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Chinese flags on barbed wire wall in Kashgar (Kashi), Xinjiang, China.
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Digital Data Leaks Reveal Extent of Uyghur Oppression in China

Only in the last decade or so has true technological oppression of an entire people group was even possible. But at least it is a two-edged sword

Hawagul Tewekkul’s tear-filled eyes are the first thing you see at the BBC’s interactive article, “The Faces from China’s Uyghur Detention Camps.” Her photo is one of 5,000 photos of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities found in one of the largest data leaks on the Chinese Communist Party’s widespread oppression, internment, and cultural annihilation of the minorities living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

Hawagul Tewekkul was fifty years old in October 2017 when she was “detained for re-education.” Her offense was not stated.

Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been sent to prison, often on unreasonable charges, or t “vocational re-education centers” as a part of Xi Jinping’s anti-terrorism campaign. Sometimes the training centers have been converted to prisons.

Xinjiang red highlighted in map of China

This trove of data is the latest in several hacked or leaked documents on the systematic oppression of Uyghurs in far western China. It is the largest cache of data to date and provides confidential information and images from high-security areas.

Among the detainees pictured, the oldest is 73-year-old Anihan Hamit and the youngest is 15-year-old Rahile Omer. The files show that fifteen minors (as of 2018) were detained. According to Adrian Zenz, a well-known China scholar with the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and author of the Newlines report on the Uyghur genocide, the impetus behind imprisoning the elderly is to ensure they do not pass down Uyghur culture to the younger generations. Imprisoning the young or removing them from their parents to attend state-run schools ensures they are steeped in Chinese Communist Party doctrine.

The images and documents come from the public security bureaus of China’s Konasheher (Shufu) and Tekes counties in Xinjiang. Both provinces are comprised largely of Uyghurs. Konasheher was recently in the news because of other reports, leaked to the Associated Press, as well. The AP reported the list of incarcerated Uyghurs obtained from an anonymous source who says he is Han Chinese and disagrees with the way Uyghurs are being treated. Based on this list and other documents, Konasheher has the highest known incarceration rate in the world, with one out of 25 residents sentenced to prison, or 3,789 per 100,000 residents. The AP compares this to the United States prison rate of 364 per 100,000 residents and China’s overall rate of 122 per 100,000.

An anonymous hacker obtained thousands of gigabytes of data from several Xinjiang police servers located in regions where the population was predominantly Uyghur, Kazhak, and other Turkic minorities and sent them to Zenz. Zenz calls them the “Xinjiang Police Files” and has made them available here.

Zenz shared the files with fourteen media organizations spanning several countries, including the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ reports,

The leak contains the first photographs taken inside the camps and obtained by news organizations without official authorization. The photos serve as irrefutable evidence of the highly militarized nature of the camps and present a stark contrast with those, previously published, that were taken on government-organized press tours.

Scilla Alecci, “The Faces of China’s Detention Camps in Xinjiang” at ICIJ (May 24, 2022)

The fourteen media outlets spent months authenticating the Xinjiang Police Files. In the meantime, Zenz published an article in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, outlining his methodology for authenticating confidential speeches given by Zhao Kezhi, head of China’s Ministry of Public Security, and Chen Quanguo, who became the Party Secretary of Xinjiang. Chen had previously served as the Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region. These speeches were given in 2018 during the height of the campaigns to “create stability” in the region.

According to the Xinjiang Police Files website, the files contain over 2,800 police photos of Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities taken between January and July of 2018. They also contain over 300,000 personal records, 23,000 detainee records, and more than ten documents on detailed instructions for police working in the camps. They include classified speeches, internal police manuals, personnel information, internment details for more than 20,000 Uyghurs, and photos of highly sensitive areas.

The photos provided enough detail that the BBC was able to re-create one of the internment camps. The documentation shows that the so-called “re-education camps” have watchtowers manned by armed guards who are instructed to “shoot to kill” if anyone tries to escape.

