Hundreds of pages of internal communications between Chinese officials detail the ruthless machinations behind the detention of an estimated 1 million Muslims in internment camps in recent years, according to The New York Times, which obtained the documents.
Many of the pages discuss how to handle a wave of students returning home only to find their families had been hauled away.
Directives issued by China’s ruling Communist Party tell officials in the Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, to send plainclothes police officers to meet with all of the returning students. The officers were then told to show “humane concern” for the students’ plight as they “stress[ed] the rules.”
As the students would learn, a points system had been set up to gauge which detained Uighurs deserved release. They were told that their individual behavior could hurt their relatives’ odds, according to the documents.
If students pressed further, asking whether their relatives had committed any crimes, officials were told to acknowledge that they had not. Rather, they were suspected of thought crime ― in the form of sympathy to Islamic extremists ― even if the relatives were very old or very young.
“Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health,” the documents stated, according to the Times.
The students themselves had been chosen by the party from among the brightest in their region to attend universities across the country as part of efforts to encourage party loyalty. But they were viewed as having potential to disrupt the internment program by posting “incorrect opinions” on social media, which would then spread nationwide, according to the documents. Although the students could not go see their family members, they were permitted to arrange video calls.
China’s Uighur Muslim detention program made global headlines in August 2018, when a group of United Nations human rights experts went public with reports of the camps. Due to China’s strict security measures, however, details about the network of camps have trickled out slowly.
The Communist Party describes the camps as reeducation and job-training centers established as a way to combat Islamist extremism in the Xinjiang region, which boasts rich reserves of natural resources. According to the Times, Chinese President Xi Jinping believes stability in the region requires a sweeping surveillance program to root out dissidents, as such people threaten to undermine the Communist Party’s image of strength.
Deaths and suicide attempts in the camps have been reported.
While dissent in Xinjiang has been documented for decades, the documents obtained by the Times show how the party’s scrutiny of the region intensified in the wake of an early 2014 attack by Uighur militants, who stabbed around 150 people at a crowded train station. Of those, 31 died. Several weeks earlier, two Uighur militants had staged a suicide bomb attack that killed 80 people during a visit by Xi to the region. The past decade has seen other deadly attacks there, as well.
According to the Times, the Chinese president used an April 2014 speech ― made in private to other senior officials ― to call for a fight against “terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship.” He called officials’ anti-terrorism tactics “too primitive” and said the party “must be as harsh as them,” referring to the militants and their weapons, “and show absolutely no mercy.”
Xi told Xinjiang officials to encourage neighbors to report on neighbors, and to emulate aspects of Americans’ response to 9/11, which had been previously reported.
Internment escalated rapidly with the August 2016 appointment of Chen Quanguo to handle security in the Xinjiang region, who repeatedly began telling officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
The materials leaked to the Times include 200 pages of internal speeches by top officials, 24 official documents and 160 pages of directives and reports on the surveillance effort in the region. The paper said a member of the Chinese political establishment was responsible for the materials’ release; the leaker reportedly wished to see Xi answer for his merciless policies.
Read the full documents at The New York Times.