Leaked documents from China's Communist Party expose the brainwashing taking place inside high-security internment camps for Muslims in the country's tightly controlled Xinjiang region.
The so-called China Cables were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a U.S-based donor-funded reporting outlet, and shared with 17 media partners for publication on Sunday.
The documents lift the lid on conditions for about a million members of the Muslim Uighur community in the far western region who are thought to be detained without trial and forced to undergo indoctrination.
China's government has repeatedly said the camps offer voluntary education and training to help stamp out extremism. Beijing's envoy to the U.K. told the BBC, one of the ICIJ's media partners, that the documents were fake news.
The files "include a classified list of guidelines" approved by top Chinese officials for running camps and a "massive data collection and analysis system that uses artificial intelligence" to help round up suspect Xinjiang residents, said ICIJ reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.
"The system is able to amass vast amounts of intimate personal data through warrantless manual searches, facial recognition cameras, and other means to identify candidates for detention, flagging for investigation hundreds of thousands merely for using certain popular mobile phone apps," wrote Allen-Ebrahimian.
"The documents detail explicit directives to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship and to track Xinjiang Uighurs living abroad, some of whom have been deported back to China by authoritarian governments."
Earlier this month, another trove of Chinese government documents leaked to the New York Times daily revealed details about Beijing's fears over religious extremism and its wholesale crackdown on Uighurs.
United Nations experts and campaigners say that some 1 million Uighurs and others, mostly Muslims, have been confined in Xinjiang in a crackdown that has been criticized by the U.S., European nations and others.
Taken as a whole, the documents give the most significant description yet of high-tech mass detention in the 21st century in the words of the Chinese government itself. Experts say they spell out a vast system that targets, surveils and grades entire ethnicities to forcibly assimilate and subdue them – especially Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority of more than 10 million people with their own language and culture.
“They confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide,” said Adrian Zenz, a leading security expert on the far western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland. “It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan.”
Zenz said the documents echo the aim of the camps as outlined in a 2017 report from a local branch of the Xinjiang Ministry of Justice: To “wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong.”
The documents confirm from the government itself what is known about the camps from the testimony of dozens of Uighurs and Kazakhs, satellite imagery and tightly monitored visits by journalists to the region.
Erzhan Qurban, an ethnic Kazakh who moved back to Kazakhstan, was grabbed by police on a trip back to China to see his mother and accused of committing crimes abroad. He protested that he was a simple herder who had done nothing wrong. But for the authorities, his time in Kazakhstan was reason enough for detention.
Qurban told the AP he was locked in a cell with 10 others last year and told not to engage in “religious activities” like praying. They were forced to sit on plastic stools in rigid postures for hours at a time. Talk was forbidden, and two guards kept watch 24 hours a day. Inspectors checked that nails were short and faces trimmed of mustaches and beards, traditionally worn by pious Muslims.
Those who disobeyed were forced to squat or spend 24 hours in solitary confinement in a frigid room.
“It wasn’t education, it was just punishment,” said Qurban, who was held for nine months. “I was treated like an animal.”