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Leaked documents expose how China ‘brainwashes’ Uyghur minorities in prison camps

Documents leaked on Sunday outline the structure, daily life and ideological framework behind a vast chain of Chinese internment camps that detain at least one million people, the majority of whom are Uyghur’s and others from the country’s Muslim minorities.

The classified government papers, which were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), undermine Beijing’s claim that these camps have been built for voluntary re-education purposes to counter extremism.

The documents – which are being referred to as the China Cables – include a nine-page memo from 2017 circulated by Zhu Hailun, the top Communist Party security official at the time, to those running the camps. It includes orders to “never allow escapes”, demands round-the-clock video surveillance “with no blind spots” and “increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”.

The cables reveal how camps should be run as high security prisons, with every aspect of a detainee’s life being monitored and controlled: from ‘students’ having fixed bed positions, fixed queue positions, a fixed classroom seat and a fixed station during skills work.

“This is an actionable piece of evidence, documenting a gross human rights violation… I think it’s fair to describe everyone being detained as being subject at least to psychological torture, because they literally don’t know how long they’re going to be there.”
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch

The memo describes how camps “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past activity,”. Detainees will only be released once they can demonstrate they have reformed their behaviour, beliefs and language.

The memo also states:

  • Inmates could be held indefinitely – but must serve at least one year before being considered for “completion”.

  • The camps should run on a points system, with inmates earning credits for “ideological transformation, study and training, and compliance with discipline”. This punishment-and-reward system determines whether inmates are allowed contact with family and when they are released.
  • Upon completion of their “education transformation” inmates are not immediately released. Instead they are moved into another tier of camps for “labour skills training”, where they will be held for a further three to six months.

  • That the activities of the camp demand “strict secrecy”. There is a complete ban on videos and cameras and staff are ordered not to aggregate important data, preventing even those inside the system from understanding its full extent.

Other documents outline how police are guided by a “massive data collection and analysis system that uses artificial intelligence to select entire categories of Xinjiang residents for detention”. One document revealed how the system flagged 1.8m people simply because they had a data sharing app called Zapya downloaded on their phone.

The sheer scale of these operations is also highlighted, with one document showing how 15,000 people from southern Xinjiang were sent to camps over the course of just one week in 2017. Authorities are given explicit directives to arrest Uyghurs with foreign citizenship and to track Uyghurs living abroad, including 23 Australians which were “red-flagged” to be detained or deported. They suggest that China’s embassies and consulates are involved in the global dragnet.

Ben Emmerson QC, a leading human rights lawyer and an adviser to the World Uighur Congress, said:

“It is very difficult to view that as anything other than a mass brainwashing scheme designed and directed at an entire ethnic community…it’s a total transformation that is designed specifically to wipe the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang as a separate cultural group off the face of the Earth.”

This is the second collection of leaked documents relating to these camps in just over a week. On November 16 more than 400 pages of classified Communist Party documents were released to the New York Times which connected Chinese President Xi Jingping directly to the mass detention centres for the first time.

Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain, dismissed the reports as fake news saying “the so called leaked documents are pure fabrication and fake news”, adding: “There are no such documents or orders for the so-called ‘detention camps’. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”

Coverage of these leaks have also been rubbished in the Chinese media, with China Daily labelling the leaks as “fabrication smearing China’s counterterrorism and de-radicalization

The Background

The internment of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Xingjang has intensified since March 2017, when a “Regulation on De-extremification” was adopted in the region. People displaying religious or cultural affiliation, such as growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil, or owning books or articles about Islam or Uyghur culture can be considered “extremism” under the regulation.

China has imposed a number of policies restricting the religious and cultural practices of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Province. One such policy is the systematic detainment of Uyghurs, in camps labelled by the authorities as “centres for transformation-through-education”, but often referred to as “re-education camps”. Male, female; young, old; urban, rural, all are at risk of being detained. Most of the detainees’ families have been kept in the dark about their loved ones’ fate and are often too frightened to speak out.

The detention camps, which have been built across Xinjiang over the past three years, have received widespread criticism from the international community. The United States has led more than 30 countries in condemning what it has called a “horrific campaign of repression”.

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