Secret police files put a face to China’s repression in Xinjiang: Child prisoners and ‘shoot to kill’ orders

A leak of confidential documents has revealed the scale of the prison system against the Uyghur Muslim minority

An inmate at a re-education center in Tekes.

China’s extensive and brutal campaign of repression against Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim minority is taking on a face for the first time. Tens of thousands of police files, photographs and official documents by senior officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to which EL PAÍS has had access offer unparalleled proof of the magnitude of the prison system established in China’s far western region of Xinjiang and the paranoia that guides Beijing’s policies against ethnic minorities. The investigation was led by Adrian Zenz, a German scholar and expert on the Xinjiang internment campaign, in collaboration with 14 media outlets from 11 countries.

Named the Xinjiang Police Files, the cache of secret documents makes it possible to identify thousands of inmates in so-called re-education centers built by China, including minors; to determine their internment status; and to show through images taken inside the facilities how officers practice detention, interrogation and abuse. The files also detail instructions for the police officers that are reminiscent of prison routines, and contain transcripts of public speeches by top leaders of the CPC in Xinjiang, among them the former regional secretary Chen Quanguo, showing support for the doctrine of maximum security against prisoners, and advising to open fire if a prisoner compromises the safety of the camp or tries to escape.

“Behind this systematic repression is the fear and paranoia expressed by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping about the resistance of the Uyghurs to the state’s attempt to control them,” said Zenz, Director and Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Foundation, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. According to the study carried out by this academic, the confinement of Uyghurs in re-education camps is the “largest internment of a religious ethnic minority since the Holocaust.” At least one million citizens, most of them Uyghurs, have been locked up in re-education camps scattered across the geography of Xinjiang, according to a figure that is widely agreed on by journalists, academics and the United Nations.

The Xinjiang Police Files have been obtained by an anonymous third party by hacking into computer systems operated by the Public Security Bureau (PSB), which has police functions, in the Xinjiang counties of Konasheher, located in Kashgar prefecture, and Tekes, in Ili Kazakh prefecture. This individual, who prefers not to be identified for security reasons, acted on their own initiative, without conditions or a mandate from any of the researchers involved in the project. The documents and images have been authenticated by this group of journalists, as well as the existence of three re-education centers from which the files were obtained, thanks to a geolocation process based on the photographs taken by the officers.

Ilham Ismayil, encerrado en Xinjiang
Mugshot of Ilham Ismayil, 27, at a so-called re-education center.

The prefecture of Kashgar, located in what is officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, on the the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, is precisely one of the stops planned on the official trip initiated this Monday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. Her visit to the re-education centers for Uyghurs, the majority ethnic group in this region of some 25 million inhabitants, was one of the fundamental demands made on Bachelet by human rights organizations. The Xi government first acknowledged the existence of these facilities in a white paper (a reference document that guides state policy) in October 2018. However, Beijing rejects the accusations about the repression of minorities in Xinjiang. and claims that these centers serve for the education and training of “students” who are free to move around. The regime calls these camps Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers.

12% of adults locked up

The Xinjiang Police Files show a very different reality. As an example, according to an analysis of thousands of police files in Konasheher (the records of the security services covers about 286,000 citizens, almost the entire population of this county), and based on the census in the 2017-2018 period, it emerges that at least 12.3% of the adult population suffered some type of internment in re-education centers, detention centers (for inmates awaiting sentencing), or prisons.

Asked about the contents of the leak, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the United States, Liu Pengyu, stated in an email: “Xinjiang affairs are related, in essence, with the fight against violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism, not human rights or religion. Faced with the serious and complex anti-terrorism situation, Xinjiang has taken a series of decisive, solid and effective de-radicalization measures. As a result, Xinjiang has not seen any cases of violent terrorism for several years in a row.”

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the information as “a new example of anti-Chinese forces trying to slander China,” EL PAÍS correspondent Macarena Vidal Liy reported from Beijing. “It’s just a repetition of an old trick. Spreading rumors and lies will not deceive the world or conceal the fact that Xinjiang enjoys stability and prosperity, and their residents enjoy safe, happy and fulfilling lives.”

The Xinjiang Police Files contain, among other documents, 5,074 mug shots taken in police stations or confinement centers in Konasheher County between January 6 and July 25, 2018. This is one of the great contributions made by this research project to the study of Chinese repression. Of these photos, 4,989 have been attributed to an individual with detailed information on file. EL PAÍS has analyzed a final sample of 2,884 photographic records of detainees that have specific data attached from the files obtained from the PSB computer networks. The bulk of internees are under 30 years of age (69%), for a total of 2,001 citizens. Men also predominate: 2,490 (86%) compared to 394 women (14%). Among the inmates, there are people of all ages (between 15 and 73) and of all educational backgrounds (from those who never went to school to university students).

This investigation follows several others that since 2019 have tried to prove the magnitude of the systematic repression campaign carried out by China’s communist regime against the Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslim. Xinjiang, which borders seven Central Asian countries to the west, is of special relevance to Beijing, first because it is a commercial crossroads on its revitalized Silk Road, and, secondly for security reasons: inner China is dominated – socially, politically and economically – by the majority Han ethnic group. This region, located in the eastern part of historic Turkestan, between the Caspian Sea and the Gobi desert, with a history and culture linked to the Turkic peoples, and differentiated facial features, has maintained a traditional desire for autonomy that Beijing has rejected and practically annihilated.

The relocation of Han citizens in an effort to change the demographics of Xinjiang led to heavy fighting in the late 2000s. One of the bloodiest episodes was the clash between Uyghur and Han ethnic groups in July 2009 in Urumqi, the region’s capital, which ended with around 200 deaths. After several attacks by armed separatist groups, Xi gave the green light in May 2014 to the campaign called Hard Strike Against Violent Terrorism, in which the current repression throughout the region is framed.

