Police files expose detention of thousands of Uyghurs in China

The Xinjiang Police Files contains more than 5,000 photos of individuals taken in 2018 at police stations or detention centers in Konasheher County, in Xinjiang, and identifying information on most of them. The data indicates that more than half of the individuals were interned or imprisoned in 2017-2018, including those pictured in the top row. The second row displays mugshots of family members of a man sentenced to more than 10 years imprisonment for “illegal study of the scriptures.” Image: Xinjiang Police Files

The Xinjiang Police Files were obtained by researcher Adrian Zenz, who shared the documents with a group of 14 news organizations, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of detention of Muslim minority Uyghurs in what China calls its Xinjiang region, which means new frontier mandarin. The Uyghurs call this East Turkestan which they say is an occupied region by China.

The leaked documents were created or collected when the Chinese government’s mass-detention program was at the height of its intensity. The data set’s 5,074 mug shots appear to be of area residents photographed by law enforcement authorities from January to July 2018, possibly as part of an effort to collect biometric data, according to Zenz’s review of timestamps accompanying the images.

About 2,900 of those in the mug shots had been detained before their pictures were taken, and their ages ranged from 15 to 73, according to Zenz’s analysis of text files. The detainees included 15 minors. Some photos show detainees being photographed under close watch, women by female staffers in civilian clothes, men by male guards in full tactical gear.

Others are just mug shots. In one, an older man, unshaved and wearing a stained sweater, looks shyly at the camera. In another, a female staffer in glasses towers over an older woman who sits in front of a light gray background and stares blankly at the camera.

The leak comes as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, prepares to make a long-delayed visit to Xinjiang this week.

Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, wrote a peer-reviewed academic paper based on the documents that analyzes the leaked data and compares it with publicly available information. He found, for instance, that about 23,000 people in Konasheher county, in Xinjiang’s southwestern Kashgar prefecture, or more than 12% of the adults there, were in some form of internment in 2018. The paper was published in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies.

“The image material is stunning,” Zenz told ICIJ. “It’s really fortunate that this material can come out because it would blow away Chinese propaganda attempts” to whitewash what’s happening in Xinjiang. “It’s very touching,” he added. “It’s one thing to know it, and another thing to see it.”

A growing body of evidence documents the campaign of mass detention and forced assimilation in Xinjiang, begun under President Xi Jingping and his subordinates in 2017. The Chinese government has called the camps “vocational skills education and training centers,” but the Xinjiang Police Files and previous exposés by journalists, researchers and activists point to another conclusion.

They reinforce allegations that the camps are part of a nationwide policy to promote conformity to Communist Party doctrine and majority Han cultural norms and crack down on expressions of cultural, political and religious diversity. As many as 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities were held in the camps in 2018, according to estimates by U.N. and U.S. officials. There is no precise estimate of the number of detainees since 2017.

The Chinese government dismisses accusations of human rights violations as “fabricated lies and disinformation,” asserting that the so-called training centers are intended to improve labor skills and to alleviate poverty. The government also says that some of the measures deployed in Xinjiang are part of a campaign to combat what it calls acts of terrorism by Uyghur extremists.

“Xinjiang has taken a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalization measures,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson with the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., told ICIJ and its media partners in an email. “The region now enjoys social stability and harmony, as well as economic development and prosperity. The local people are living a safe, happy and fulfilling life,” Liu said. “These facts,” he added, “speak volumes about the effectiveness of China’s Xinjiang policy” and “are the most powerful response to all sorts of lies and disinformation on Xinjiang.” Liu did not respond to the reporters’ specific questions about the Xinjiang Police Files.

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