Beijing has nonetheless maintained that these are vocational training schools (“vocational skills education and training centers”) rather than internment camps. Liu Pengyu, spokesperson with the Chinese embassy in Washington DC, asked about the leaked files, told the ICIJ, “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.”

But Zenz told the BBC that the leak is “completely unprecedented… it blows apart the Chinese propaganda veneer.”

The files do not include anything after 2018, likely due to a Chinese government directive issued in early 2019 instructing security bureaus to tighten encryption standards among police computers.

Putting faces to the suffering

Once the Xinjiang Police Files were published, many Uyghurs living abroad searched the site for missing family members, friends, and neighbors.

China Digital Times has translated some of their social media posts, sharing the news. One user, Bahram Kurban Sintash said, “When you zoom in, you can see the nightmare story of each individual and one of the millions is my dad.”

Another woman said she couldn’t stop her tears as she searched through the photos for her parents and neighbors, “All of them look like my dad or my brothers, every [pair of] eyes looks like [they are] asking me…’Please help me.’”

In this video from German public broadcaster, ARD, journalists talked to the father of one of the detainees in the photos and a man whose wife was among the photos:

Non-Uyghur Chinese nationals also expressed their sadness and anger over the reports. China Digital Times anonymized some of their social media comments for their protection:

“Being confronted by each of those photos, each of those individual faces, left me heartbroken. To be living on the same soil as those who have been treated so cruelly and to be oblivious to their suffering, which was right in plain sight, makes me ashamed. Why do they have to be treated like that? I am full of rage, and helplessness.”

“Seeing this made me so very sad. They did nothing wrong, but were deprived of their freedom and all the possibilities of life, and then that was covered up and buried. Why was this done to them?”

“After seeing those photos and reading those files, I opened up my Weibo and WeChat and wanted to vomit. I feel like none of us is innocent, and I am guilty, too.”

Oliver Young, ““Xinjiang Police Files” Show the Human Faces of Mass Detention, Raise Stakes for Bachelet’s Visit” at China Digital Times (May 25, 2022)

The double-edged sword of the Digital Age

It is only in the last decade or so that true technological oppression of an entire people group was even possible. Xi Jinping’s government has exploited the use of algorithms, facial recognition technology, and the social credit system to surveil all people within China’s borders. And the Party engages in a vast censorship and propaganda campaign both within China and abroad to control the narrative about Uyghurs in China. Xinjiang has been described by some as the testing ground for broader social control and surveillance for the rest of the country.

However, there is another side to the digital revolution: It has never been easier for journalists, scholars, and sources to find each other. Table 1 in Zenz’s article in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies outlines the leaked documents published in media outlets and academic papers.
The list, which includes the Karakax List, the China Cables, and the Urumqi Police Database files, offers a damning picture of the CCP’s systematic eradication of Uyghur culture in the name of stability and security. All were provided by anonymous sources who leaked the files to the media.

Gone are the days of smuggling stacks of paper files or storage disks across borders. Digital borders are far more porous than physical ones making it harder for authoritarian regimes to keep their secrets.

In an upcoming article, we will look at the censorship and propaganda surrounding UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s recent trip to Xinjiang.


You may also wish to read:

Leaked Police Database: Total Surveillance of China’s Uyghur. Human Rights Watch notes that many countries engage in human rights abuses, but “more than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression.” The police in one precinct use technology to track every move to the point that some say it seems as if their thoughts are being surveilled.

and

The leak of documents from police in Karakax County in Xinjiang reveal the details of everyday life that can send a Uyghur to the camps The tracking app used by the police aggregates all of the data of people living in Xinjiang. Based on the parameters, or “micro-clues” that police put in the app, prompts the user to collect additional details or determines whether that person should be detained. This could include “not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door,” or using more electricity than others.


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Digital Data Leaks Reveal Extent of Uyghur Oppression in China