In June 2016, Ruzunsa Memettohti, a Uighur Muslim who has lived in Turkey for two decades, called her younger sister Patem in Karakax, a county in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, to chat about a parcel of clothes she had sent her.
After their conversation Patem vanished, as did Ms Memettohti’s other relatives living in Xinjiang. “I kept calling but nobody picked up,” said Ms Memettohti, speaking at her home in Istanbul.
Clues have finally emerged about what had happened: 33-year-old Patem had been interned in a “re-education” camp, according to leaked Communist party records.
Patem is listed as entry 358, according to records dated March 7 2018. Next to her name features the reason for her internment: “Having one more child than allowed by family planning policies.” One of Ms Memettohti’s older sisters, a teacher, is also among the detainees. Her faults were “having a passport” and “too many children”, the file reads.
The Karakax list appears to document the surveillance and imprisonment of hundreds of individuals from the Karakax region, where Turkic Uighur Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the population.
Methodology: how the FT authenticated the Karakax list
The records were leaked to the Financial Times by Abudewli Ayup, a Uighur activist who lives in exile in Norway. He obtained the records from contacts in Xinjiang. The Financial Times tracked down some of the relatives of detainees who live abroad and the details provided about their extended families match the records on the list. China experts believe the records are authentic.
Procurement documents, satellite imagery, interviews with former Karakax residents and on-the-ground reporting confirm that there are four “re-education” camps in the locations mentioned in the leaked files — and that they were expanded around early 2017. Identification numbers in the leaked document match online databases of detainees.
The leaked files were also analysed and vetted by Adrian Zenz, a German researcher whose analysis of Chinese government procurement records was instrumental in bringing to light China’s system of internment in Xinjiang. Mr Zenz is a fellow at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation: it states that its mission is to educate the public about the ideology, history and legacy of communism.
The leaked records add to mounting evidence of the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, with more than a million people having been detained over the past three years.
The documents have come to light as the Chinese government is grappling to contain the coronavirus outbreak, with public anger at the bungled early response posing the greatest challenge yet to President Xi Jinping’s authority. Uighur exiles worry that the disease could spread quickly among people detained because of the dire living conditions and a lack of medical care in the camps in a region that has reported 75 cases of infection and one death so far.
The leaked list also contradicts Beijing’s claims that its “re-education” programmes in Xinjiang are voluntary and target violent extremists. Justifications for imprisonment include praying at home, keeping in touch with relatives overseas and having more children than allotted by the state.
The Xinjiang system was “charging people on the basis of arbitrary definitions that turn religious piety into violations”, said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado.
The files detail how individuals move through the mass detention system, from initial evaluation and surveillance, to internment and “graduation” — the term used for their release into “monitoring and control” at home or involuntary labour in industrial parks.
“I still cannot believe it,” Ms Memettohti told the Financial Times when she found out about Patem’s fate. “She is a really sharp woman who was always good at protecting herself. She was always keeping herself away from problems.”
She does not know what has happened to her sisters’ children, and fears they may be in government-run de facto orphanages.
A view of the system
The 137-page file contains personal data on more than 300 individuals in Karakax with relatives abroad. The Chinese government has flagged “people who leave the country and do not return” as a security risk in Xinjiang because of their possible ties to exile groups deemed “separatists” by Beijing.
Details about family members, social circles and religious beliefs, as well as perceived misdemeanours, are also in the file.
In Patem’s case, the list records she has a married older sister living in Turkey — Ms Memettohti. “[Patem] has not contacted her . . . The individual does not pose an actual threat to society. Recommend graduation. Manage and control in the community,” it states.
The purpose of the file appears to be to record judgments on whether an individual should remain in one of four camps in the county or be moved to another part of the system. In some entries, the word “agree” was written beside a judgment, suggesting the files were used by government officials to communicate and approve decisions.
The records appear to have been updated multiple times from early 2017 to early 2019. In some cases, the same people are listed repeatedly, showing a series of judgments, with the final verdict often being “graduation”.
From the list
This man was flagged for detention by a mass surveillance platform used by the Xinjiang police because he and his wife had travelled to Dubai.
When they returned they were judged not to be a threat to society. But someone he lived with was considered dangerous and the couple had more than the two children allotted by the state. For this, officials decided he should remain in the camps to complete at least a year of “training”.
This man was imprisoned in a camp because he had previously committed a crime for which he had already served his sentence and been released. Following a police investigation, it was discovered that his brother was in jail in Thailand for illegally entering the country — a fact that was held in judgment against relatives in Xinjiang.
A number of other relatives have also been sent to the camps. According to records dated April 9 2017, the man’s “thought transformation is just so-so. He could still do better at accepting his mistakes. Agree for him to continue training.”
By early 2019, most of the individuals on the list had been allowed to leave the camps, the records show. However, Uighur activists outside China say they are still unable to contact relatives in the country.
Former detainees “have no choice about where to work and know they are always watched very closely. [They] are understood to be on probation, where they could be sent back to a camp,” Mr Byler said.
