Stacks of classified speeches, confidential documents and thousands of images of Uyghur detainees. These are Xinjiang Police Files, the latest leaks attesting to the extent of the so-called mass “re-education”, the system of extrajudicial detentions to which ethnic Islamic minorities in the Chinese autonomous region of the same name on the border with Central Asian states have been subjected. The material - authenticated over several months - was hacked from local police servers and delivered by an unidentified source to Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The documents were then shared with international media and interpreted by Zenz in a paper published in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies.
This is not the first leak from Xinjiang. Indeed, Police Files complement Xinjiang Papers, disseminated by The New York Times in 2019, and the numerous studies conducted on the subject in recent years by researchers with the aid of analytical companies and satellite surveys. The importance of the latest leaks lies first of all in the confirmation of the involvement of central authorities: various speeches show that President Xi Jinping himself approved measures taken - from mass surveillance to re-education camps - with the order to “mercilessly” fight “terrorism, infiltration and separatism”. It is interesting to note that Police Files directly associates the stabilisation of Xinjiang with the achievement of the “two centenaries”; hence, with national development goals having strong political significance and being directly linked to Xi’s legitimacy.
Another fact to be considered is the extremely high numbers in “re-education”: according to a statement made in June 2018 by Zhao Kezhi, the Minister of Public Security, at the time around 4 million people were “severely affected” by religious extremism. Such estimates corroborate previous studies (deemed to be credible by the UN) that mention at least 1 million internees and hundreds of detention facilities. Celebrating his “successful” campaign, in his speech Zhao refers four times to a “large number of detentions in excess of capacity”. This is especially true in southern Xinjiang, where Uyghurs still make up the majority of the population compared to the Han. According to some documents referred to by AP some days ago, Shufu/Konasheher county - where more than 10,000 people have been arrested for offences ranging from terrorism to vague charges that are traditionally used against political dissidents - has the highest incarceration rate in the world: one in every 25 people.
That these are indeed detention facilities and not “schools” is confirmed by photographic evidence included in Police Files: inmates, sometimes in tears, sometimes handcuffed, are flanked by armed guards. This in itself seems to challenge the official version of “re-education” camps as mere training centres. The reasons for detentions - not always clear - include suspicious behaviour, such as not drinking alcohol, having visited “sensitive countries” or having used a mobile phone too little (that is subject to strict controls in Xinjiang). Sometimes “crimes” committed decades earlier are mentioned. Zhao himself does not explicitly associate detentions with a form of violent resistance against the state. He rather justifies “re-education” in terms of cultural and religious identity. What stands out above all is that “pan-Turkism” and the alleged secessionist demands of Turkish-speaking minorities that populate the autonomous region are repeatedly mentioned. And if in the first speeches “enemies” were clearly mentioned, as time went by, authorities’ attention shifted more generally to “untrustworthy people”. This perhaps explains why many women aged between 15 and 73 are included in the police database.
Internal protocols also shed light on strict security measures taken inside the centres: they mention armed officers in all facilities, machine guns and sniper rifles positioned in guard towers and the order to shoot with a licence to kill against those who try to escape. Control measures were also taken for those who were left in their homes, but were considered to be at risk. Files also attest to a close relationship between the camp system and that of formal imprisonment for “terrorism”. Testimonies of former detainees had already shown in the past that in several cases the stay in the centres was interspersed with periods of time behind bars after sham trials.
The limits of Xinjiang Police Files
On the other hand, there is insufficient evidence of abuses recounted by former detainees: rape, forced sterilisation and various forms of torture. On the contrary. Contrary to allegations, official directives call for “humane” treatment, “sufficient food” to be served, adequate medical care and respect for the customs of ethnic minorities. What happens in the implementation phase therefore remains unverifiable, especially after the introduction of anti-Covid measures in the already closely-guarded region. It must also be said that, perhaps due to tightening of cryptographic standards, Police Files only cover 2017 and 2018. Consequently, leaks do not help clarify what is happening in Xinjiang right now. However, they do place the “re-education” system for the first time within a five-year plan: the roadmap starts in 2017 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo as the local Party leader and the goal of “stabilising” the region continues in the following years to “consolidate” what has been achieved, until “overall stability” is achieved in 2021. Chen’s replacement by Ma Xingrui, former governor of the dynamic Guangdong province, at the end of last year, may therefore not be accidental. It is perhaps a sign that, after coercive methods used in the first five years, in the future an attempt will be made to control Muslim minorities by focusing - not only but more - on economic development. In one of his speeches, even Chen admitted that after 2009 Urumqi protests, “re-education” had shown little success in preventing further violent episodes. The impression from the numerous leaks is indeed that, even within the nomenklatura, there is no complete agreement on the validity of measures taken.
