Leaked documents reveal for the first time how China is running a network of high security prisons designed to brainwash hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities.
China has consistently claimed the camps in the Xinjiang region offer voluntary education and training.
But official documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists show how inmates are locked up, indoctrinated and punished.
The highly classified Chinese Communist Party documents show the secret plans behind the mass-detention camps that are thought to have held around one million ethnic Uighurs and other minority Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
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.
A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. This is one of a growing number of internment camps in the Xinjiang, where by some estimates one million Muslims are detained, forced to give up their language and their religion and subject to political indoctrination
A sample of classified Chinese government documents leaked to a consortium of news organisations, is displayed for a picture in New York. The confidential documents lay out the Chinese government’s deliberate strategy to lock up ethnic minorities to rewire their thoughts and even the language they speak
Watch towers, double-locked doors and video surveillance in the Chinese camps have been installed ‘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. This complex scoring system determines if they can leave.
‘Manner education’ is mandatory, but ‘vocational skills improvement’ is offered only after a year in the camps.
The Chinese Embassy in the UK dismissed the documents as ‘fake news’ and said the population supported measures designed to stop terrorism.
A statement read: ‘The region now enjoys social stability and unity among ethnic groups. People there are living a happy life with a much stronger sense of fulfillment and security.
‘In total disregard of the facts, some people in the West have been fiercely slandering and smearing China over Xinjiang in an attempt to create an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs, disrupt China’s counter-terrorism efforts in Xinjiang and thwart China’s steady development.’
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.
Detainees pictured in a ‘re-education camp in Xinjiang, which will feature in an episode of BBC Panorama on the leaked documents
Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in Xinjiang region. Data collected by mass surveillance technology issued the names of tens of thousands of people for interrogation or detention in just one week
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.
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.
Detainees are only allowed to leave if absolutely necessary, for example because of illness, and even so must have somebody ‘specially accompany, monitor and control’ them.
Bath time and toilet breaks are strictly managed and controlled ‘to prevent escapes.’ And cell phones are strictly forbidden to stop ‘collusion between inside and outside’.
Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh kingergarten administrator and Communist Party member who was abducted by police in October 2017 and forced to become a Mandarin camp instructor, said: ‘Escape was impossible. In every corner in every place there were armed police.’
She also called the detention centre a ‘concentration camp…much more horrifying than prison,’ with rape, brainwashing and torture in a ‘black room’ were people screamed.
Sauytbay and another former prisoner, Zaomure Duwati, also told the ICIJ detainees were given medication that made them listless and obedient, and every move was surveilled.
Beijing has said ‘the customs of all ethnic groups and the right to use their spoken and written languages are fully protected at the centres’.
But the documents show that in practice, lessons are taught in Mandarin, and it is the language to be used in daily communication.
One detainee said those who couldn’t respond in Mandarin were beaten or deprived of food for days. Otherwise, speaking was forbidden.
Adrian Zenz, a leading security expert on the far western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland said: ‘They [the leaked documents] confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide. It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan.
‘It’s the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, except now it’s powered by high-tech.’
Qurban, a Kazakh herder, was finally released after nine months in the camp and was allowed to return to his village, but officials told him he had to work in a factory.
He was sent to a garment factory, which he wasn’t allowed to leave until after 53 days stitching clothes, when he was released again.
After another month under house arrest, he finally was allowed to return to Kazakhstan and see his children. He received his salary in cash – 300 Chinese yuan, or just under $42.
Qurban said he used to count many Han Chinese among his friends, but now he has begun to hate them.
A large screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping near a car park in Kashgar, western China’s Xinjiang region
A police station is seen by the front gate of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. One of the leaked documents says that internment camps are to install police stations at gates, as well as other security measures to ‘prevent escapes’
He said: ‘I’ve never committed a crime, I’ve never done anything wrong. It was beyond comprehension why they put me there.’
China’s suppression of the Uighurs came after bloody race riots rocked the county’s far west a decade ago.
As a result the ruling Communist Party turned to a rare figure in their ranks to restore order – a Han Chinese official fluent in Uighur, the language of the local Turkic Muslim minority.
The newly revealed confidential documents show that the official, Zhu Hailun, played a key role in planning and executing a campaign that has swept up a million or more Uighurs into detention camps.
Published in 2017, the documents were signed by Zhu, as then-head of the powerful Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party in the Xinjiang region.
A Uighur linguist recognised Zhu’s signature scrawled atop some of the documents from his time working as a translator in Kashgar, when Zhu was the city´s top official.
This screenshot taken from the Xinjiang Legal News Network website shows the former head of the Xinjiang Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Zhu Hailun, giving a speech at a work conference in Urumqi, China on February 2, 2017
Linguist, Abduweli Ayup who now lives in exile, said: ‘When I saw them, I knew they were important. He´s a guy who wants to control power in his hands. Everything.’
Zhu, 61, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Long before the crackdown and despite his intimate familiarity with local culture, Zhu was more hated than loved among the Uighurs he ruled.
He was born in 1958 in rural Jiangsu on China’s coast. In his teens, during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Zhu was sent to Kargilik county, deep in the Uighur heartland in Xinjiang. He never left.
Zhu joined the Party in 1980 and moved up Xinjiang’s bureaucracy, helming hotspot cities. By the 90s, he was so fluent in Uighur that he corrected his own translators during meetings.
Months after a riot on July 5, 2009 left hundreds dead in the region’s capital of Urumqi, Zhu was tapped to replace the city’s chief.
Police swept through Uighur neighbourhoods, brandishing rifles and rounding up hundreds for trial. Tens of thousands of surveillance cameras were installed.
A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a section of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region
But instead of healing ethnic divisions, the crackdown hardened them. Matters came to a head in April 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Xinjiang on a state visit.
Just hours after his departure, bombs tore through an Urumqi train station, killing three and injuring 79. Xi vowed to clamp down even harder.
In 2016, Beijing appointed a new leader for Xinjiang – Chen Quanguo. Chen, whose first name means ‘whole country’, had built a reputation as a hard-hitting official who pioneered digital surveillance tactics in Tibet.
After Chen’s arrival, Uighurs began disappearing by the thousands.
The leaked documents show that Zhu directed mass arrests, signing off on notices ordering police to use digital surveillance to investigate people for having visited foreign countries, using certain mobile applications, or being related to ‘suspicious persons’.
Zhu stepped down last year after turning 60, in line with traditional practice for Communist Party cadres of Zhu’s rank. Chen remains in his post.
A Panorama episode on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday will detail the evidence in the documents and feature interviews with former inmates at the camps.