The county’s two largest facilities were in industrial parks on the outskirts of Kalakashizen, a town in Karakax. In Karakax last month, one camp location appeared to be empty. Another had been used by the government for propaganda tours.
In one location, the FT observed four public buses that appeared to come from a camp as they dropped off a group of working-age Uighurs at a textiles factory. Police barred the FT from approaching both facilities. Satellite imagery analysed by the FT suggests that the industrial parks have expanded rapidly in recent years.
The system in Xinjiang is fuelled by “endless cycles of suspicion by association”, said Adrian Zenz, a China expert at non-profit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who received the documents and vetted their authenticity.
The goal, he said, was “to eliminate risk by achieving complete state control over individuals, families, communities and regions”.
China’s foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government did not respond to requests for comment.
Late last year, two caches of Communist party documents, published by the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, revealed that top Xinjiang officials ordered the camps to be run like prisons.
From the list
A man was interned for having a “fake” marriage licence. He had officially divorced his wife in 2009 in order to remarry her in a religious marriage ceremony in their home.
The couple did not register the marriage until May 2017. “This person is one for strict monitoring. The community recommends he continues training,” officials concluded.
This entry notes the dates a man visited a mosque in another village: twice in August 2016, then again in October 2017. He is evaluated as only being “moderately” religious.
However, the records note one of his brothers had travelled to Turkey in 2016, had not returned and was considered a wanted person.
“The community’s overall verdict is that there is a deep religious atmosphere in the family . . .[He] poses a degree of threat to society. Recommend the industrial park,” the judgment read.
Population control and piety
The Karakax list’s most commonly cited reason for interning members of minority communities is violation of family planning policies — China’s strict rules governing the number of children each family can have.
Being a practising Muslim is the second most common reason. Possession of “illegal” religious videos or books can result in imprisonment, as well as going on hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca — wearing a veil or closing a restaurant during Ramadan.
China’s leading demographers have characterised birth rates among Uighurs as too high. In 2017, Li Xiaoxia, an academic at state think-tank Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, wrote that Uighurs “had been influenced by religious extremism or parochial nationalism to violate policy and have more children”.
“Alongside trying to rewire those who have already been born, you try and prevent more births overall,” said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Birth rates in Hotan, the region of southern Xinjiang that includes Karakax, have dropped steeply from more than 20 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2016 to under 9 per 1,000 in 2018, according to official data.
A 2018 Karakax government report stressed its “maximally strict family planning policies”.
From the list
Entries 70 & 410
A Uighur man was sent to a camp in May 2018 because he was found to have taken part in an illegal religious gathering before the start of the “strike hard” campaign, the official name for the crackdown. In a judgment written just one month later, it was recommended that he be allowed to graduate because he had “provided intelligence” to community officials.
An undated entry further down the document acknowledged the man’s contribution, noting his “awareness and thinking has clearly transformed”, but ordered that he remain in the camp for at least a year.
This man did not appear to have done anything but was detained because of his family background.
He was imprisoned in the camps because he prayed regularly and had a father who had been jailed for organising an unsanctioned religious event.
“This person has quite a lot of family who have been detained or sent to training. The family is deeply religious. They are young and have not gone through compulsory education. It will be hard to avoid family influence in the short term,” the files read.
Since taking office in 2016, Xinjiang’s Communist party boss Chen Quanguo, the main architect of the region’s internment system, has beefed up methods of surveillance and social control in Xinjiang by dividing each residential area into communities of a few thousand people with dedicated police and officials in charge of “social stability”.
Much of the decision-making over internment is left to these junior party officials, the Karakax documents show.
Mr Chen first developed these methods during a five-year stint in Tibet, where he oversaw a rollout of strict new security measures to curb religious freedoms. He expanded the use of village “work units”, or small groups of officials tasked with keeping tabs on residents in their area.
“It’s much more human labour-intensive than often thought. Even though it relies to a degree on technology, there is also this laborious process of digging up little crimes,” said Mr Zenz.
More than 4,000km away in Istanbul, Ms Memettohti says she thinks of her sisters and their family “every single day”. “I pray to God to keep them safe and maintain their faith.”
Reasons for internment in the Karakax list
- Breaking family planning laws
- Travelling to one of 26 ‘sensitive’ countries
- Being involved in the 2009 protests in the city of Urumqi
- Going on a hajj pilgrimage
- Being related to someone who is detained
- Being an ‘untrustworthy’ individual
- Providing a place for ‘illegal’ worship
- Secretly taking religious texts from the mosque to pray at home
- Owning a passport
- Growing a beard
- Being a ‘wild’ (unofficial) Imam
- Using a virtual private network — software that allows access to websites banned by China
- Owning ‘illegal’ books
- Getting married using a fake marriage certificate
- Reading scripture to a child aged under 16
- Visiting a banned website
- Donating money to a mosque
- Disobeying local officials
- Praying in a public place
- Calling someone overseas
- Having previously served time in prison
- Downloading violent videos
Produced by Adrienne Klasa