A newly leaked document from Xinjiang has provided information on why Uighur Muslims have been detained at internment camps by the Chinese government. The document has also revealed how the authorities are using high-tech surveillance to keep track of the identities, locations, and habits of individual Uighur Muslims. It is clear from the document that every face, family member and movement of the Uighurs is being tracked. The list of detainees records the details of 311 people who were sent off for ‘re-education’ for simple actions such as growing a beard, fasting, or applying for a passport. All of them were put in internment camps during 2017 and 2018, with hundreds of other people connected to them listed in the document, including children.
The document was leaked to Deutsche Welle (DW) and other German broadcasters, who spent weeks translating and analyzing the document and data. China has claimed that the ‘training centres’ are an ‘effective tool’ in a fight against Islamist terrorism, after a suicide bombing had struck Xinjiang’s capital city in May 2014. The authorities had then installed a surveillance system and mass detention centres, which were called voluntary ‘Vocational Education Training Centres’ by the Chinese Communist Party. However, the leaked document does not indicate that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are targeting potential terrorists for the training centres, as there are only three people listed who are suspected to be members of an Islamist organization. The other people listed appear to have simply expressed themselves through Islam, which has led to them being taken to the internment camps. One case outlined in the leak details a man who grew ‘a long beard’ and whose wife had ‘covered her face with a veil.’ Based on this profile, the Chinese authorities concluded that the couple had been ‘infected with religious and extremist ideas,’ with the man and one of his sons sent to a camp.
The 137-page list keeps track of minor details, such as videos downloaded by a person from six years ago, or WeChat messages exchanged with friends abroad. Analysis of the document shows that Uighurs are subject to draconian methods of tracking and arrest, including facial recognition using high-tech surveillance cameras. Uighur families are constantly monitored though a network of spies, repeated house visits and collective interrogations. The full names, ID numbers and social tendencies of over 1800 family members, neighbours and friends connected to the 311 detainees are listed, with hundreds more listed in lesser detail. A large number of staff have been employed by the state to collect this detailed data about each Uighur household. This analysis shows a systematic campaign of ethnic profiling and abnormal imprisonment outside the normal rule of law.
The cases listed are based on one region in Xinjiang, which is Karakax County, with five official training centres for a population of under 650,000. The top cause for arrest in this area was violating China’s official birth control policy by having too many children. Family planning law states that Uighurs and other minorities in urban areas are allowed two children, and three in rural areas. More men than women have been interned for violating this law, with the disparity indicating that Uighur men are considered as the primary threat to government control over Xinjiang. Xinjiang expert Darren Byler of The University of Colorado told DW: “I think in terms of Islamophobia, men in general, especially young men, are always the targets and seen as potential terrorists. My feeling is that the government wants to weaken or diminish the Uighur population as a way of reducing the threat perception.”
The analysis also shows that the younger generations are specifically targeted, with more than 60% of internees between 20 and 40 years old, labelled as ‘worrisome’ or ‘untrustworthy’ person in the document. Analyst Rian Thum from the University of Nottingham said that “This has major implications for demographics and the birth rate. If you take a portion – or even the entirety – of a village’s youth, you basically put a pause on the community’s growth.”
The Chinese state clearly has strong control over Uighurs living in the region, where roughly 40 people were arrested after applying for a passport. The large sets of intrusive data collection does not provide a logical explanation for the existence of the internment camps. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that any reports of any ‘concentration camps’ for Uighurs are ‘completely fake news’ designed to harm China’s development, with ‘no persecution in Xinjiang.’ However, the erosion of Uighur religion and cultural heritage through internment camps and religious discrimination shows that human rights are being abused by forcing Uighurs to assimilate into ‘mainstream’ Chinese society. The leak is similar to leaks from last year, such as the ‘Xinjiang Papers’ and the ‘China Cables,’ outlining the reasons for internment and life under systematic surveillance.
This leak further shows the intrusive monitoring of the Uighur population. However, with China continuing to deny the true purpose of the camps and discrimination of Uighurs, the international community must continue to put pressure on the state to release prisoners and ask for the justification of intrusion in the Uighur community.
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