A leaked cache of thousands of photos and official documents, titled “The Xinjiang Police Files,” reveal new information surrounding China’s detainment of its Uyghur population.
An anonymous hacker allegedly downloaded and decrypted the secret files from a number of police computer servers in Xinjiang before handing them to Dr. Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based scholar who has previously published research on Xinjiang.
Zenz published the details in a paper for the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies on Tuesday.
The timing of the leak coincides with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s scheduled visit to China.
In an interview with BBC, Zenz shared, “The material is unredacted, it’s raw, it’s unmitigated, it’s diverse. We have everything,” referring to the extensive records.
“We have confidential documents. We have speech transcripts where leaders freely talk about what they really think. We have spreadsheets. We have images. It’s completely unprecedented and it blows apart the Chinese propaganda veneer.”
The hacked file contains over 5,000 photographs of Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic, Muslim minorities from the Xinjiang region, taken by police between January and July 2018. Also included are images of the detention centers themselves, with detainees in chains and accompanied by authorities holding batons or rifles, supporting previous reports about the conditions of the facilities.
The records allegedly end in 2018 because the Chinese government is believed to have used more sophisticated encryption methods for the years that followed.
BBC published 2,884 photographs of the detainees found in the cache, the youngest pictured being 15-year-old Rahile Omer, who is seen staring straight at the camera with her rosy cheeks and hair pulled back in a ponytail.
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The oldest was 73-year-old Anihan Hamit, most likely sent to one of the camps to be “re-educated,” as were hundreds of thousands of other Uyghurs like her.
Others can find themselves in prison for even the slightest of offenses, including knowing someone who practices, studies or expresses the Islamic faith.
Despite the Chinese government’s insistence that the internment camps are “vocational schools,” records indicate that armed officers guard all corners of the camp with machine guns and snipers at the ready, instructed with a “shoot-to-kill” policy for anyone who attempts to escape.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi had previously stated in 2019, “The truth is the education and training centres in Xinjiang are schools that help people free themselves from extremism.”
China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Zheng Zeguang, posted a tweet on Tuesday expressing disdain for BBC’s article.
“Such a shame for BBC to carry the fabricated story about so-called ‘detention camps’. Pathetic for the media, in cahoots with the notorious rumour monger, to once again spread disinformation about Xinjiang. Your smearing campaign will never obstruct China from progress!”
In a tweet earlier that day, Zheng had expressed that he hoped Bachelet’s visit would “help clarify misinformation and lay bare rumors and lies with facts and truths.”
BBC reached out to the Chinese government for comment, and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., responded with a statement that read: “Xinjiang related issues are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalisation and separatism, not about human rights or religion.”
It continued on to say that the Chinese authorities had taken “a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalisation measures.”
“The region now enjoys social stability and harmony as well as economic development.”
There was no direct response to any of the evidence, including the thousands of images and official documents.
Anti-Uyghur sentiment seeped its way through China’s policies after two deadly attacks, one in 2013 and another in 2014, that left dozens dead and hundreds injured. Uyghur radical Islamists were blamed as responsible for the bombing and killings, although only one of the events was claimed by a terrorist group.
The two events not only affirmed previous anti-Uyghur sentiments, it also led to concrete actions from the government, including the construction of education camps that have housed nearly a million detained Uyghurs.
In the Xinjiang region alone, reportedly over 12% of the adult population were detained either at a camp or prison during the years of 2017 and 2018.