Xinjiang Police Files Reveal Horrors of China's Uyghur Internment Camps

A cache of previously unseen police files from Xinjiang has brought to light further details about the Chinese government's systemic internment of Muslims, in what a leading researcher has described as "most likely the largest incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust."

The file dump, which follows a hack into a Xinjiang police database, includes key speeches by senior officials responsible for running the region's "re-education" camps, which officials in Beijing have described as vocational training centers. The files also contain mugshots of more than 2,800 detainees, among them 15 minors.

The Xinjiang police files, authenticated research coordinated by Dr. Adrian Zenz, were published on Tuesday as the United Nations' top rights official, Michelle Bachelet, begins a highly watched six-day visit to China to assess its human rights condition.

Zenz, director of China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation NGO, is among the leading researchers on the subject. Beijing sanctioned him and others in March 2021 for their extensive studies into China's policies in Xinjiang, which rely on internal government documents, witness testimonies, satellite images and investigative reports.

Xinjiang Files Reveal China's Systemic Muslim Internment
The Xinjiang police files, a database hack authenticated by researchers including German scholar Adrian Zenz, revealed the systemic nature of China’s mass internment campaign since 2017. Shown above are watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, China, on May 31, 2019. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The latest documents further corroborate studies that place the number of Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic minorities detained in Xinjiang at between one to two million since 2017. The sweeping political campaign—ostensibly driven by counterterrorism—peaked in 2018 and 2019, according to Zenz, who believes core policies targeting broadly defined likely extremists will remain in place indefinitely in pursuit of permanent security.

In a 56-page piece in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, Zenz wrote that at one point around 12 percent—or nearly 1 in 8—ethnic minority adults were in detention in Konasheher, a county in southern Xinjiang known in Chinese as Shufu.

"In 2018, the youngest of these detainees was 15 years old, and the oldest 73 years," he said.

Descriptions of the highly securitized detention facilities are extensive. Official documents show equipment specifications that include watchtower guards armed with tripod-mounted military-grade machine guns and sniper rifles.

The database hack also revealed a speech by Chen Quanguo, the top Chinese Communist Party official in Xinjiang between 2016 and 2021, who ordered "shoot-to-killed" orders targeting would-be escapees and "terrorists" who attempt to riot, according to Zenz's translations.

Chen, who oversaw the region's brutal internment camp program, was among those sanctioned by the Treasury Department in July 2020.

According to Zenz, the content of the leak points once again to the "informed and active" role played by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who was shown to have personally endorsed heavy-handed tactics in 2014, as evidenced by his speeches at the time. As Xinjiang's detention centers began to overflow past capacity at their peak, Zenz said, Beijing promised and delivered on more funds, which expanded the scope and scale of arbitrary arrests for vague crimes.

He concluded his paper by arguing that China is not only using counterterrorism as a justification for its goal of forcefully assimilating Xinjiang's Muslims, but its officials have also "internalized official state discourses on terrorism, extremism and related framings of the alleged threat that they pose to the state."

"Here, it is argued that the scale of Xinjiang's re-education campaign, the framing of entire ethnic groups as threats, and the attendant extreme preoccupations with security in the campaign's execution reflect a devolution into paranoia," Zenz said.

"Paranoid threat perceptions justify paranoid responses, which in turn beget more paranoia," the report notes.

The mass detentions are on top of allegations of forced labor transfers, cultural erasure and population "optimization" through birth prevention policies. Zenz calls it "a largely invisible, slow form of genocide"—the United States government agrees.

"These files, because they're directly obtained from hacking into police computers and databases in Xinjiang, they for the first time give us a first-hand account of police operations inside re-education camps; of images taken during police drills, secure drills in these camps; of speeches given by Chen Quanguo and other officials when they just directly talk about the attitudes and the threat that they see from the Uyghurs, and how Uyghurs need to be arrested, and how the camps need to be defended," Zenz said in a video introducing the Xinjiang files.

"Xi Jinping himself and the central government is watching it very closely; is very aware of the details of the mass internment and of the fact that the camps and prisons are crowded—it says that," he continued. "What we are seeing in the region is sort of Beijing's master plan to control, to break the back of entire ethnic groups by interning people, masses of people, key people, the old generation."

"The new evidence really shows that the re-education or the so-called 'vocational training' in Xinjiang is nothing to do with poverty elevation; nothing to do with helping people to get jobs. It's about brutal brainwashing; it's about putting them in prison-like, prison camps guarded by heavily armed police," he said. "It's very clear that this is a campaign to break a people, to brainwash a people."

Zenz argues that world leaders need to directly implicate the Chinese leadership, including Xi, a process that will involve further high-level sanctions and ultimately economic divestment from Xinjiang.

Beijing, which says the residents of Xinjiang are happier as a direct result of its policies, hadn't responded to the latest leak at the time of publication. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing that the ongoing visit by U.N. rights chief Bachelet would reveal "the real situation in Xinjiang" and end all Western speculation.

Western diplomats have stressed the importance of "unfettered access" for Bachelet amid concerns she won't be able to make a conclusive assessment. Rights groups have warned she is walking into a propaganda trap.

Zenz told Newsweek: "I share these concerns. Mrs. Bachelet's visit comes with high risks of providing the Chinese propaganda machinery with a photo op, rather than actually being able to see evidence of the atrocity. Instead of going herself, she should have sent a few low-key investigative teams."

Bachelet, who has said her visit isn't an "investigation," is scheduled to give a virtual press conference on Saturday.