Reports of secret detention camps run by the Chinese government have been circulating for some time, with satellite images and testimonies from former detainees leaving little doubt as to the existence of these Orwellian facilities. Yet details regarding the purpose and nature of these camps are only now beginning to surface, thanks to a cache of leaked government documents.
Obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and shared with 17 major news outlets, the so-called "China Cables" include highly classified papers from 2017, when the Chinese government first began sending Uighur Muslims to the camps in Xinjiang. Signed by Zhu Hailun, the region’s top security official at the time, the documents have been verified as authentic by a number of experts.
Located in the far north-west of China, Xinjiang is home to around 11 million Uighurs and saw violent clashes between this Muslim minority and the majority Han population in 2009. Claiming to be in the midst of a war on terrorism and Islamic extremism, the government opened what it called “Vocational Educational Training Centers” in 2017, which it claimed were voluntary. Yet as the China Cables illustrate, these high-security prison camps are far more sinister than their official description lets on.
Among the leaked documents is a nine-page memo outlining how the camps are to be run. “Preventing escape” and implementing 24-hour surveillance “with no blind spots” are listed as top priorities, with officials instructed to monitor and micromanage every aspect of inmates’ lives, including when they are using the toilet.
While in the camp, detainees are referred to as “students,” and those running the facilities are instructed to “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past activity."
In other words, inmates are to be "brainwashed" into renouncing their previous beliefs and lifestyle, and adopting a mentality that conforms to the ruling Communist Party’s liking. Students must spend a minimum of one year in the camp, and can only be released once party officials deem them to have sufficiently “transformed.”
"For those who harbour vague understandings, negative attitudes or even feelings of resistance… carry out education transformation to ensure that results are achieved," the memo instructs.
Other leaked documents include details of a database called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which contains information about citizens and is used to identify individuals as candidates for detention. Based on this data, 15,683 were sent to the camps in a single week in June 2017, while 1.8 million Xinjiang residents were singled out simply because they used a file-sharing app called Zapya.
So far, around a million Uighurs are thought to have been detained in these camps without trial, although the Chinese embassy in London has responded to the China Cables as “fake news”, insisting that it only runs voluntary educational centers.