Leaked records expose how Uyghurs are judged and detained
Leaked Chinese government records reveal detailed surveillance reports on Uyghur families and Beijing’s justification for mass detentions
By Ivan Watson and Ben Westcott
Hong Kong (CNN) — Rozinsa Mamattohti couldn’t sleep or eat for days after she read the detailed records the Chinese government had been keeping on her entire family.
She and her relatives, most of whom live in China’s western Xinjiang region, aren’t dissidents or extremists or well-known. But in a spreadsheet kept by local officials, her entire family’s lives are recorded at length along with their jobs, their religious activity, their trustworthiness and their level of cooperation with the authorities. And this spreadsheet could determine if Mamattohti’s sister remains behind razor wire in a government detention center.
Her family’s records, and hundreds of government reports like them, have been leaked to journalists by a patchwork of exiled Uyghur activists.
The document reveals for the first time the system used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to justify the indefinite detention on trivial grounds of not only Mamattohti’s family but hundreds — and possibly millions — of other citizens in heavily fortified internment centers across Xinjiang.
It is the third major leak of sensitive Chinese government documents in as many months, and together the information paints an increasingly alarming picture of what appears to be a strategic campaign by Beijing to strip Muslim-majority Uyghurs of their cultural and religious identity and suppress behavior considered to be unpatriotic.
The Chinese government has claimed it is running a mass deradicalization program targeting potential extremists, but these official records, verified by a team of experts, show people can be sent to a detention facility for simply “wearing a veil” or growing “a long beard.”
For Mamattohti’s sister, 34-year-old Patem, the crime for which she was detained, according to the document, was a “violation of family planning policy,” or put simply, having too many children. Under the countrywide policy, which rarely if ever is cause for imprisonment, rural families in Xinjiang are limited to three children. Patem had four.
It was the first time since 2016 that Mamattohti had received any concrete news of what had happened to her family.
“I never imagined that my younger sister would be in prison,” Mamattohti told CNN, through tears, in her house in Istanbul. She said she first saw the leaked records when they were informally circulated on social media among Uyghurs overseas. “As I was reading their names I couldn’t hold myself together, I was devastated.”
The leak exposes what appears to be a detailed and far-reaching system of state surveillance in the region, run by the local government in Xinjiang, designed to target Chinese citizens for peacefully practicing their culture or religion.
CNN has only been able to independently verify some of the records contained in the document. But a team of experts, led by Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington DC, say they are confident that it is an authentic Chinese government document.
The leaked document is a 137-page PDF file, likely generated from an Excel spreadsheet or Word table. Zenz pointed to the use of similar terminology and language in this document, which he refers to as the Karakax List, and other records leaked from Xinjiang.
He said the records showed that Beijing was detaining Uyghur citizens for actions that in many cases did not “remotely resemble a crime.”
“The contents of this document are really significant to all of us because it shows us the paranoid mindset of a regime that’s controlling the up-and-coming super power of this globe,” Zenz told CNN.
CNN sent a copy of the document to both the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the local government in Xinjiang, to see if they could verify its authenticity. There was no response.
Speaking in Germany on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that he would gladly welcome any international diplomats or media to visit Xinjiang to see the truth for themselves.
“(Those who have come) have not seen any concentration camps or persecution in Xinjiang. However, what they have seen is that all ethnic groups are able to live peacefully and harmoniously … Their religious freedom is totally protected and they can practice their religion without any restrictions,” he said.
“The so-called concentration camps with so-called 1 million people are 100% rumors. It is completely fake news. I do not understand why these people are still lying while having the facts. I can only say that these people are deeply prejudiced against China.”
A previous attempt by CNN to visit the detention centers in Xinjiang was blocked by local government authorities.
The document: Family, neighbors, religion
China’s vast western region of Xinjiang has for centuries been home to a large population of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Uyghur. Until recently, there were many more Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang than Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in the rest of the country.
Since 2016, evidence has emerged that the Chinese government has been operating huge, fortified centers to detain its Uyghur citizens. As many as two million people may have been taken to the camps, according to the US State Department.
Former detainees and activists say the facilities are actually designed for the purposes of re-education — places where inmates are forcibly taught Mandarin and instructed in Communist Party propaganda. Some testimonies from former detainees describe over-crowded cells, torture and even the deaths of fellow detainees.
