How to run a prison state
The truth about Xinjiang’s Muslim detention camps
The Chinese government used technology to expand its campaign against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities far beyond the country’s own borders, a rare leak from the heart of the country’s bureaucracy has revealed.
Beijing’s obsession with foreign influence and connections in its western Xinjiang region, where at least a million people are held in internment camps, is laid out in the China Cables, a cache of files that includes classified orders to track and detain thousands of people who have dual nationality, have spent time abroad or have personal ties outside the country.
Among the documents are four “bulletins” that provide rare confirmation from inside the state apparatus of the scope and aims of the hi-tech surveillance system.
The documents date from 2017 and were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared them with the Guardian, the BBC and 15 other media partners. Experts who have reviewed them believe them to be authentic. China has said they are “fabricated”.
They highlight the power and reach of China’s surveillance dragnet, which combines data scooped up from automated online monitoring, with information collected in more oldfashioned ways, by officials who use an app to input it by hand.
The Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), combines all this information in a detailed database of everything from an individual’s exact height and electricity use, to the colour of their car, whether they socialise with neighbours and even if they prefer to use the front or back door to their house. The Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security began posting procurement notices mentioning IJOP in 2016, although its use as a predictive policing tool was made public only in early 2018, in a report from Human Rights Watch.
The cables reveal that in a single week in June 2017, IJOP flagged up 24,412 “suspicious” individuals in one part of southern Xinjiang alone. Of these, more than 15,000 were sent to re-education camps, and a further 706 were jailed.
That rate of detentions, if matched across the region and continued over time, would explain how hundreds of thousands of people have been swept into camps already.
There is massive capacity to monitor online activity; another bulletin says that authorities identified 1.8 million users of a file-sharing app known as Zapya (or Kuai Ya in China), and then worked on the user-base information to identify thousands who were considered suspicious and flagged up for further checks.
Online data comes in part from the monitoring software everyone in the region is obliged to install on their phones – with police checkpoints regularly scanning for the presence of the app.
“The Chinese have bought into a model of policing where they believe that through the collection of largescale data, run through artificial intelligence … they can in fact predict ahead of time where possible incidents might take place,” said James Mulvenon, an expert in the verification of Chinese government documents
Data comes in part from the software everyone is obliged to install on their phones
who serves as the director of intelligence integration at SOS International.
“Then they are pre-emptively going after those people using that data, before they’ve even had a chance to actually commit the crime.”
The documents also give an insight into how China considers any foreign connection a cause for suspicion, and is pushing its campaign across national borders.
Uighurs with dual nationality living in China, including British and Australian citizens, have been identified and counted. Orders state they are to be deported or rounded up.
Officials are asked to “analyse” and track more than 1,500 dual nationals and over 4,000 people who had applied for official documents at Chinese embassies and consulates around the world.
Muslims in Xinjiang with contacts outside China, whether through marriage, work or education, have already reported being targets of Beijing’s sweeping crackdown.
Uighurs living abroad have described attempts to lure them home, often through requests from relatives, or to pressure them into spying on neighbours. Those who return to China frequently disappear into the camps.
Dual nationals have been rounded up and detained, despite protests from foreign relatives, or diplomats representing their second nationality.
Those in Xinjiang are questioned about relatives in other countries, and communication with loved ones abroad has ground to a virtual halt.
The bulletins to security officials across the region, headed “command for cracking down and assaulting on the frontlines”, order them to investigate anyone originally from Xinjiang who has got a second passport, or picked up any kind of identity documents – which could cover birth and marriage certificates, passport renewal or passports for children – from Chinese embassies.
By June 2017, China had identified 1,535 Xinjiang natives with second passports, and 4,341 people who had “obtained identity documents” in Chinese embassies, according to one bulletin entitled “Backflow prevention”.
Of these, 75 are dual nationals thought to be active inside China. They include 23 Australians, two UK citizens, 26 Turkish nationals, and a handful from other countries including Sweden, the US and Canada.
The bulletin suggests targeting of these people took place without any requirement to notify diplomats from their second country, matching the accounts of former inmates.
The 75 individuals are to be subjected to identity verification “one by one”. Those with a second passport, who have renounced Chinese citizenship, are to be deported.
Those who contact embassies while abroad, it states, should be flagged for border checks on their return.
The use of diplomatic missions as weapons of surveillance and as
Muslims in Xinjiang with contacts outside China have already reported being targets
part of the campaign has echoes of Saudi Arabia’s campaign of persecution against dissidents, including the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered when he tried to pick up a document he needed for his marriage.
