Instead, they would be told that their relatives and neighbours 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 as soon as they arrived 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 behaviour 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 centres that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown.
A muezzin sounds the call to prayer from the roof of a mosque in Kashgar, in China’s far western province of Xinjiang, Dec. 14, 2015. Leaked documents provide an unprecedented inside look at China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, in which as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others have been corralled into internment camps and prisons. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
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 anti-government 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 behaviour could hurt their relatives’ scores and to assess the behaviour 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 rumours,” 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.”
Leaked documents provide an unprecedented inside look at China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
The ideas driving the mass detentions can be traced back to Xi Jinping’s first and only visit to Xinjiang as China’s leader, a tour shadowed by violence.
In 2014, little more than a year after becoming president, he spent four days in the region, and on the last day of the trip, two Uighur militants staged a suicide bombing outside a train station in Urumqi that injured nearly 80 people, one fatally.
Weeks earlier, militants with knives had gone on a rampage at another railway station, in southwest China, killing 31 people and injuring more than 140. And less than a month after Xi’s visit, assailants tossed explosives into a vegetable market in Urumqi, wounding 94 people and killing at least 39.
Against this backdrop of bloodshed, Xi delivered a series of secret speeches setting the hard-line course that culminated in the security offensive now underway in Xinjiang. While state media have alluded to these speeches, none were made public.
The text of four of them, though, were among the leaked documents.
“The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive,” Xi said in one talk, after inspecting a counterterrorism police squad in Urumqi. “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,” he added, “and show absolutely no mercy.”
In several surprising passages, Xi also told officials to not discriminate against Uighurs and to respect their right to worship, and he rejected proposals to try to eliminate Islam entirely in China.
But Xi’s main point was unmistakable: He was leading the party in a sharp turn toward greater repression in Xinjiang.
Before Xi, the party had often described attacks in Xinjiang as the work of a few fanatics. But Xi argued that Islamic extremism had taken root across swaths of Uighur society.
Violence by Uighur militants has never threatened Communist control of the region. Although attacks grew deadlier after 2009, when nearly 200 people died in ethnic riots in Urumqi, they remained relatively small, scattered and unsophisticated.
Even so, Xi warned that the violence was spilling from Xinjiang into other parts of China and could taint the party’s image of strength.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, responded to the 2009 riots in Urumqi with a clampdown, but he also stressed economic development as a cure for ethnic discontent. But Xi signalled a break with Hu’s approach.
“In recent years, Xinjiang has grown very quickly and the standard of living has consistently risen, but even so, ethnic separatism and terrorist violence have still been on the rise,” he said. “This goes to show that economic development does not automatically bring lasting order and security.”
Ensuring stability in Xinjiang would require a sweeping campaign of surveillance and intelligence gathering to root out resistance in Uighur society, Xi argued.
He said new technology must be part of the solution, foreshadowing the party’s deployment of facial recognition, genetic testing and big data in Xinjiang.
Within months, indoctrination sites began opening across Xinjiang — mostly small facilities at first, which held dozens or hundreds of Uighurs at a time for sessions intended to pressure them into disavowing devotion to Islam and professing gratitude for the party.
Then in August 2016, a hard-liner named Chen was transferred from Tibet to govern Xinjiang. New security controls and a drastic expansion of the indoctrination camps followed.
Patrons dine under posters quoting Xi Jinping, reading “every ethnic group must tightly bind together like the seeds of a pomegranate,” at a restaurant in Yarkand, in China’s Xinjiang province, Aug. 5, 2019. Leaked documents have provided an unprecedented inside look at China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)
‘I BROKE THE RULES’
In February 2017, Chen told thousands of police officers and troops in Urumqi to prepare for a “smashing, obliterating offensive.” In the following weeks, the documents indicate, leadership settled on plans to detain Uighurs in large numbers.
Chen issued a sweeping order: “Round up everyone who should be rounded up.” The vague phrase appears repeatedly in internal documents from 2017 and was being applied to humans in directives that ordered, with no mention of judicial procedures, the detention of anyone who displayed “symptoms” of religious radicalism or anti-government views.
Authorities laid out dozens of such signs, including common behaviour among devout Uighurs such as wearing long beards, giving up smoking or drinking, studying Arabic and praying outside mosques.
The number of people swept into the camps remains a closely guarded secret. But one of the leaked documents offers a hint of the scale of the campaign: It instructed officials to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in crowded facilities.
The orders were especially urgent and contentious in Yarkand County, a collection of rural towns and villages in southern Xinjiang where nearly all of the 900,000 residents are Uighur.
In the 2014 speeches, Xi had singled out southern Xinjiang as the front line in his fight against religious extremism. Uighurs make up close to 90% of the population in the south, compared to just under half in Xinjiang overall.
A few months later, more than 100 Uighur militants armed with axes and knives attacked a government office and police station in Yarkand, killing 37 people, according to government reports. In the battle, security forces shot dead 59 assailants.
An official named Wang Yongzhi was appointed to run Yarkand soon afterward. But among the most revealing documents in the leaked papers are two that describe Wang’s downfall — an 11-page report summarising the party’s internal investigation into his actions and the text of a 15-page confession that he may have given under duress. Both were distributed inside the party as a warning to officials to fall in line behind the crackdown.
Wang set about beefing up security in Yarkand, but he also pushed economic development to address ethnic discontent. And he sought to soften the party’s religious policies, declaring that there was nothing wrong with having a Quran at home and encouraging party officials to read it to better understand Uighur traditions.
When the mass detentions began, Wang did as he was told at first. He built two sprawling new detention facilities and herded 20,000 people into them.
But privately, Wang had misgivings, according to the confession that he later signed, which would have been carefully vetted by the party.
He was under intense pressure to prevent an outburst of violence in Yarkand and worried the crackdown would provoke a backlash.
Leadership had set goals to reduce poverty in Xinjiang. But with so many working-age residents being sent to the camps, Wang was afraid the targets would be out of reach.
Secret teams of investigators travelled across the region identifying those who were not doing enough. In 2017, the party opened more than 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the “fight against separatism.”
Wang may have gone further than any other official. Quietly, he ordered the release of more than 7,000 camp inmates — an act of defiance for which he would be detained, stripped of power and prosecuted.
“Without approval and on my own initiative,” he added, “I broke the rules.”
Wang quietly disappeared from public view after September 2017. About six months later, the party made an example of him.
Both the report and Wang’s confession were read aloud to officials across Xinjiang. But Wang’s greatest political sin was not revealed to the public. Instead, authorities hid it in the internal report.
“He refused,” it said, “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
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