European countries demand UN access to China’s Xinjiang camps after new leaks

Gate of a "vocational training center" in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Gate of a "vocational training center" in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Autonomous Region. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Germany and the UK have urged China to allow UN observers “immediate and unfettered access” to detention centers in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region where up to a million Muslim Uyghurs are believed to be under detention in over 1000 so-called “education centers”.


The request comes after a second major leak of documents regarding a Chinese program that is officially aimed at “integrating” Muslims by forcing them to follow study courses focused on Han-Chinese culture and language, while discouraging them from studying or practicing Islam.

Last Monday, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the China Cables, consisting of seven classified documents detailing the inner workings of Beijing’s program of detention, mass-surveillance and “re-education” of its Muslim Uyghur minority.

The Chinese government has described the leaked documents as “pure fabrication and fake news.” In a statement this weekend, the press office of Beijing's UK embassy said: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational Education and Training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”

The China Cables includes a manual detailing the setup and management of “vocational training camps,” explaining how to “prevent escape,” “prevent trouble” by implementing strict rules; establish “full video surveillance coverage” in the dormitories and classrooms.

Study sessions (all in Mandarin) focus on “de-extremification” and are intended to “resolve ideological contradictions” and promote “repentance and confession by the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past behaviour.”

Mass surveillance

The China Cables also contain four “bulletins,” providing details and reasons for the daily use of the “Integrated Joint Operation Platform,” a mass-surveillance and predictive-policing program which analyzes data from Xinjiang and was revealed to the world by Human Rights Watch last year.

China initially denied the existence of the camps, but later said they were used for “vocational training”. Beijing admits that the need for the “education” of Uyghurs is born out of concern for terrorist attacks.

More and more eyewitness reports have emerged, describing the grueling routine within the camps.

One Uyghur woman, Mihrigul Tursu, says she was detained in one of the camps, separated from her three young children, indoctrinated and tortured before she was released, only to learn that one of her children had died in captivity. She testified before the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China on November 28, 2018 and her plight captured the imagination of Japanese Manga artist Tomomi Shimuzu who dedicated a comic “What happened to me” to her before it went viral on the internet and was translated in English, Uyghur, Arabic and other languages.

Adrian Zenz, the German scholar who was instrumental in unearthing Beijing's systematic effort to create a network of "educational" camps in Xinjiang, told RFI that the eyewitness reports he has recorded talk of a very strict routine.

"They have to get up very early, they have to sing songs of thanks to the Chinese Communist Party, or to Party leader Xi Jinping before they can eat.

"They face many hours in class where they have to memorise songs, memorise party slogans, learn the Chinese language and characters and write self-criticisms, much like in the Mao Zedong era."

Inner workings

The ICIJ says the leak represents a first-ever glimpse “revealing the inner workings of the camps,” and give support to an earlier leak of over 400 pages published on November 16, reproduced by the New York Times in their Xinjiang Documents leaks.

The combined documents paint a sinister picture of Beijing’s well-advanced plans to “integrate” its complete Uyghur population of some 12 million through what critics say is detention, intimidation, brainwashing and physical and mental torture.

Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region, is a crucial part of Beijing's trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project that spans the Eurasian continent.

Economic stability

The project is based on economic stability, but Beijing fears that one of its core components, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting Xinjiang with volatile regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is at risk of being destabilised by social unrest and terrorism.

It is here that Xinjiang’s “education centers” play a crucial role.

“Terrorism in Xinjiang has gradually been eliminated since these centers were set up,” says the Beijing-controlled Global Times. Authorities became increasingly worried with the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of international terrorism and, more recently, US announcements that it is gradually pulling military personnel out of Afghanistan.

“Some areas which were sensitive in the past in southern Xinjiang are bordered by Pakistan and Afghanistan,” argues the newspaper. “But thanks to some decisive measures taken in Xinjiang, the region has moved completely away from the chaos of the neighboring countries. Moreover, Xinjiang has not become another Republic of Chechnya."

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