The faces of China’s detention camps in Xinjiang

A new leak of Chinese government records reveals thousands of never-before seen mug shots of Uyghurs and other photos from inside the notorious internment camps, as well as new details of the national mass detention program. Image: Supplied photos / composite by Rocco Fazzari

By Scilla Alecci

May 24, 2022

Ten detainees wearing blue and yellow prison smocks sit in a basement cell, staring up at a TV that shows a speech by a local Xinjiang government official. Blue-clad guards, one holding a club about as big as a baseball bat, stand nearby.

Beneath Chinese flags, several officials stroll along a brightly lit detention center corridor, like visitors at a zoo, peering down through grates into basement cells whose inhabitants are out of view.

A third photograph shows what appears to be an interrogation. A young man, hands and feet shackled to what Chinese police call a “tiger chair,” faces an officer at a desk equipped with a computer, a camera and a microphone. A framed poster displaying the Chinese Communist Party’s hammer and sickle emblem leans against a wall, and a helmeted officer in full riot gear, visor down, holds a riot shield.

These photos are part of the Xinjiang Police Files, an unprecedented leak of thousands of images and documents from the public security bureaus of China’s Konasheher and Tekes counties. The two counties are in Xinjiang, the majority-Muslim region in northwestern China where the national government has held hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in mass-internment camps.

The leak contains the first photographs taken inside the camps and obtained by news organizations without official authorization. The photos serve as irrefutable evidence of the highly militarized nature of the camps and present a stark contrast with those, previously published, that were taken on government-organized press tours.

Also included are the mug shots of more than 2,800 detainees, dazed men, women and teenagers staring blankly into a camera. Xinjiang residents’ faces also occupy one column of a spreadsheet amid thousands of rows of personal data — age, profession, hometown and other personal information — in Chinese characters.

Detainees inside Tekes detention center in Xinjiang watch a televised speech by a local politician as guards watch them in 2017. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

In addition to photos, the leak provides confidential government documents, including speeches by high-ranking Chinese officials outlining their plans to repress, “educate” and punish members of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Among the files, too, are internal police presentations, some for training purposes, on how to search and arrest suspects, and how to use handcuffs and other equipment. One document marked “confidential” outlines surveillance measures to be put in place by Yili prefecture officers during a visit to Xinjiang by a group of European diplomats in the summer of 2018.

Taken together, the photographs and documents refute the Chinese government’s claims that the camps are merely “educational centers.”

The leaked records, most dating to 2017 or 2018, represent a major advance in public access to knowledge of China’s mass-detention policy and the implementation of that policy at the local level, in this case, the western prefectures of Kashgar and Yili.

It’s [one] thing to know it, and another thing to see it. — researcher Adrian Zenz

The Xinjiang Police Files were obtained by researcher Adrian Zenz, who shared the documents with a group of 14 news organizations, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, wrote a peer-reviewed academic paper based on the documents that analyzes the leaked data and compares it with publicly available information. He found, for instance, that about 23,000 people in Konasheher county, in Xinjiang’s southwestern Kashgar prefecture, or more than 12% of the adults there, were in some form of internment in 2018. The paper was published in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies.

“The image material is stunning,” Zenz told ICIJ. “It’s really fortunate that this material can come out because it would blow away Chinese propaganda attempts” to whitewash what’s happening in Xinjiang.

“It’s very touching,” he added. “It’s one thing to know it, and another thing to see it.”

A young man is shackled in a “tiger chair” during what appears to be an interrogation at Tekes County Detention Centre in 2018. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

The leak comes as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, prepares to make a long-delayed visit to Xinjiang this week.

A growing body of evidence documents the campaign of mass detention and forced assimilation in Xinjiang, begun under President Xi Jingping and his subordinates in 2017. The Chinese government has called the camps “vocational skills education and training centers,” but the Xinjiang Police Files and previous exposés by journalists, researchers and activists point to another conclusion. They reinforce allegations that the camps are part of a nationwide policy to promote conformity to Communist Party doctrine and majority Han cultural norms and crack down on expressions of cultural, political and religious diversity.

As many as 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic minorities were held in the camps in 2018, according to estimates by U.N. and U.S. officials. There is no precise estimate of the number of detainees since 2017.

The Chinese government dismisses accusations of human rights violations as “fabricated lies and disinformation,” asserting that the so-called training centers are intended to improve labor skills and to alleviate poverty. The government also says that some of the measures deployed in Xinjiang are part of a campaign to combat what it calls acts of terrorism by Uyghur extremists.

“Xinjiang has taken a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalization measures,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson with the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., told ICIJ and its media partners in an email.

“The region now enjoys social stability and harmony, as well as economic development and prosperity. The local people are living a safe, happy and fulfilling life,” Liu said.

“These facts,” he added, “speak volumes about the effectiveness of China’s Xinjiang policy” and “are the most powerful response to all sorts of lies and disinformation on Xinjiang.”

Liu did not respond to the reporters’ specific questions about the Xinjiang Police Files.