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‘Absolutely no mercy’: Leaked files show China’s mass detentions in officials’ own words

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 11/16/2019 Austin Ramzy
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Patrons at a restaurant in Yarkand, China, dined under posters quoting Xi Jinping: “Every ethnic group must tightly bind together like the seeds of a pomegranate.” © Gilles Sabrié/New York Times Patrons at a restaurant in Yarkand, China, dined under posters quoting Xi Jinping: “Every ethnic group must tightly bind together like the seeds of a pomegranate.”

HONG KONG — The students booked their tickets home at the end of the semester, hoping for a relaxing break after exams and a summer of happy reunions in China’s far west.

Instead, they would be told that their relatives and neighbors were missing — all of them locked up in an expanding network of detention camps built to hold Muslim ethnic minorities.

Authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared.

Leadership distributed a classified directive advising local officials to corner returning students and keep them quiet. It included a guide for how to handle their questions, beginning with the most obvious: Where is my family?

“They’re in a training school set up by the government,” the prescribed answer began. If pressed, officials were to tell students that their relatives were not criminals — yet could not leave these “schools.”

The question-and-answer script also included a barely concealed threat: Students were to be told that their behavior could either shorten or extend the detention of their relatives.

The directive was among 403 pages of internal documents that have been shared with The New York Times in one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades. They provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which authorities have corralled as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years.

The party has rejected international criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown.

Key disclosures in the documents include:

■  President Xi Jinping, the party chief, laid the groundwork for the crackdown in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials during and after a visit to Xinjiang in April 2014, just weeks after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31.

■  Terrorist attacks abroad and the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan heightened leadership’s fears and helped shape the crackdown.

■  The internment camps in Xinjiang expanded rapidly after the appointment in August 2016 of Chen Quanguo, a zealous new party boss for the region.

■  The crackdown encountered doubts and resistance from local officials who feared it would exacerbate ethnic tensions and stifle economic growth. Chen responded by purging officials suspected of standing in his way.

■  The leaked papers consist of 24 documents. They include nearly 200 pages of internal speeches by Xi and other leaders and more than 150 pages of directives and reports on the surveillance and control of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. There are also references to plans to extend restrictions on Islam to other parts of China.

Although it is unclear how the documents were gathered and selected, the leak suggests greater discontent inside the party than previously known. The papers were brought to light by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.

Chinese leadership wraps policymaking in secrecy, especially when it comes to Xinjiang, a resource-rich territory located on the sensitive frontier with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups make up more than half the region’s population of 25 million. The largest of these groups are the Uighurs, who have long faced discrimination and restrictions on cultural and religious activities.

Beijing has sought for decades to suppress Uighur resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang. The current crackdown began after a surge of antigovernment and anti-Chinese violence, including ethnic riots in 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital, and a May 2014 attack on an outdoor market that killed 39 people just days before Xi convened a leadership conference in Beijing to set a new policy course for Xinjiang.

Since 2017, authorities in Xinjiang have detained many hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in internment camps. Inmates undergo months or years of indoctrination and interrogation aimed at transforming them into secular and loyal supporters of the party.

The government sends Xinjiang’s brightest young Uighurs to universities across China, with the goal of training a new generation of Uighur civil servants and teachers loyal to the party.

The crackdown in Xinjiang has been so extensive that it affected even these elite students, the directive shows. And that made authorities nervous.

“Returning students from other parts of China have widespread social ties across the entire country,” the directive noted. “The moment they issue incorrect opinions on WeChat, Weibo, and other social media platforms, the impact is widespread and difficult to eradicate.”

The document warned that there was a “serious possibility” students might sink into “turmoil” after learning what had happened to their relatives. It recommended that police officers in plainclothes and experienced local officials meet them as soon as they returned.

The directive’s question-and-answer guide begins gently, with officials advised to tell students that they have “absolutely no need to worry” about relatives who have disappeared.

“Tuition for their period of study is free and so are food and living costs,” officials were told to say.

“If you want to see them,” one answer concluded, “we can arrange for you to have a video meeting.”

Authorities anticipated, however, that this was unlikely to mollify students and provided replies to other questions: When will my relatives be released? If this is for training, why can’t they come home? Can they request a leave? How will I afford school if my parents are studying and there is no one to work on the farm?

The guide recommended increasingly firm replies telling the students that their relatives had been “infected” by the “virus” of Islamic radicalism and must be quarantined and cured.

Students should be grateful that authorities had taken their relatives away, the document said.

Authorities appear to be using a scoring system to determine who can be released from the camps: The document instructed officials to tell the students that their behavior could hurt their relatives’ scores and to assess the behavior of students and record their attendance at training sessions, meetings and other activities.

“Family members, including you, must abide by the state’s laws and rules and not believe or spread rumors,” officials were told to say. “Only then can you add points for your family member, and after a period of assessment they can leave the school if they meet course completion standards.”

If asked about the impact of the detentions on family finances, officials were advised to assure students that “the party and the government will do everything possible to ease your hardships.”

The line that stands out most in the script, however, may be the model answer for how to respond to students who ask of their detained relatives, “Did they commit a crime?”

The document instructed officials to acknowledge that they had not. “It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts,” the script said. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.”

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