Today's Paper Search Latest Core values App Traffic #Gazette200 Listen Story ideas iPad FAQ Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
story.lead_photo.caption Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in western China’s Xinjiang region in this 2017 file photo.

The Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities for what it calls voluntary job training. But a newly revealed classified blueprint shows that the camps Beijing runs in China's far west are instead secret centers for forced ideological and behavioral re-education.

The confidential documents, leaked to a consortium of international journalists, lay out the Chinese government's strategy to lock up members of minority groups, most of whom are Muslims, to rewire their thoughts and even the language they speak.

The documents stipulate watch towers, double-locked doors and blanket video surveillance "to prevent escapes." They describe an elaborate scoring system that grades detainees on how well they speak the dominant Mandarin language, memorize ideology and adhere to strict rules on everyday tasks such as bathing and using the toilet.

Documents also show how Beijing is pioneering a new form of social control using data and artificial intelligence. With the help of mass-surveillance technology, computers issued the names of tens of thousands of people for interrogation or detention in just one week, including university students and party officials who wouldn't need vocational training.

Taken as a whole, the documents give the most significant description yet of how the mass-detention camps work -- 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 them -- especially Uighurs, a Turkic minority of about 10 million with their own language and culture.

"They confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide," said Adrian Zenz, a leading security expert in the far western region of Xinjiang, where many Uighurs live. "It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan."

Zenz said the documents echo the aim of the camps as was outlined in a 2017 report from a local branch of the Xinjiang Ministry of Justice: To "wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong."

China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where hundreds of people, both Uighurs and Han Chinese, have died in terror attacks, reprisals and race riots. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what he called a "People's War on Terror" in response to attacks carried out by radical Uighur militants.

In late 2016, the crackdown intensified when Xi named Chen Quanguo, a hard-line official transferred from Tibet, as Xinjiang's new head. Most of the documents were issued in 2017.

"Since the measures have been taken, there's no single terrorist incident in the past three years," said a written response from the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom. "Xinjiang is much safer. ... The so-called leaked documents are fabrication and fake news."

The statement said that religious freedom and the personal freedom of detainees were "fully respected" in Xinjiang.

The documents came from an anonymous source, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists verified them by consulting experts, cross-checking content and comparing signatures. The files consist of a notice with guidelines for the camps, four bulletins on how to use technology to target people, and a court case sentencing a local Uighur party official to 10 years in prison for telling colleagues not to say dirty words, watch porn or eat without praying.

Issued to rank-and-file officials by the powerful Xinjiang Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the documents confirm what is known about the camps from the testimony of Uighurs and Kazakhs, satellite imagery and highly restricted visits by journalists to the region.


Beijing has rejected criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use humane methods to fight the spread of Islamic extremism. Internally, the government often uses language consistent with that position. The leaked directive, for example, refers to the camps as "vocational skills education and training centers" and the detainees as "students."

But the documents also lay bare the punitive underpinnings of these facilities, and some of the language on guarding against escapes and other incidents is identical to that used in guidelines for prisons and other detention sites.

The orders called for guards to strictly control and monitor the activities of students. "Prevent escapes while they are at class, dining, using the toilet, washing, receiving medical care or meeting with family," they say.

Other instructions call for erecting guardhouses and internal partitions inside the camps to prevent inmates from moving around freely; rigorously checking any people, vehicles or goods entering the facilities; and recruiting informants to spy on other detainees.

"Evaluate and resolve students' ideological problems and abnormal emotions at all times," the directive said.

The documents included orders for "full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots," and they prohibited detainees from having contact with the outside world, except in strictly monitored interactions.

"Escape was impossible," said Kazakh kindergarten administrator Sayragul Sauytbay, a Communist Party member who was abducted by police in October 2017 and forced to become a Mandarin camp instructor. "In every corner in every place, there were armed police."


The documents show direct links between the internment camps and the extreme digital surveillance in Xinjiang. One document states that the purpose of the surveillance is "to prevent problems before they happen."

This is done through a system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, built by a state-owned military contractor. The system spat out the names of people considered suspicious for behavior that includes going abroad, asking others to pray or using cellphone apps that cannot be monitored by the government. These people were then called in for questioning and funneled into different parts of the system, such as house arrest, detention centers with three levels of monitoring, or prison.

Once inside, the documents show, detainees are subject to forced indoctrination.

The first item listed as part of the curriculum is ideological education. It is partly rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education -- previously taken to extremes during the mass thought campaigns of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

The indoctrination goes along with "manner education" in which behavior is dictated, including ensuring "timely haircuts and shaves," "regular change of clothes" and "bathing once or twice a week." The tone, experts say, echoes a general perception by the Han Chinese government that Uighurs are prone to violence and need to be civilized.

Mandarin is mandated. Detainees are frequently tested on Mandarin, ideology and discipline, and their scores feed into a point system tracked by computer. Detainees who do well are to be rewarded with perks such as family visits and early graduation, and those who do poorly are to be sent to a stricter "management area" with longer detention times.

Students go for "vocational skills improvement" only after at least a year of learning ideology, law and Mandarin. After they leave, the documents say, every effort should be made to get them jobs. Some detainees describe being forced to sign work contracts for low pay.

Erzhan Qurban, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh, was held for nine months because he had spent time abroad in Kazakhstan. Qurban said he was locked in a cell with 10 others last year, forced to sit rigidly for hours and forbidden to pray or even talk.

"It wasn't education; it was just punishment," said Qurban. "I was treated like an animal."

Sauytbay, the kindergarten administrator, called the detention center a "concentration camp ... much more horrifying than prison," with rape, brainwashing and torture in a "black room" where people screamed. She and another former prisoner, Zumrat Dawut, also told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that detainees were given medication that made them listless and obedient, and every move was surveilled.

Independent legal experts say the detentions are a clear violation of China's own laws.

"They're not even trying to justify this legally," said Maggie Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University. "This is arbitrary."

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press and by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley of The New York Times.

A Section on 11/25/2019

Print Headline: China's detainee practices outlined


Sponsor Content

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with the Democrat-Gazette commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. The Democrat-Gazette commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.