Another bulletin notes how Xinjiang has been cut off from the wider world. “We have effectively curbed the momentum of domestic and foreign communication, daily domestic and foreign communication has dropped to less than 10 people,” the bulletin said.
It seems impossible that in a region of more than 22 million people – which has actively courted foreign investment including a Volkswagen factory and an NBA training camp – there are only 10 connections a day with the outside world.
But even if the data is falsified or has unstated parameters, the bulletin gives a glimpse of the authorities’ determination to sever communications, as well as a sense of the pressure Uighur communities abroad may be facing from Chinese authorities.
The disclosures are likely to raise questions about Chinese embassies being used as bases of influence, and bolster the cases of Uighurs seeking asylum abroad.
Germany last year announced it would halt all deportations of Uighurs to China after accidentally sending back a man who has since disappeared. But other countries including Pakistan and Turkey are still sending people back.
China’s embassy in London said in a statement “the so-called leaked documents are pure fabrication and fake news” and added: “There are no such documents or orders for the socalled ‘detention camps’. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
It also said that “trainees could go home regularly”, including to care for children, and that “religious freedom is fully respected in Xinjiang”.
In late 2016, a 47-year-old Uighur employed on a road-building crew in China’s western Xinjiang region started hectoring his coworkers about their behaviour. He warned them against watching porn or swearing, badgered them not to eat food cooked by non-Muslims, smokers or people who drink alcohol, and made offensive slurs against the country’s majority Han ethnic group.
In most countries, his remarks would have simply marked him out as a bigot and religious bore. But in China, the state viewed them – and him – far more harshly. Two years later, the comments would land him in court, and earn him a 10-year sentence for “incitement of ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination”, according to a leaked summary of his trial.
The case was not exceptional but for the fact its details have been made public. The individual was not a public figure, and there are no reported consequences of the crime of which he was convicted. The Uighur-language transcript was not classified, but official secrecy across Xinjiang means court documents are rarely publicly available. So the details of his mundane offence and sentence provide a rare insight into the nature and extent of a sweeping government crackdown on Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups in the region. China says it is fighting extremism; critics say it is effectively trying to erase Uighurs’ ethnic and religious identity.
The most high-profile features of the government campaign have been internment camps that house at least a million people, held indefinitely for
“re-education”. The inmates of these camps, who make up a majority of Xinjiang’s detained, are people the authorities consider tainted by the “three forces”: terrorism, extremism and separatism. The courts and formal jail are used only in a minority of cases the state considers more serious.
Yet the trial and sentencing of this single prisoner, whose name the Guardian knows but is not publishing because he could not be reached for comment, is an indication of how low the bar is for criminal offences.
The trial details were leaked as part of the China cables. “He incited extremist religious thoughts in his colleagues … [saying things] such as: ‘Do not use dirty words, do not watch porn or you will become a kafir [offensive word for a non-believer],’” the charges against him read. There is no record that his words led to any violence or other criminal offence, or even if others were spurred on to greater religiosity by his chastisements.
The 10-year sentence appears to have been for his proselytising – and came after his lawyer sought leniency. “Due to the defendant’s low legal awareness and education level, he was easily susceptible to being misguided and committing crimes. He’s guilty. This is his first criminal record and I ask the court to deal with him leniently,” his counsel said.
Hundreds of thousands of people are held in camps, presumably for less severe violations, as part of an opaque state-sponsored drive apparently designed to crush all ethnic and religious identity, and weaken family ties.
In Xinjiang, behaviour that can mark out a person for further investigation – and possible internment – includes simply owning a Qur’an. Mosques have been destroyed, graveyards razed. Children have been separated from their families. At least one area has banned the use of the Uighur language in schools.
The state has reached into homes. Han Chinese have been sent to live with Uighur families, calling themselves “relatives” while monitoring every aspect of their hosts’ lives. In some cases, the women have reportedly been obliged to share beds with male Han “relatives”.
Adrian Zenz, an academic and expert on the camps, says their aim is to effectively erase religious and cultural life. “For the Chinese Communist party, the minorities are an essential aspect of a multiethnic empire that’s being revived,” he said. “So they are not to be killed, but they are to be integrated and assimilated.”
Responding to the release of the cables on Monday, the UK urged China to give United Nations observers “immediate and unfettered access” to detention camps in Xinjiang, where more than a million people from the Uighur community and other muslim minorities are being held without trial. In Brussels, the European commission also condemned the use of “political re-education camps”.
‘They are not to be killed, but they are to be integrated and assimilated’
▲ A watchtower on a facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp
▼ A police officer checks a man’s identity card in Kashgar, Xinjiang
A Chinese lesson at Kashgar city vocational educational centre
The Artux City Skills Centre, believed to be a re-education camp