"Window Into a Police State" Data Leak Provides a Look into China's Brutal Camp System
The images from the camp refuse to fade from the mind’s eye – hours, days, even weeks after the folder has been clicked shut.
A gaunt prisoner, perhaps in his mid-50s, is holding out his bound hands to a woman wearing a white lab coat while a guard holding an angular truncheon stands behind him, a smile on his face. A young man is sitting in a "Tiger Chair,” a steel torture device in which the arms can be immobilized. Another photograph shows a prisoner naked from the waist up, his torso and back revealing clear signs of violence.
The next photo: A man, accompanied by guards, is walking down a prison hallway, past heavy doors and locks, his posture bent, his hands and legs bound. It is impossible to say how old he might be – his head is hidden beneath a black hood. Like all the other prisoners, he is wearing a reflective vest.
Armed with a wooden club: A policeman stands in front of a cell in the Tekes reeducation facility.Foto: Xinjiang Police Files
A young man sitting with his hands bound in a so-called "Tiger Chair," a device which is used for torture, according to Human Rights Watch.Foto: Xinjiang Police Files
Among the photos that are part of the leak are also images of people with clear signs of physical abuse.Foto: Xingjiang Police Files
These men and women were not photographed in an official high-security prison, but rather in a reeducation camp in Tekes, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the vast majority of those locked up are Uyghurs. On paper, they are Chinese, a Muslim minority in the People’s Republic. But in their home region of Xinjiang, Chinese officials have built up a powerful system of surveillance in recent years that controls almost every aspect of their daily lives. Experts believe that more than a million Uyghurs have been locked away in reeducation camps. They are forced to learn communist songs and attend flag ceremonies. Canada, the Netherlands and the U.S. have classified the Chinese policies in Xinjiang as "genocide.” Chinese propaganda, by contrast, refers to the institutions as "free vocational training.”
The people in the camps? China says they are all there voluntarily. Human rights violations? Invented lies and disinformation. China has thus far denied access to the region to all independent human rights organizations from abroad. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has been demanding access to the area since 2018 – and she is finally being allowed to visit Xinjiang this week.
The only information about what really goes on in the camps has come from a handful of eyewitnesses who were able to first leave the camps and then leave China. Until now.
The images from Tekes are part of a new leak, called the Xinjiang Police Files – more than 10 gigabytes of Chinese government data, classified as "confidential” and "internal.” The leak includes thousands of photos of prisoners, secret speeches, instruction material used by security officials and seemingly endless lists of prisoner names. For apologists of this state-run detention system, it will become increasingly difficult to defend the camps.
The data was initially sent to the German anthropologist Adrian Zenz, who has published secret information about the camps in the past. According to Zenz, the information comes from an anonymous source, apparently a hacker who managed to penetrate the computer systems of Chinese security agencies. According to the anthropologist, the source placed no conditions on the use of the data and no payment was made.
"It is like a window into a police state from which so little information emerges. We’ve never seen anything like it,” Zenz says.
He has made a name for himself through his work on Xinjiang. He was the first to track down the calls for tender on the Chinese internet for the construction of the reeducation camps, initially from public sources. In government budgets, he found spending hikes for new detention facilities, some showing increases of over 1,000 percent. Using administrative files, he was able to show that Xinjiang has become perhaps the largest orphanage in the world. Hundreds of thousands of children have been handed over to the state because both of their parents are being reeducated in camps. Two years ago, he was sent the Karakax List, which was reported on by numerous media outlets in Germany and abroad.
"It is definitely a systemic crime against humanity,” says Zenz. "We have here a multitude of different crimes – from internment in reeducation camps to forced labor, to the destruction of mosques and restrictions on religion. The goal is that of assimilating these peoples, to break their spirits so that they submit to the party and can be better controlled by the state.”
Through Zenz, the data from this new leak, the Xinjiang Police Files, found its way to an international media consortium including 14 partners. In Germany, these included the public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) and DER SPIEGEL. International partners include Le Monde, the BBC, USA Today, El País and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The international reporting team spent weeks verifying the authenticity of the data. Photos showing buildings were matched up with satellite photos. Some of the photos also included GPS data indicating the precise location where the picture was taken.
Individual documents and photos were sent to renowned forensic experts for examination and the speeches and official instructions were compared with earlier leaks and statements by Chinese party cadres. Finally, a team comprised of journalists from DER SPIEGEL and the BBC traveled to Turkey and the Netherlands to meet with family members of camp inmates whose names and photos could be found in the data.
The conclusion: The data is authentic. Disturbingly so. Carefully listed in Excel spreadsheets, row upon row, column upon column.
The data includes almost every single resident of the Konasheher region, located just south of the city of Kashgar. Hundreds of thousands of people are listed, complete with names, birthdates and ID numbers. More than 22,000 were interned in 2018 according to the Xinjiang Police Files, more than 12 percent of the adult population. And they were locked away for at least a year – in the best-case scenario, that is how long it takes to complete a reeducation program that started in 2017. Those the system fails to break must remain in detention for far longer.
At least one of the camps near the Konasheher industrial park includes cells where prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement, as shown in a camp diagram found in the Xinjiang Police Files. And the cells are apparently put to use.
According to the files, prisoners are allowed a 10-minute video call with family members every 10 days, but the calls are recorded. If the content of the discussion or the mood of the prisoner is considered to be "abnormal,” officials take "appropriate measures,” the documents note. As a result, most relatives are likely unaware of the sentences their family members are serving. The sentences can only be found in the endless Excel files kept by security officials, sometimes with a picture attached.
The Xinjiang Police Files include a total of 5,074 prisoner photos taken by law enforcement officials in Konasheher between January and July of 2018.
The images from the leak give a face to the reality inside of the camps. Hundreds of faces. Thousands of faces. People staring expressionless into the camera in the poorly lit photos, doubt writ large across their faces, at the mercy of the callous bureaucracy of an inhumane detention camp system.