Erasing life itself: Apportioning blame for the Uyghur atrocities in Xinjiang
Heavy footsteps on the stairs, machine-gun-toting officials rampaging through homes searching for forbidden books, hoods and manacles at the dead of night and abductions for unknown destinations. Children are left screaming and taken away as both parents are torn from them; surveillance, reams of razor wire, and police checks are everywhere.
The catalogue of cruel and unusual treatment of Uyghurs from all walks of life has been well documented since the clampdowns in Xinjiang began in earnest in 2017, transforming the largely Muslim Turkic area of North-West China into a virtual open prison.
As accusations of genocide ring out around the world, and a UK people's Uyghur tribunal set up to determine the extent of the crimes awaits its verdict in December, the search continues to find the culprits and call those responsible to account.
"Time is of the essence before Beijing wipes the records clean, and those responsible for policy decisions affecting the lives of up to three million who have been and are currently languishing in extra judicial detention, evade justice"
The perpetrators have to date been broad-brushed as the Communist Party of China, and the Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo acting under the overarching gaze of President of China, Xi Jinping himself.
While this might, in essence, be true, a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think-tank, relying on leaked police documents and until now unpublished government budget documents, seeks to point the finger at specific individuals responsible for the oppression and discovers that the line of command within the intricate complexity of the Party is opaque and not easy to unravel to apportion blame.
But time is short. Beijing has been deleting files of incriminating government directives and procurement data since 2019 and has busied itself transforming the region into a "safe place" for the millions of Chinese tourists who have been flooding into the region since the campaign began. Plans are for 400 million visitors by 2025. According to a recent AP journalist's visit, gone is the wrap-around razor wire, clusters of armed police drilling on street corners, and intrusive checkpoints.
Shops are bustling, Chinese tourists are met with smiling faces as they dance with Uyghurs in national costume around the alleyways of Kashgar's ancient city and co-opted foreign citizen journalists bolster the view that negative criticism of China is unjustified.
But as calls grow for unfettered access by UN observers to Xinjiang and its camps, activists are concerned that by the time access is granted, most of the outward signs of oppression will have been driven underground. They fear that evidence of genocide will be whitewashed and there will be no one left on whom to pin the blame.
Time is of the essence before Beijing wipes the records clean, and those responsible for policy decisions affecting the lives of up to three million who have been and are currently languishing in extrajudicial detention, evade justice, claim the authors of the report. The mechanisms of repression must be pinpointed and those responsible called to account, they insist.
The report trawls thousands of Chinese language sources between 2014-2021, including leaked police records and previously unpublished government budget documents to expose the CCP's notoriously complex and interwoven structures and uncover hard evidence of culpability for lawmakers and governments considering sanctions.
Some 170 administrative bodies within the CCP have come under the microscope, unveiling the layers of bureaucracy and complexity between them and naming names of those responsible for the myriad of life-changing decisions made on behalf of 14 or so million residents of Xinjiang during this period.
"Strike Hard" crusades against so-called extremism accelerated from 2014 with a counter-terrorism campaign, followed by the full-blown 2017 re-education drive in Xinjiang aiming to head off the supposed radicalisation of Uyghur society. Not unlike the Mao-era, mass show trials, self-criticisms, public denunciations and loyalty pledges were the order of the day. Those who lacked lustre were accused of being "two-faced", and widespread informing and snitching on neighbours ensured no dissent lurked in the wings.
"The once benign neighbourhood committees, set up originally to serve the people in their care, were transformed into quasi militarised, uniform wearing and baton wielding vigilantes"
The campaign was driven by neighbourhood and village officials armed with exceptional power to police the minutiae of residents’ everyday lives. Neighbours were co-opted to do their dirty work for them and a network of surveillance was created from which no one could escape.
Comings and goings, unusual behaviour, suspicious apps installed on phones and strangers visiting the neighbourhood were monitored to a fault. The aim, says the report, was to mobilise the masses to help stamp out dissent and instability, in order to increase the party's domination across society.
The key to all of this was the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that became the nerve centre monitoring and collating every piece of personal data gathered on Uyghurs through a compulsory phone app. Suspicious activities, telephone downloads, and relationships were flagged up and investigated, and "problematic" individuals were detained and sent to secure facilities.
The once benign neighbourhood committees, set up originally to serve the people in their care, were transformed into quasi militarised, uniform wearing and baton-wielding vigilantes. Housewives and former jobless youths were given the power to gather intelligence, police and punish by consigning those they deemed a threat to re-education.
Even expressions of despair and contemplation of suicide were deemed subversive by one low-level official. Shopping arcades and bus stops were manned by retirees and young mothers who sat at their posts wearing police uniforms, stab vests and waving metal detectors. The whole province was made to believe it was on a war footing and people were coerced into imagining they were active participants in the battle. They were given badges and name tags and the power to change people's lives forever.
"The current knowledge gap has exposed international companies and organisations to inadvertent engagement with Chinese officials who have facilitated the atrocities in Xinjiang"
Evidence was found by ASPI that implicated senior officials in overriding existing laws to achieve their objectives, some even acting outside the law entirely. Low-level officials forced to fill quotas would evade procedural accountability and simply round up individuals who "appeared to be dissatisfied". The extra-judicial implementation of the law became a means by which the party controlled society and opposition could be eliminated.
Every government department right down to the formerly innocent-sounding Forestry Bureau, which was detailed to manage the accounts of the re-education camps in Kashgar City for a year, was found to be intricately enmeshed in the crackdowns in Xinjiang.
Propaganda, re-education, at-home surveillance and indoctrination, forced labour and population control were the bedrock of the campaign; the most insidious of these being propaganda which seeped into every aspect of life. Not only ubiquitous roadside poster and banner campaigns, but efforts to penetrate Uyghur life and culture, their clothing, their hairstyles, their furniture and home layout, the way they bring up their children and their religious observance.
The final straw was the pair up and be the family campaign that billeted out Han so-called relatives to live, eat, study and sleep with Uyghurs. A campaign purporting to promote racial harmony, but in fact was little more than low-grade espionage, and even sexual abuse, by any other name.
Every single government department and official within them, including 440 party secretaries from 2014-2021 whose details have been recorded in the report, have been drawn into the web of control and the exercise of extra-legal punishment during this period. As former Party secretary of Xinjiang Zhang Chunxian pointed out in 2014, there was no place, no department and no individual that did not play a part in maintaining "stability" in Xinjiang.
The brutal Mao era campaigns are not simply relics of a bygone era, states the report. "Rather, they are occurring at a time when Chinese society is more tightly connected with the world than ever before, and pursued along racial and religious lines in Xinjiang with profound social impacts."
Specific individuals are responsible and their actions are in plain sight. "The current knowledge gap has exposed international companies and organisations to inadvertent engagement with Chinese officials who have facilitated the atrocities in Xinjiang," say the authors, urging that foreign governments and those dealing with the superpower take their findings seriously.
The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity