Files include thousands of mugshots of detainees held in a network of camps in Xinjiang, the youngest being a 14-year-old girl, as well as details of police security protocols that describe the use of batons and assault rifles, inmate physical control methods, and a shoot-to-kill policy for anyone trying to escape.
The treasure trove of documents and images – released Tuesday by the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a media consortium including the BBC and USA Today – date back to 2018 and include policy notices and meeting notes that detail the growing paranoia among Xinjiang officials over the Uyghur Muslim ethnic population and the formation of plans to carry out the mass detention program.
They dispute Beijing’s claims that people were voluntarily attending rehabilitation centers. They also add to a growing number of testimonies, public archives and satellite images, and visits to the region by diplomats and journalists that have revealed the use of forced labor, the separation of children from their parents, repressed birth rates of Uyghur residents and mass detentions in “re-education” camps and official prisons since 2017.
“The significance of this is that we have unprecedented evidence at all levels,” said Adrian Zenz, senior researcher at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which obtained and compiled the leaked information. “It is now beyond reasonable doubt what is happening there and the nature of the camps and the extent of the internment.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin strongly criticized the release of the documents and called it “the latest example of the vilification of Xinjiang by anti-China forces”.
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In another peer-reviewed research paper published by Zenz in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies on Tuesday, he detailed findings from a leaked database that indicated that approximately 12% of adults, more of 22,000 people, were likely held in detention centers or prisons between 2017 and 2018 in a single county called Konasheher in southwestern Xinjiang. Zenz did not reveal the source of the information, but said it came from hacked police computers inside Xinjiang.
Bachelet, who this week started a six-day visit at the invitation of Beijing, will travel to Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and his trip will be a “closed loop” as part of protective measures against coronaviruses, a model used during the Beijing Winter Olympics in which only authorized people are allowed. No member of the media will travel with Bachelet.
Critics of his visit say the tour – the first by a UN human rights chief since 2005 – risks becoming little more than a propaganda stunt for the Chinese government. Beijing has repeatedly denied accusations of committing cultural genocide against its minority Uyghur residents in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1-2 million residents have been incarcerated, rights researchers say.
On the second day of his mission to China to investigate human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Bachelet posed for photos with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who presented him with a book by the nation’s leader: “Excerpts from Xi Jinping on respecting and protecting human rights,” saying he hoped the trip “would help improve understanding… and clarify misinformation.”
Beijing has previously said such a trip would not constitute an investigation into alleged rights abuses, which it calls “the lie of the century”.
Citing newly leaked files on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on China to give Bachelet the freedom to investigate the allegations. “If such access is not granted, the visit will only serve to highlight China’s attempts to hide the truth about its actions in Xinjiang,” she said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday the United States was “deeply concerned” about Bachelet’s visit and “didn’t expect” her to get the access needed to an accurate assessment of the human rights environment in Xinjiang.
Rights groups are also not optimistic about the long-awaited trip, which comes after more than three years of negotiations. Chinese authorities routinely block or intimidate journalists traveling to Xinjiang while arranging highly choreographed visits by dignitaries and media from friendly countries.
Areas of Xinjiang, including the cities Bachelet is about to visit, have undergone localized demolitions and renovations, replacing sections of the old city’s infrastructure with themed tourist villages that stand in stark contrast to other other parts of the region.
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“We don’t expect much from this visit. Ms. Bachelet will not be able to see much or talk to Uyghurs in a free and secure environment, for fear of reprisals after the team leaves,” said Zumretay Arkin, spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress. “We believe that in this context, the visit will do more harm than good.”
Leaked files provide rare glimpses inside re-education centers active at the height of the campaign in 2018. Footage shows Uyghur detainees chained during interrogations and groups of Uyghur men and women during re-education sessions supervised by uniformed police. Some of the thousands of mugshots of Uyghur detainees appear to show them crying or in distress.
When asked if Bachelet would be able to visit detention centers and “re-education” camps – centers that Chinese authorities say are vocational training schools – the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that he “rejects political manipulation”. Prior to Bachelet’s visit, state media published articles titled, “Xinjiang, the Most Successful Human Rights Story.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that US and UK calls for unfettered access were an attempt to “sabotage” the trip.
“It seems that the US and the UK and other countries don’t care about the truth at all, but want to use the visit of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to hype the so-called ‘Xinjiang issue’ and smearing China,” he said.
Rights groups also point to the fact that Bachelet’s office has yet to release a landmark report on Xinjiang, although he said in December 2021 that the document would be “released soon.”
Zenz said the timing of the document collection was not initially designed to coincide with Bachelet’s visit to China, but said he hoped the new findings would influence the outcome of the trip. Bachelet has not yet commented on the files.
Some rights advocates say the visit is still important for raising awareness and judgment should be reserved until the end of the trip.
“We should give him the benefit of the doubt and look at what comes out of the visit. Even if she does not have unlimited access, if she is clear about what happened and is able to shed light on the mechanism of these visits that the Chinese government has had in place for years, it is already a contribution,” said Christelle Genoud, former human security adviser at the Swiss Embassy in Beijing and associate researcher at King’s College London.
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Norway-based Uyghur scholar and activist Abduweli Ayup said if Bachelet’s visit improves even slightly the conditions for residents in a prison or detention centers, it will be worth it.
“People there could have better treatment for at least a day. So it’s important,” said Abduweli, whose sister was sentenced to 12 years in prison during the crackdown. He is one of many Uyghurs living abroad who ask Bachelet to help verify the whereabouts of missing relatives.
“If she can tell me she’s alive, I’ll be happy,” he said.