There's now substantial evidence - in the Chinese government's own words - that they are detaining Muslims in massive numbers.
403 pages of internal documents have been leaked to the New York Times that describe a clampdown in Xinjiang - a resource-rich territory located on the border of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia - where authorities have "corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years."
In Xinjiang, Muslim ethnic minority groups make up more than half the region's population of 25 million. The largest group is the Uighurs. Beijing has fought with the Uighurs for decades, who have offered resistance to Chinese rule.
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 Mr. Xi convened a leadership conference in Beijing to set a new policy course for Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has called these camps "job training centers" to fight Islamic extremism, but the documents seem to confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown in the words of the Chinese government.
The campaign is being called "ruthless and extraordinary". Senior party leaders are recorded ordering "drastic and urgent" action, including mass detentions. The leaked papers show how the country carried out its "most far-reaching internment campaign since the Mao era."
President Xi Jinping laid the groundwork for the camps during speeches to officials in Xinjiang in April 2014, after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31. In his speech, Xi called for "an all-out struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism using the organs of dictatorship and showing absolutely no mercy.”
Xi also said: “The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive. None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, ax heads and cold steel weapons. We must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy.”
Xi also urged his party to "emulate aspects of America’s war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks."
“We say that development is the top priority and the basis for achieving lasting security, and that’s right. But it would be wrong to believe that with development every problem solves itself,” Xi said in one speech.
In another speech, he said: “After the United States pulls troops out of Afghanistan, terrorist organizations positioned on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan may quickly infiltrate into Central Asia. East Turkestan’s terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.”
The camps expanded rapidly in 2016 when Chen Quanguo was appointed new party boss for the region. He handed out Xi's speeches to stay on message and implored his officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.” Any local leaders that stood in Chen's way were immediately purged, including one official who was jailed.
And the leak suggests that there could be discontent from within the party. The Chinese, who often undertake policymaking under the cloak of secrecy, are certainly not known for leaking internal government documents.
Since 2017, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang. One leaked document describes how to handle minority students returning home to Xinjiang in summer 2017 to find that their relatives have been detained. The document says that students should be informed that their relatives are receiving “treatment”.
One document ordered: "Keep up the detentions. Stick to rounding up everyone who should be rounded up. If they’re there, round them up.”
Officials in Eastern Xinjiang drafted the Q and A script and distributed the guide across the region, urging officials to use it as a model.
The document says: “Returning students from other parts of China have widespread social ties across the entire country. The moment they issue incorrect opinions on WeChat, Weibo and other social media platforms, the impact is widespread and difficult to eradicate.”
Authorities suspected that the answers wouldn't work well with students and also supplied answers to follow up questions like:
- 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 recommends answers that get firmer in nature, eventually culminating telling students that their relatives have been "infected" by the "virus" of radical Islam and must be quarantined and cured. Even grandparents could not be spared, officials were told to say.
One answer says: “If they don’t undergo study and training, they’ll never thoroughly and fully understand the dangers of religious extremism. No matter what age, anyone who has been infected by religious extremism must undergo study.”
Another says: “Treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills. This offers a great foundation for a happy life for your family.”
The authorities are using a scoring system to see who can be released from camps. Students are told that the system takes into account their daily behavior, which has a direct effect on when their relatives may be released.
“There must be effective educational remolding and transformation of criminals. And even after these people are released, their education and transformation must continue,” President Xi said during one trip to Xinjiang.
You can read the New York Times' full longform piece, including all of the leaked documents, here.