Centro de reeducación en Xinjiang
A satellite image of a detention camp.

The Uyghur citizen Abdurahman Hasan is one of the relatives who has confirmed the veracity of the police records by identifying his wife during an interview held in Istanbul (Turkey) with the British news channel BBC News, which is part of the media group behind this investigation. Hasan, a businessman from Kashgar who frequently traveled abroad, an activity that regularly arouses suspicion in Beijing, left Xinjiang in January 2017 amid a crackdown. In the summer of that year, his wife, Tunsagul Nurmemet, then 21, was arrested, along with Hasan’s mother. According to her file, Nurmemet was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt the social order, picking fights and causing trouble.” “Her life revolved around her family and she didn’t interact much with others,” Hasan explained during the conversation in the Turkish city. “She only visited relatives, I don’t know if she had many friends. She didn’t have a big social network, so how was he able to gather a crowd?” Her sentence amounts to 16 years in prison.

The picture obtained from the Xinjiang Police Files shows an unrecognizable Nurmemet in relation to the ID photo available in databases of Uyghur victims of Chinese repression. According to the information that Hasan received in the summer of 2017, his wife and mother had been “taken off to study.”

This version coincides with many others heard by overseas relatives. This was the case with a woman named Nursiman Abdureshid, 33, interviewed by EL PAÍS in Istanbul. Her relatives appear on police records in Kashgar prefecture. In the summer of 2017, Abdureshid, who had been living in Turkey for two years, learned through a call to relatives that her father and younger brother had been taken to an “education program.” The eldest of her brothers had been locked up since 2016 for an alleged debt. They asked her not to call anymore, that her relatives were fine. In June 2020, Abdureshid managed to get the Chinese embassy in Turkey to confirm the sentences imposed on her family members, all exceeding a decade behind bars. “I asked about the reasons why they had been sentenced,” Abdureshid recounted during the interview. “They told me that it was for ‘disturbing the peace’ and because they might have the intention of participating in terrorist activities.” The woman’s father had been a state official and a member of the CPC. She believes that her departure from Xinjiang, as well as her sister who lives in the US, may have triggered the repression against her family.

Xinjiang Papers
Secret documents leaked from the police files.

The Xinjiang police archives also contain dozens of photographs taken by authorities and security services in Tekes County, Illi Kazakh prefecture. Around 30 of these images, taken between April 2017 and September 2018, capture scenes inside the re-education center of that county. Contrary to what is publicly claimed by Beijing, the attitude of the officers inside the facilities, their weapons and the treatment of the inmates is far from what could be expected from a professional training center.

Handcuffs, hoods and the “tiger’s chair”

The photographs show the inmates with hoods over their faces and their wrists handcuffed together when they are transferred from one place to another. There are officers with batons, who are usually of Uyghur ethnicity, while others – typically Han Chinese officers – carry assault rifles and riot gear. According to the photos from Tekes Detention Center, the inmates are interrogated in so-called “tiger chairs” – a steel chair with iron legs and handcuffs designed to restrain people, often in painful positions. These chairs are one of the many instruments of torture used against the Uyghurs, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch. Photographs from the police files confirm what was exposed in the 2019 leak of 400 pages of internal Chinese documents: inmates injected with unknown substances, forced to recite the rules of the camp and listen to the propaganda of local authorities.

It is estimated that one million people have passed through China’s re-education centers, but this is likely to be a very conservative figure. The leak includes a transcript of a speech by China’s Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi on June 15, 2018 In this speech, which is classified as “secret,” Zhao warns that more than two million people in southern Xinjiang alone had been “severely influenced by the infiltration of extremist religious thought.” These are two of the three “demons” on Beijing’s axis of evil: terrorism, separatism and radical Islamism.

In the speech, Zhao celebrates the “success” of the “strike hard” and “de-extremification” campaigns in Xinjiang, and claims that 20,000 “terrorists” had been eliminated – without specifying how. This number is five times higher than what has been reported in the past 10 years.

The leak also contains transcripts of speeches delivered by then-Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. Chen is considered the mastermind of China’s repression against the Uyghurs, and the man responsible for the spread of re-education centers, which have been growing in number since 2017. Before being appointed Xinjiang party secretary, Chen had made a name for himself in Beijing for his ruthless securitization of Tibet.

A group of inmates at the Tekes detention camp in 2017.

In a speech on May 28, 2017, the Communist leader describes the detention centers as “humane” because inmates have air conditioning, daily food rations and the possibility of receiving visitors. While an analysis of the documents from the 2019 leak suggests that most inmates were detained for a year, his 2017 speech indicates that this may not be the case. “If they leave,” the transcript reads, “the problems come back immediately, this is the reality of Xinjiang.”

Chen’s rhetoric is even more aggressive in a 2018 address. The text advises guards to open fire on any inmate who tries to attack the center, stating: “kill first, report later.”

His advice did not fall on deaf ears. Several documents in the leak indicate that his policy has become fundamental to policing Uyghur inmates. If a so-called “student” tries to escape, local authorities are advised to close the road and call for special forces. The document states that armed police may fire a warning shot. If the prisoner continues to flee, they have orders to “shoot to kill.”

“The re-education camps,” concludes Zenz, who has been sanctioned by the Beijing authorities for his influential research on Xinjiang, “are designed to the change the minds of the Uyghurs, their hearts, to break their loyalty to their culture, history, their Turkic heritage, including religious faith; to change all that, nip it in the bud and steer it towards the Communist Party of China.”

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