Documents leaked on Sunday expose new details about how the Chinese government is using a network of detention centers to brainwash hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Western China.
The Chinese government has continually denied claims that it has unjustly imprisoned hundreds of thousands to millions of Uighur and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
However, documents called “The China Cables” that were leaked to news outlets this week offer a peek behind the curtain into the ideological motivations and structure behind such detention centers that international actors have strongly condemned.
The documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a consortium that has worked with 17 media partners including the BBC and The Guardian.
According to ICIJ, the documents include a classified list of guidelines that were approved by the region’s top security official that serves as a manual for operating the camps.
The leak also includes intelligence briefings that detail how Chinese security officers are guided by massive data collection that helps select categories of residents to detain.
The leaked documents also appear to contradict the Chinese government’s claim that the network of detention centers constructed across Xinjiang in recent years only exist as places of voluntary re-education to help Muslims with extremist tendencies get on the right path.
The documents came to the ICIJ through a chain of exiled Uighurs. ICIJ says the authenticity of the documents was confirmed by leading experts.
China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming called reports of the leak “fake news.”
Included in the leak is a nine-page memo reportedly sent out to officials operating the camps by then deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party, Zhu Hailun, in 2017.
BBC reports that the memo explains that the detention centers in Xinjiang should be run as high-security prisons with strict punishments and no escapes.
The memo also orders detention center officials to “increase discipline and punishment of behavioral violations,” make remedial Mandarin studies a top priority and “promote repentance and confession.”
According to The Guardian, the memo also reveals that inmates at the camps must serve at least one year but could be detained indefinitely.
The 2017 memo allegedly states that camps are to be run on a point system in which inmates earn points for “ideological transformation,” “compliance with discipline” and “study and training.”
The memo indicates that the only contacts inmates are allowed to have with the outside world are their weekly phone calls and monthly video calls with relatives.
The leak also included four “bulletins” written in Chinese that serve as briefings from the Integrated Joint Operation Platform, a centralized data collection system.
According to ICIJ, these bulletins “layout the connection between mass surveillance and the Xinjiang camps.”
According to The Guardian, the leaked documents are consistent with evidence that China is running secret, involuntary camps that are being used for ideological “education transformation.”
The Guardian reports that the documents reveal the scale to which inmates were rounded up.
In one week in June 2017, The Guardian report states that over 24,000 “suspicious persons” in southern Xinjiang were flagged and two-thirds of them were detained. Over 15,600 were sent to re-education camps and over 700 were sent to jail.
Earlier this year, select journalists were allowed by the Chinese government to tour select centers.
“These are places where adults wear uniforms and they don’t go home at the end of the day but sleep up to 10 a room sharing a toilet with no idea how many months or years it will be before they can return to their families,” BBC reporter John Sudworth said after touring the camps.
Sudworth explained that “thoughts are transformed” through “long hours of rote learning Chinese,” the study of “China’s tightening restrictions on religion” and “the replacing of faith and cultural identity with a different loyalty.”
Escapees from the camps have reported instances of abuse and torture.
One woman who escaped from one of the camps told BBC this summer that her feet were shackled for one year and three months.
Another former female inmate told Radio Free Asia that female detainees are routinely forced to take medicine affecting their reproductive cycles, are denied treatment for health issues and are subjected to sexual abuse.
The woman, Tursunay Ziyawudun, said camp officials would often take women to the hospital to be sterilized.
“I was taken to a hospital to undergo a [sterilization] operation, but because I have always suffered from a gynecological condition the doctor said I could suffer complications that include death, so they spared me,” Ziyawudun was quoted as saying.
Last week, a Uighur human rights group accused the Chinese government of running at least 500 detention centers, prison and re-education camps in Xinjiang. The East Turkistan National Awakening Movement released the results of its yearlong research into the situation in Xinjiang.
The organization estimates that as many as 1 million to possibly 3 million people are being held in the “concentration camps.”
“We believe the number is much higher when prisons and labor camps are also considered,” the organization reported.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told BBC that the leaked documents should be used by prosecutors.
"This is an actionable piece of evidence, documenting a gross human rights violation," she said of the 2017 memo. "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.”
China’s detention of Muslims has been condemned strongly by the U.S. government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. During his visit to Hong Kong in March, Brownback accused the Chinese government of being “at war with faith.”
“China is not solving a terrorist problem by forcibly moving women, children, the elderly, and the highly educated intelligentsia into mass detention centers and internment camps,” Brownback said at the time.
“The magnitude of these detentions is completely out of proportion to any real threat China faces from extremism, even according to China’s own official media and police reports.”
In October, the U.S. State Department issued visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials involved in the persecution of ethnic groups in Xinjiang.