How to run a prison state

The truth about Xin­jiang’s Mus­lim de­ten­tion camps

The Guardian Weekly - - Front Page - By Emma Gra­ham-Har­ri­son and Juli­ette Gar­side

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’

GREG BAKER/AFP/GETTY

▲ A watch­tower on a fa­cil­ity near what is be­lieved to be a re-ed­u­ca­tion camp

THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

▼ A po­lice of­fi­cer checks a man’s iden­tity card in Kash­gar, Xin­jiang

A Chi­nese les­son at Kash­gar city vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tional cen­tre

GREG BAKER/AFP/GETTY

The Ar­tux City Skills Cen­tre, be­lieved to be a re-ed­u­ca­tion camp

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