Inside China's brutal crackdown on Uyghur Muslims
Rahile Omer, age 15. Anihan Hamit, age 73. Chimengul Imin, age 31. Muzepper Ali, age 16. Omer Yunis, age 67.
These are just five of the hundreds of thousands of people belonging to China’s Uyghur minority that have been brutally incarcerated in detention camps by Chinese authorities. And for the first time, we now know who some of them are.
On 24 May, a trove of documents from 2018 was downloaded from hacked police servers in Xinjiang, western China. The Xinjiang Police Files, as they are being called, were published by a consortium of media houses, including the BBC.
They reveal the details behind China’s use of incarceration camps and prisons at two separate but linked detention centres for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The cache contains more than 2,800 images of detainees, more than 300,000 personal records, 23,000 records of detainees and over 10 sets of instructions to police forces.
It includes speeches by high-level officials, spreadsheets, and presentations that give us a first-hand account of police operations inside these camps.
The files were released at around the same time as a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to China.
"China seems to consider the Uyghurs, a distinct ethnic people with their own culture, religion, and language, as a threat to its authoritarian regime, and is subsequently moving to eradicate the Uyghur people"
Her visit has since been criticised by Uyghur rights groups around the world who say she has stumbled into a six-day Communist Party propaganda tour, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping in which state media suggested she supported China's vision of human rights.
The documents add to the mounting evidence that Chinese authorities are committing human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and detail the horrific tactics used by authorities to oppress, imprison, torture, and dehumanise the Muslim minority in what Beijing calls ‘re-education’ camps.
An analysis of data revealed that 23,000 residents in one region, or 12 percent of the adult population, were incarcerated by China between 2017 and 2018.
If extended to the entire population of Xinjiang, it would mean more than 1.2 million Uyghurs and other people belonging to the Turkic minorities have been incarcerated.
Shoot to kill orders and shackled prisoners
One of the most significant findings in this report is that policemen are instructed to use their weapons in case a prisoner tries to escape a camp in Shufu, as highlighted in the Response Plan and Procedure for Escape and Disturbance Prevention During Class Times paper from January 2018.
Prisoners being moved from one camp to another, according to an instruction manual, must be handcuffed behind their backs, shacked, and blindfolded.
These instructions match a widely shared YouTube video first posted anonymously from 2018, according to the BBC, that shows groups of prisoners handcuffed, shackled, and blindfolded seated on the ground.
China denied the video was related to the camps at the time, but this new evidence adds more credibility to the footage.
2,884 images of detainees
The most heart-breaking part of the leak is the 2,884 images of detainees. It is the first time we know the identities of many of these Uyghur men, women and children who have been incarcerated on the Chinese government’s orders.
For many families, it is also the first news they have heard about their loved ones since they disappeared into the black hole of the detention camp system of Xinjiang.
The leak offers more incontrovertible evidence that the Uyghurs are being targeted at least in part because of their Muslim identities.
Many people were imprisoned for growing beards or practicing the recitation of the Quran, and the items confiscated from inmates by authorities include prayer mats, religious texts, headscarves, and prayer beads.
Uyghur civilians from each generation are present in the camps, from the elderly to children. The oldest person was 73, and the youngest was 15.
This points towards a policy of attacking “a whole generation that has been transmitting cultural and spiritual knowledge, and of children being put into boarding schools,” said Dr Adrien Zenz, a German anthropologist who is the main researcher behind the Xinjiang Police Files.
“It’s a whole program of assimilating an entire ethnic group.”
Direct involvement of Beijing
The documents point toward the direct involvement of the Chinese government and Premier Xi Jinping in these gross human rights abuses.
“It's very evident from the files, especially from a speech by China’s Minister of Public Security held in June 2018 that Xi Jinping himself and the central government is very aware of the details of the mass internment,” said Zenz.
“It shows how closely the central government has been involved in atrocity since the beginning.”
“The Xinjiang Police Files show once again that China's brutal persecution of the Uyghur people has nothing to do with countering terrorism, as it claims, but is completely arbitrary and is targeting Uyghurs for who they are, not for what they do,” Koen Stoop of the World Uyghur Congress told The New Arab.
“China seems to consider the Uyghurs, a distinct ethnic people with their own culture, religion, and language, as a threat to its authoritarian regime, and is subsequently moving to eradicate the Uyghur people."
Beijing has consistently denied any wrongdoing against the Uyghurs, instead claiming that the government is attempting to ‘re-educate’ the Uyghur population to combat 'terrorism' and 'poverty.’ The Chinese ambassador to the UK rejected the findings in the Xinjiang Police Files, and called them a "smearing campaign" against China.
Horrified by the Xinjiang Police Files, which spotlight China's mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.@mbachelet and @UNHumanRights must take a hard look at these faces and press Chinese officials for full, unfettered access – and answers. https://t.co/ZkpbfA7ZvJ— Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (@USAmbUN) May 24, 2022
However, rights groups and many countries, including the United States, have accused China of perpetrating a genocide against the Muslim minority.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a tweet that she was “Horrified by the Xinjiang Police Files, which spotlight China's mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.”
"[China's] endgame is clear. The Chinese government wants to eliminate nearly every single element of the Uyghur identity - they want to make them Chinese"
There are at least 380 suspected internment camps in the Xinjiang region alone, according to a 2020 study by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
For rights groups who have documented abuses against the Uyghurs and urged governments to take action, there is no longer much doubt about China’s motivations.
“[China’s] endgame is clear. The Chinese government wants to eliminate nearly every single element of the Uyghur identity - they want to make them Chinese,” Peter Irwin of the Uyghur Human Rights Project told TNA.
“In many ways, I don't see how Uyghurs in the region will ever go back to a time when expression was at least tolerated," he added.
"That doesn't mean there's nothing we can be doing to repel what the Chinese government is doing, but it will take a much more collective approach that starts with governments speaking up.”
Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a journalist at The New Arab. Follow him on Twitter: @AliAbbasAhmadi2