The watch towers, double-locked doors and video surveillance in the Chinese camps are there “to prevent escapes.” Uighurs and other minorities held inside are scored on how well they speak the dominant Mandarin language and follow strict rules on everything down to bathing and using the toilet, scores that determine if they can leave.
“Manner education” is mandatory, but “vocational skills improvement” is offered only after a year in the camps.
Voluntary job training is the reason the Chinese government has given for detaining more than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims. But a classified blueprint leaked to a consortium of news organizations shows the camps are instead precisely what former detainees have described: Forced ideological and behavioral re-education centers run in secret.
The classified documents lay out the Chinese government’s deliberate strategy to lock up ethnic minorities even before they commit a crime, to rewire their thoughts and the language they speak.
The papers also show how Beijing is pioneering a new form of social control using data and artificial intelligence. Drawing on data collected by mass surveillance technology, computers issued the names of tens of thousands of people for interrogation or detention in just one week.
Taken as a whole, the documents give the most significant description yet of high-tech mass detention in the 21st century in the words of the Chinese government itself. Experts say they spell out a vast system that targets, surveils and grades entire ethnicities to forcibly assimilate and subdue them — especially Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority of more than 10 million people with their own language and culture.
“They confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide,” said Adrian Zenz, a leading security expert on the far western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland. “It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan.”
Zenz said the documents echo the aim of the camps as outlined in a 2017 report from a local branch of the Xinjiang Ministry of Justice: To “wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong.”
China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where the Uighurs have long resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Chinese officials began justifying harsh security measures and religious restrictions as necessary to fend off terrorism, arguing that young Uighurs were susceptible to the influence of Islamic extremism. Hundreds have died since in terror attacks, reprisals and race riots, both Uighurs and Han Chinese.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what he called a “People’s War on Terror” when bombs set off by Uighur militants tore through a train station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, just hours after he concluded his first state visit there.
“Build steel walls and iron fortresses. Set up nets above and snares below,” state media cited Xi as saying. “Cracking down severely on violent terrorist activities must be the focus of our current struggle.”
In 2016, the crackdown intensified dramatically after Xi named Chen Quanguo, a hardline official transferred from Tibet, as Xinjiang’s new head. Most of the documents were issued in 2017, as Xinjiang’s “War on Terror” morphed into an extraordinary mass detention campaign using military-style technology.
The practices largely continue today. The Chinese government says they work.
“Since the measures have been taken, there’s no single terrorist incident in the past three years,” said a written response from the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom. “Xinjiang is much safer….The so-called leaked documents are fabrication and fake news.”
The statement said that religious freedom and the personal freedom of detainees was “fully respected” in Xinjiang.
The documents were given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by an anonymous source. The ICIJ verified them by examining state media reports and public notices from the time, consulting experts, cross-checking signatures and confirming the contents with former camp employees and detainees.
They consist of a notice with guidelines for the camps, four bulletins on how to use technology to target people, and a court case sentencing a Uighur Communist Party member to 10 years in prison for telling colleagues not to say dirty words, watch porn or eat without praying.
The documents were issued to rank-and-file officials by the powerful Xinjiang Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the region’s top authority overseeing police, courts and state security. They were put out under the head official at the time, Zhu Hailun, who annotated and signed some personally.
The documents confirm from the government itself what is known about the camps from the testimony of dozens of Uighurs and Kazakhs, satellite imagery and tightly monitored visits by journalists to the region.
Erzhan Qurban, an ethnic Kazakh who moved back to Kazakhstan, was grabbed by police on a trip back to China to see his mother and accused of committing crimes abroad. He protested that he was a simple herder who had done nothing wrong. But for the authorities, his time in Kazakhstan was reason enough for detention.
Qurban told the AP he was locked in a cell with 10 others last year and told not to engage in “religious activities” like praying. They were forced to sit on plastic stools in rigid postures for hours at a time. Talk was forbidden, and two guards kept watch 24 hours a day. Inspectors checked that nails were short and faces trimmed of mustaches and beards, traditionally worn by pious Muslims.
Those who disobeyed were forced to squat or spend 24 hours in solitary confinement in a frigid room.
“It wasn’t education, it was just punishment,” said Qurban, who was held for nine months. “I was treated like an animal.”