More disclosures reveal the full impact of the government’s repression of ethnic minorities — well beyond re-education camps.
No more denying, no more dodging. The Chinese Communist Party can no longer hide its relentless campaign of mass internment against the ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, or claim that the effort is an innocuous educational program. What was already widely known, vastly reported and confirmed by firsthand accounts has now been proved beyond doubt by the government’s own records — gigabytes of files, reams of reports, thousands of spreadsheets — some of them classified and highly confidential.
Last weekend, The New York Times disclosed and analyzed the contents of a trove of leaked internal Chinese government documents that outline specific policies for how to repress Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim minorities — and reveal that President Xi Jinping himself set out the foundation for them.
This Sunday, the contents of two more sets of documents — all of which I have reviewed — are being disclosed. Among the first batch, also leaked, is a confidential telegram signed by Zhu Hailun, Xinjiang’s deputy party secretary, which details how local authorities should manage and operate the “vocational skills training centers” — a euphemism for the internment camps. (All translations here are mine.) The second set of documents, a large cache of files and spreadsheets from local governments, reveals the internment campaign’s devastating economic and social impact on the families and communities it targets.
The telegram — dated Nov. 5, 2017, and addressed to local political and legal affairs bureaus — is marked “extremely urgent” and bears the second-highest level of secrecy within China’s classified-document scheme. It reveals the extent of the security and surveillance measures taken around the camps, partly to shield the camps from external scrutiny. The message, a directive, notes that the work conducted there is “strictly confidential” and “highly sensitive” in nature. Even staff at the camps are forbidden from aggregating detainee figures.
The authorities’ attempt to enforce absolute secrecy is confirmed by another document dated November 2018, this one from a local government file in Hotan County. It chides officials for not “protecting secrets” related to the internment campaign well enough. It stipulates that “no person is under any circumstances permitted to disseminate information about detention or re-education via telephone, smartphone, or the internet,” and that officials are “strictly forbidden” from receiving “related media interviews” or make “unauthorized disclosure” about the internment campaign. That the Chinese authorities so deliberately sought to shield from external scrutiny information about operations at the Xinjiang camps suggests that they are only too aware of how incriminating their policies and practices are.
I was also able to obtain a massive cache of local government files from within Xinjiang. Among the most revealing documents are thousands of detailed spreadsheets with the names, identification numbers and addresses of tens of thousands of people, mostly Uighurs and many of them in detention, prison or re-education camps.
In Yarkand, a county of about 800,000 people in southwestern Xinjiang, 96 percent of the population is Uighur. Six official spreadsheets about six villages dated 2018 show that, on average, nearly 16 percent of the rural adult population was either interned or in prison. In two villages in Kosherik Township — which the documents describe as “heavily polluted by extremist ideology” — nearly 60 percent of all households had one person or more interned.
In addition to the extraordinary scale of the internment campaign, the files reveal its devastating impact well beyond the camps — deep into the communities and families of Xinjiang.
The spreadsheets show that the government has primarily targeted middle-age men, most often the heads of the households and main wage-earners. Beijing’s occasional tours of its so-called model camps often feature attractive young women. In reality, people between 30 and 59 were especially likely to be interned, according to the spreadsheets.
The policy’s socioeconomic fallout is dire — and local governments are keeping a meticulous record of it. One spreadsheet from 2017 for one town in Yarkand County, which listed households with low incomes that might qualify for welfare, included a young family with five children between the ages of three and 14. The father had been imprisoned, the mother placed in a re-education camp and the children, in effect, orphaned.
In another, hardly unusual, case, a household’s two working-age parents were detained, leaving elderly grandparents — including a grandmother described as “seriously ill” — to care for two toddlers. In a column with the header “reason for poverty,” the relevant spreadsheet offers this explanation: “lacks labor force and finances.” The toddlers’ father isn’t scheduled to be released until 2030.
Another spreadsheet from September 2018 shows lists of loan defaulters in Pilal Township, Akto County. In 80 percent of the cases where the reason for default was listed as “internment,” most of the borrowed funds were shown to still be in the bank.
A particularly depressing example comes from a village in Yarkand County. A Uighur farmer and head of a family of five was interned in 2017. In October 2016, he had received a loan of 40,000 renminbi (nearly $5,700) to purchase agricultural machinery. The equipment went unused during his detention — no other family member knew how to operate it — and the loan could not be repaid as scheduled. The government directed the family to rent out the equipment and send its oldest child, a son, to work. The family was then officially marked as having been “poverty-alleviated by benefiting from policies.” In June 2018, after his release, the farmer applied for financial assistance so he could repay the loan and related interest. In January 2019, he started to work in the Yarkand County textile industrial park, earning just 800 RMB (about $113) a month. By then, the son, age 20, had somehow become disabled and was listed on government forms as unable to work.
Thanks to these new document disclosures, we now have hard evidence — and the government’s own evidence — that in addition to implementing a vast internment program in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party is deliberately breaking up families and forcing them into poverty and a form of indentured labor. For all its efforts at secrecy, the Chinese government can no longer hide the extent, and the reach, of its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.
Some important elements are still unknown. The total internment figure remains a well-guarded secret. (Based on the new evidence, I have revised my own estimate: I think that between 900,000 and 1.8 million people have been detained in Xinjiang since the spring of 2017.) Also missing from the official documents that have surfaced so far are precise records of how the detainees are treated and how, exactly, the process of re-education works. (About those things, however, we have witness accounts.) The confidential telegram and local files do not mention the use of physical violence — but for one notable exception. The telegram states that people who resist brainwashing must be singled out for “assault-style re-education.” Yet another sinister understatement, and it suggests that force and torture may, in fact, be widely used.
In a way, though, we already know all that we really need to know. The documents that have been disclosed these past few weeks reveal the staggering scale of the repression in Xinjiang and its ruinous effects on the region’s ethnic communities, well beyond the camps themselves. Consider this: Official statistics show that the combined net population growth rates of Hotan and Kashgar, two of the largest Uighur regions, dropped by about 84 percent between 2015 and 2018.
The Chinese Communist Party set out, it claimed, to “transform through education” ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. In fact, it is ripping apart entire communities and subjugating them on a colossal scale. And this, at the direction of President Xi himself.