The leaked document appears to be a compilation of 667 records of detained Uyghur citizens, all of whom lived within a small neighborhood of Karakax county, also known as Moyu, in southwestern Xinjiang. A number of the 667 records appear to be duplicates, but in total they represent 311 individuals who were sent to detention centers.
Population figures from 2015 show Karakax was home to just over 560,000 people, 97.6% of whom were ethnically Uyghur.
In December 2016, five people were killed — including three assailants — when a group of men allegedly attacked the local Karakax Communist Party office with knives and detonated an explosive device. Chinese state media described it as a terrorist attack.
It was a series of deadly attacks like this across Xinjiang and other parts of China which Beijing has used to justify its mass detention of Uyghurs, purportedly as a means of nullifying the alleged threat of Islamic extremism. The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that since the system was put in place three years ago, no one has been killed in terror attacks in Xinjiang.
Few dates are included on the leaked document, but the earliest date of detention listed is in January 2017, suggesting that these Uyghurs began to be put into camps after the December attack.
The leaked evaluations contain detailed reports on each of the detained residents and their families, including not only their national ID numbers and occupations, but descriptions of their neighbors and rigorous assessments of their daily religious activity.
These elements are referred to in the document as the Three Circles — family, social and religious associations. Based on these evaluations, each record also contains an official judgment on whether the detainee should be allowed to leave their camp.
How a detainee is judged
One report concludes: “(The detainee’s) stay has been less than one year and it is recommended she continue her training to improve her Mandarin.”
The document never refers to detention centers or detainees specifically, referring to them euphemistically as training centers and trainees, in keeping with the Communist Party’s practices of referring to the camps as places for “vocational training.”
The fact that the document’s assessments all question whether or not the people sent to the detention centers should be allowed to leave would appear to indicate their real function.
It isn’t clear who has compiled the list or from which government department it comes, but the level of detail on each detainee’s daily religious behavior before they were sent away is carefully recorded and specific.
Editor’s note: this is a recreation of one record, not a copy.
One case study reads: “It is found that before (the detainee) was sent to the training center, she did namaz (daily prayers) every day in 2014, prayed after meals and prayed at the family graves during festivals. Her religious knowledge came from her grandmother.”
Another detainee is recorded as having refused to take off her face veil for years. “She went to Saudi Arabia with her husband twice, she insisted on wearing a face veil … with the excuse of rhinitis (allergies), despite committee cadres asking her (not) to do so several times,” the report says. The woman took off her veil in 2016, but was still sent to a detention center for being a “potential threat.”
The alleged offenses for which Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities have been detained appear to be at odds with Beijing’s claims of a program of deradicalization.
For example, about 114 of the detainees in the leaked records were sent to the camps for having too many children, 25 for having a passport without having traveled internationally and 13 for having “strong religious traditions” in their family.
Some were detained simply for reading or owning “illegal books” or having a family member who used to be in jail.
Main reasons for detention in the document
Violation of family planning policy
(having more children than is allowed)
Potential threat (various reasons)
Having a criminal record, ex-prisoner
Holding a passport without
visiting a foreign country
Visiting one of 26 “sensitive countries”
Illegal preaching, attending or
allowing room for illegal preaching
Prone to being radicalized due to
religious traditions in family
Family member of a criminal
Wearing a face veil
Having a long beard
Your wife wearing a face veil
Making an unauthorized pilgrimage
“The document clearly shows … that the re-education camps are not for people who have been convicted of anything at all. They are simply for people who fall into some kind of general category of general suspicion or who have simply practiced their own religion,” Zenz said.
Uyghur activists who shared the document have declined to reveal their source, due to fears of retaliation.
Since receiving the information, academic Adrian Zenz and his team have authenticated the identities of 337 out of the more than 2,800 individual people named in the records.
Through interviews with Uyghurs outside China, CNN was able to verify the cases of eight relatives, friends or acquaintances identified in the document.
The document also rings true with the continued efforts of the Chinese government to bring the culturally disparate Xinjiang in line with state-approved mainstream cultural norms. The steady growth of Han Chinese in the province is a direct result of a policy push by Beijing to encourage migration to the Muslim-majority region.
