Hacked Chinese government files give new insights on the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs

The release of a new trove of hacked Chinese police records offers one of the most extensive accounts yet of the mass internment of the mostly Muslim minority Uighurs. Human rights groups have accused China's government of detaining more than a million Uighurs in Xinjiang. The files were leaked to Adrian Zenz, of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    The release of a new trove of hacked Chinese police records offers one of the most extensive accounts yet of how the Chinese are imprisoning huge numbers of the mostly Muslim minority Uyghurs.

    Since 2017, human rights groups have accused China's government of detaining more than a million Uyghurs in highly secretive camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Now Xinjiang police files give an inside look into what the U.S. has called a genocide.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They are the faces of the imprisoned, the youngest, 15-year-old, Rahile Omer, the oldest, 73-year-old Anihan Hamit, Hawagul Tewekkul, detained for what police called reeducation, all under close watch, all Muslim Uyghurs, victims of what the U.S. calls the genocide and the mass internment of more than a million Chinese citizens, the photos and new documents revealed in the Xinjiang police files.

    Beijing says, at these camps, Uyghurs learn the Han Chinese language and are taught vocational skills to cure them with the possibility of terrorism and separatism. But people who have left Chinese detention call the facilities prisons for brainwashing. And a 2019 video the U.S. government believed authentic shows Uyghur detainees in blue, heads shaved and blindfolded.

    The new photos revealed detainees forced to recite verses and watch speeches on state TV.

    The photos and files were leaked to Adrian Zenz, a researcher who's focused on Xinjiang for years and is now at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

    Adrian Zenz, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    What do these documents show about security at these camps that we didn't know before?

    Adrian Zenz, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation: The documents for the first time show us how to camps are to be guarded, meaning how many police, how are the police to respond, how are they armed, what weapons do they use.

    Police use sniper rifles in the watchtowers. They use military-grade machine guns. They are to warn detainees for trying to escape or cause trouble. But then they have a shoot-to-kill order if they don't obey the spoken command.

    So, it's really unprecedented insights into the inside of detention camp security. And, with that, we don't just have the instructions, the written text. We have images of actual police drills showing how police are handcuffing detainees, shackling them, marching them off, and then even putting them into the ominous tiger chair for interrogation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's one specific example that we wanted to show of a family, a detained mother, a father sentenced to 10 years for studying Islam, and their two kids, 7 and 8, heads shaved, which is against Uyghur tradition.

    Why would local police detain an entire family?

  • Adrian Zenz:

    What the police are doing is, they are working with guilt based on association.

    So they're looking at, oh, who is associated with whom? And then, if they, of course, one family unit, there's assumed to be an influence. So, for example, if the father in a family has been found to do anything, what we would consider to be normal religious practice, customary religious practice, they would then consider the entire family to be tainted by that association.

    And that's how I think you also came to have such a massive scale for the mass internments. We're talking one to two million, potentially. And one of the reasons, I think, is that the whole thing was snowballing. They were just trying to find more and more links and networks and extracting testimony and finding little things.

    And anybody associated with somebody else or being a family member was also caught in the net. Take, for example, the youngest girl in the camps on the images you depicted her, the 15-year-old. Now, she had done nothing, according to the police files, nothing at all.

    The only guilt or the only wrong thing she did is, she is the daughter of a parent, an official who was detained.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The documents include what you call exceptionally unrestrained transcripts of speeches by local officials.

    What do we learn from those?

  • Adrian Zenz:

    Those are incredible because they are literally transcripts of video messages.

    And, here, the officials are just speaking freely. In fact, what they're trying to do is, they're really breathing down the necks of their officials, of their police officers, telling them, look, don't be weak. You have got to be tough on those Uyghurs. When you arrest them, use those handcuffs, use shackles, blindfold them. And if they're trying to just take a few steps, shoot to kill. You have the authority to do so. Don't let them get away.

    In similar words, Chen Quanguo, infamous party secretary, now former party secretary, of the region, told officials that it's just that the Uyghurs are dangerous, they are a threat, and even if they have been reeducated for a couple of years in a camp, they may not have been transformed.

    So he's kind of admitting reeducation, brutal brainwashing may not work. And you can just sense sort of a paranoia about total security and total control that emanates from these unprecedented documents.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe that one of the speech transcripts from 2018 directly implicates Xi Jinping?

  • Adrian Zenz:

    One of the most important documents in the files is the speech by China's minister of public security, Zhao Kezhi, from June 2018. And this is a quite a record-breaking document.

    It basically says that the central government thinks the reeducation camps are great, the reeducation is going wonderful, and the region has to continue, but there's one problem. The problem is, Xi Jinping himself knows the camps are overcrowded. They're overflowing. And, therefore, Xi Jinping himself, according to Zhao's speech, has told the government, look, Xinjiang needs more police guards, needs more camps, needs larger camps.

    Reeducation camps are expensive to run, but Beijing is going to help to cover the cost.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I know you're protecting your source, but what can you tell us about how you actually received these documents?

  • Adrian Zenz:

    I received them through social media. I was contacted anonymously.

    And I looked at the material. And it was sheer unbelievable. I looked at it bit by bit. I communicate to the source. It was quite a sort of credible interaction. And — but, at the end of the day, of course, the files speak for themselves.

    An expert like myself, I don't like to necessarily trust material based on a source. I like to trust the material by looking at it, authenticating it, comparing it to existing leaks, looking at internal consistency. And there was a wealth of information that we were able to analyze and authenticate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have been writing about Xi Jinping for years, but you say that these papers in particular led you to a new conclusion, that, in the past, you thought Beijing's lines about counterterrorism were — quote — "a facade concealing ulterior motives."

    Now you believe there has been what you say is a devolution into paranoia by Chinese officials. What do you mean, and why is that important?

  • Adrian Zenz:

    When we look at what Putin did in Ukraine and the blunder that he did by believing the Ukrainians would welcome him, we realize he's believed way too much of his own propaganda.

    And we see something similar, I think, with Xinjiang. We see that the government has nurtured a threat perception of Uyghurs as dangerous and uncontrollable people that has spiraled out of control. It's quite clear to me they really have, at least to some extent, been believing and nurturing their own propaganda, threat perception that's been spiraling out of control.

    They have blown it out of proportion. And they're kind of believing it and they're filtering it down to their own officials. Of course, I think there still is a facade element to it. And this doesn't actually do anything to excuse that.

    But it's very interesting, this cognitive paranoia, a common feature of mass atrocities, and I think we see the same sign in Xinjiang.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Adrian Zenz, thank you very much.

  • Adrian Zenz:

    Thank you.

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