Are we facing a change of strategy? Hard to say. For now, it seems that the system of “re-education” is simply taking a different shape: whereas, according to authorities, all “schools” were closed in 2019, relatives of inmates have testified to the relocation of their loved ones from camps to prisons and factories. The latter have proved to be central to the process of “transformation through labour” by which Beijing says it wants to reintroduce “radicalised” elements into society. This is controversial in itself as it contradicts the intention - announced by Xi Jinping in 2013 - to abolish laojiao, the system introduced by Mao to correct counter-revolutionaries through forced labour and used for decades against dissidents. According to Zenz, some elements suggest that Xinjiang camps were modelled on the very experience of laojiao as it was applied in the early 2000s to “rehabilitate” Falun Gong practitioners.
Bachelet’s visit and the international response
The publication of Police Files coincided with Michelle Bachelet’s long-awaited mission to the autonomous region, the first by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to China since 2005. A visit - not “an investigation” - that not only disregarded the expectations of those who demanded transparency on Xinjiang. It also allowed Beijing to give international visibility to its own interpretation of human rights based on economic progress rather than respect for universal values.
While admitting that she has not been “able to assess the full scope of education and vocational training centres”, Bachelet claims she has had “the opportunity to hold high-level discussions” and she has “identified areas for development of dialogue in the future”. Something more may emerge from the report that the High Commissioner has pledged to release in the coming days. For now, disappointment prevails at the numerous unanswered questions. Not only that. By associating the “re-education” system with the fight against terrorism, Bachelet has ended up downplaying the political dimension of the Xinjiang issue. Because while it is true that the latest attacks of suspected Uighur origin in China coincided with Paris attacks, it is equally undeniable that the clampdown on Xinjiang should be ascribed to a generalised transition towards the so-called “second-generation ethnic policies”: with the arrival of Xi Jinping, the concept of zhonghua minzu has come back into vogue, which, borrowing from Sun Yat-sen’s idea of the “Chinese nation”, identifies Chinese people as a single political subjectivity, eroding the representation of minority groups. Viewing Xinjiang as a purely national security issue is therefore not only reductive. It is also misleading.
Indeed Xinjiang is increasingly a dilemma with global ramifications. The use of Uyghur labour in the textile industry, as well as in photovoltaics, is a thorn in the side for western multinationals. Especially since the United States and the European Union have put the protection of human rights in the autonomous region before the normalisation of relations with China. After cross-sanctions targeting Chinese officials and European academics, in 2021 Brussels backtracked on the historic bilateral investment agreement signed with Beijing after eight years of negotiations. Hoping to soften EU authorities, the Chinese government has recently ratified two ILO conventions on forced labour, fulfilling one of the preconditions imposed by Brussels to unfreeze the treaty. However, the détente gesture has so far not been sufficient to rekindle the Sino-European dialogue. On American inspiration, new voices are being raised in Strasbourg parliament in favour of more drastic measures to hold European companies having economic interests in Xinjiang accountable. After Merkel’s retirement, Germany also took a more intransigent stance on human rights. In Italy, the Uyghur issue has become so prominent in the public debate that some brands - including OVS clothing chain - have promoted awareness-raising campaigns against forced labour. In May 2021, the majority and the opposition reached an agreement at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies to ask the government to “express, in all relevant international fora, Italy’s strongest condemnation of any kind of human rights violation practised by a State against members of an ethnic or religious minority”.
So far, however, little or nothing has been done to help the few Uyghurs who have fled to the peninsula. The story of Mihiriban Kader – told by Italian magazine L'Espresso – is exemplary. After arriving in Italy in 2016, she has been searching for two years in vain for support from Italian authorities to help her children who have remained in China escape.
Alessandra Colarizi, editorial director of China Files
Translated by Valentina Gianoli