Since the government launched its “Strike Hard Campaign Against Extremism” campaign in 2014, the local administration’s stance towards Uyghurs has hardened. The detention centers were constructed, Uyghur mosques and graveyards have vanished beneath bulldozers and even loyal Communist Party cadres have been imprisoned apparently due to their Uyghur sympathies.
According to Zenz, this newly leaked document appears to be partially based on information gathered by Chinese government workers who have been sent to live with and monitor Uyghur families in recent years. “This data is being collected by government workers who visit minorities, who live with families, who sleep (in their houses), who spend time with them, who find out every intimate and private detail … And then they enter all of this information into a digital database through a smart phone app,” he said.
Other likely sources of information are the neighborhood committees and cooperative family members who are regularly mentioned in the document.
No release dates are recorded for any of the detainees, even those who have had their return to the community approved. In some cases, the detainee is recommended to be released from the camp but to continue working in the “industrial park,” potentially corroborating allegations that Uyghurs are made to perform forced labor.
If the document is extrapolated for the rest of Xinjiang, home to 11 million Uyghurs, there could be hundreds of thousands more surveillance records like these.
The family member: ‘She is no real threat’
For some Uyghur expatriates, living overseas with no word from their families for months or years, this document provides the first official confirmation of the fate of their loved ones. For Rozinsa Mamattohti, it was a devastating coda to years of uncertainty and fear.
She moved to Turkey to study as a teenager in 2002, after dropping out of school at an early age to be a seamstress. Despite the distance between Xinjiang and Turkey, there are many connections between the two. Uyghurs are considered ethnically Turkic, and speak a language closely related to Turkish. Activists pushing for Xinjiang to become a separate country call it “East Turkestan.”
Within three years Mamattohti had married a local man and they soon started their own family.
At first, she regularly kept in touch with her family back in Xinjiang over the phone and later through email and video calls.
She thought she’d have many years to introduce her family back in Xinjiang to her children. But then things began to change at home.
Rozinsa’s family tree
In April 2016, while Mamattohti’s parents were visiting her in Turkey, the news came that her older sister Rozniyaz Mamattohti had been arrested by the Chinese government.
Her parents returned to Xinjiang to find out what had happened, but soon phone calls from Rozinsa began to ring out. Regularly used family phone numbers were disconnected, without explanation.
“I haven’t been able to contact my family since June 2016,” she said.
In January 2020, she saw Uyghur translations of the leaked document distributed on social media by exiled activists and her worst fears seemed to be confirmed.
“First, I saw the document
with my older sister’s name on it.
It was heartbreaking.”Rozinsa Mamattohti
A second undated case study reveals Mamattohti’s older sister Rozniyaz was sent to a different detention center from their younger sibling, Patem. She was detained for two purported violations: Having too many children and holding an unused passport, which is not an official crime under Chinese law.
According to the evaluation of both sisters, their family had been “cooperative” with the village committee. Despite having been sent to the camp in March 2018, the undated evaluation of the anonymous assessor is that younger sister Patem didn’t pose any danger. “She is no real threat. It is recommended to end her training.”
But the document doesn’t say if Patem was freed from the camps or how long she spent inside.
Rozniyaz had already been released, according to her assessment, although there is no record of the length of her detention. She is recorded as coming to the group chief to “sign attendance every morning” and the neighborhood committee “every night after work.”
“It is recommended she
continue her supervised life
in the neighborhood.” Rozniyaz’s assessment document
Like Mamattohti, many other Uyghurs have moved to Turkey over the years for work or to escape the political tensions back home.
Ipargul Karakas has lost contact with her family in Xinjiang. In an interview at her home in Turkey, she told CNN her brother and sister were in prison, and during her last phone call with her mother, the older woman claimed not to know who she was.
Karakas said it was a shock when she received a translation of the leaked document over social media and quickly recognized the name of her cousin, Mahire Mahmut.
According to the document, Mahmut was put in a detention center because her parents and two elder siblings took a trip to Turkey in 2016, which the Chinese government claimed was “illegal.”
On their way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to take part in the Hajj, they had stopped off in Turkey to visit Ipargul and her husband Hafiz.
“They came here legally. When they arrived here, we saw their passports, they wanted to go to Hajj. We saw their passports,” Ipragul’s husband Hafiz told CNN in Istanbul.
There is no word on whether Mahmut was released or how long she spent in the facility, although the report does recommend her release. When it was written, she had three children below the age of 14. It’s not clear what became of them.
