Data leak reveals how China ‘brainwashes’ Uighurs in prison camps
Leaked documents detail for the first time China’s systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps.
The Chinese government has consistently claimed the camps in the far western Xinjiang region offer voluntary education and training.
But official documents, seen by BBC Panorama, show how inmates are locked up, indoctrinated and punished.
China’s UK ambassador dismissed the documents as fake news.
The leak was made to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which has worked with 17 media partners, including BBC Panorama and The Guardian newspaper in the UK.
The investigation has found new evidence which undermines Beijing’s claim that the detention camps, which have been built across Xinjiang in the past three years, are for voluntary re-education purposes to counter extremism.
About a million people – mostly from the Muslim Uighur community – are thought to have been detained without trial.
The leaked Chinese government documents, which the ICIJ have labelled “The China Cables”, include a nine-page memo sent out in 2017 by Zhu Hailun, then deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the region’s top security official, to those who run the camps.
The instructions make it clear that the camps should be run as high security prisons, with strict discipline, punishments and no escapes.
The memo includes orders to:
“Never allow escapes”
“Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”
“Promote repentance and confession”
“Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority”
“Encourage students to truly transform”
“[Ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”
The documents reveal how every aspect of a detainee’s life is monitored and controlled: “The students should have a fixed bed position, fixed queue position, fixed classroom seat, and fixed station during skills work, and it is strictly forbidden for this to be changed.
“Implement behavioural norms and discipline requirements for getting up, roll call, washing, going to the toilet, organising and housekeeping, eating, studying, sleeping, closing the door and so forth.”
Other documents confirm the extraordinary scale of the detentions. One reveals that 15,000 people from southern Xinjiang were sent to the camps over the course of just one week in 2017.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the leaked memo should be used by prosecutors.
“This is an actionable piece of evidence, documenting a gross human rights violation,” she said. “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.
The memo details how detainees will only be released when they can demonstrate they have transformed their behaviour, beliefs and language.
“Promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past activity,” it says.
“For those who harbour vague understandings, negative attitudes or even feelings of resistance… carry out education transformation to ensure that results are achieved.”
Ben Emmerson QC, a leading human rights lawyer and an adviser to the World Uighur Congress, said the camps were trying to change people’s identity.
“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.”
China Uighurs: Detainees ‘free’ after ‘graduating’, official says
A senior Chinese official has said that all of the people sent to detention centres in the western region of Xinjiang have now been released.
Regional government chairman Shohrat Zakir told reporters those held in what Beijing say are “re-education camps” had now “graduated”.
It is not possible to independently verify Mr Zakir’s claims.
Rights groups say the camps are actually high-security prisons, holding hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
Beijing has always denied this, despite the prevalence of high-security features, like watchtowers and razor wire, and leaked documents detailing how inmates at the so-called centres are locked up, indoctrinated and punished.
What is Beijing saying?
Mr Zakir told reporters in the Chinese capital on Monday that everyone in the centres had completed their courses and – with the “help of the government”- had “realised stable employment [and] improved their quality of life”.
He said that, in future, training would be based on “independent will” and people would have “the freedom to come and go”.
BBC China correspondent John Sudworth points out it is not possible to verify the claims, as access for journalists is tightly controlled and it’s impossible to contact local residents without placing them at risk of detention.
In recent months, independent reports have suggested that some camp inmates are being released, only to face house arrest, other restrictions on their movement or forced labour in factories.
What could be behind the move?
Pressure has been increasing on Beijing in recent months.
A number of high-profile media reports based on leaks to the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have shone a spotlight on what is happening at the network of centres, which are believed to hold more than a million people, mainly Uighur Muslims and other minorities.
Then last week, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to counter what it calls the “arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment” of the Uighurs, calling for “targeted sanctions” on members of the Chinese government – and names the Communist Party secretary in the Xinjiang autonomous region, Chen Quanguo.
The bill still needs approval from the Senate and from President Donald Trump.
However, Mr Zakir used the press conference to dismiss the numbers detained as “pure fabrication”, reiterating Beijing’s argument that the centres were needed to combat violent religious extremism.
“When the lives of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang were seriously threatened by terrorism, the US turned a deaf ear,” Mr Zakir said at a press briefing.
“Now that Xinjiang society is steadily developing and people of all ethnicities are living and working in peace, the US feels uneasy, and attacks and smears Xinjiang.”
What’s going on in Xinjiang?
Reports of widespread detentions first began to emerge in 2018, when a UN human rights committee was told there were credible allegations that China had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp”.
Rights groups also say there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in the region.
The Chinese authorities said the “vocational training centres” were being used to combat violent religious extremism. However, evidence showed many people were being detained for simply expressing their faith, by praying or wearing a veil, or for having overseas connections to places like Turkey.
Records seen by the BBC show China has deliberately been separating Muslim children from their families.
This is an attempt to “raise a new generation cut off from original roots, religious beliefs and their own language”, Dr Adrian Zenz, a German researcher, told BBC News earlier this year.
“I believe the evidence points to what we must call cultural genocide.”
China’s ambassador to the UK said the allegations were “lies”.