“When we think about the difficult and harsh conditions (our family) might be in back in Xinjiang … we just sit and cry helplessly,” Hafiz said.
The leakers: ‘Nothing is free’
Uyghur hip-hop artist Tahirjan Anwar was celebrating his 32nd birthday in the Netherlands when, without warning, he received more than a hundred pages of classified Chinese records.
At the time, he had no idea what to do with the information. But he knew that it was a “priceless gift.”
“Because this is crucial evidence. Information about ethnic cleansing towards Uyghurs by the Chinese government,” he told CNN, speaking publicly for the first time about his role in the leak of the document.
Anwar has been living in the Netherlands since his father sent him away from Xinjiang in 2005. He was just 17 when he left, but according to Anwar his father could “feel something was going to happen.”
He hasn’t seen his parents in person since, and the last time they spoke was by telephone in 2016. He said they asked how he was, told him they loved him and then said: “Now, you are not my son.”
“The Chinese government made my father say that to me,” he said.
Anwar won’t reveal the source of this new document, only saying that they were taken out of China and passed to exiled Uyghur activists. He said if his source’s identity is made public “that person will die.”
Anwar passed on the leaked material to another Uyghur exile in the Netherlands, writer Asiye Abdulahad, in the hope she’d know how to spread the word. Between them, Anwar and Abdulahad have been responsible for disseminating two of the Chinese government’s most embarrassing internal leaks in decades. They say neither of them was involved in an earlier leak of internal Chinese government documents to the New York Times.
Quietly-spoken writer Abdulahad isn’t a member of any formal Uyghur organization, but when the document appeared in her inbox, she knew she had to act.
“This document is important evidence that can prove the unjustifiable and illegal measures the Chinese government has taken to arrest these people and send them to re-education centers and prisons.” Asiye Abdulahad
The first set of documents the pair distributed to the media was the leak published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which appears to be the operating manual for the Chinese government’s Xinjiang detention centers.
The documents, mostly from 2017 and published in November 2019, reveal plans to construct a large number of heavily secured facilities in which detainees are forcibly taught in the Chinese language, proper “manners,” and “ideological education.”
“(Beijing) never really denied that those weren’t Chinese government documents, never said anything about the classified documents’ authenticity,” she said.
Abdulahad said that she believes the Chinese government is aiming to carry out a “political cleansing” of Xinjiang through its detention center program, to change the character of the Uyghur people in the region. She said the strategy was unlikely to succeed, adding it has been tried before by “many empires in the world.”
“(Empires) all end eventually. It’s impossible for them to last,” she said.
Anwar bluntly describes the actions of the Chinese government as “ethnic cleansing.”
“We aren’t terrorists … We are
just humans. We are just Uyghurs.
We are just like you.”Tahirjan Anwar
He said that it wasn’t a difficult decision to reveal his role in leaking the document, as he is sure his family are already in prison. Privately, part of him even hopes that his family members will be paraded out by Chinese state media to denounce him publicly.
“I will be happy (if that happens) because first of all, I can see that they are alive,” he said.
Abdulahad said people need to look beyond their own family’s safety and speak out for change. “Nothing is free. You have to pay some price in order to pursue the things you want,” she said.
‘What is their crime?’
None of the men and women behind the newly leaked document believes it is likely to lead to an immediate change of policy by the Chinese government.
Previous releases of sensitive documents have been stone-walled by Beijing officials, who claimed that they were maliciously misinterpreted.
But in the past six months, the Chinese government has been working hard to try to defuse rising global concern about its detention system in Xinjiang.
Delegations of foreign diplomats and selected media have been given tours of the fortified facilities. Government officials have claimed, without providing proof, that the camps are increasingly empty.
“People arrive and leave constantly,” said Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in July. “Most have already gone back to society.”
In any case, the leaked document shows that the Chinese government knows in detail what its Xinjiang residents are doing, house by house, street by street. If the 11 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang should fall foul of Beijing again, the Chinese government knows where to find them.
Uyghur exile Rozinsa Mamattohti said she wants the whole world to know what the Chinese government is doing to her people.
“To the Chinese I want to say — why? What is the reason you have arrested my aging, sick parents? What are you doing to them? What is your purpose? And my innocent sisters, what is their crime?” she said.
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