A man holds a child as they watch a dance performance at the International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Leaked Xinjiang police files are a 'devastating' glimpse of abuses against Uyghur detainees in China, expert says

Darren Byler, who specializes in China's treatment of Uyghurs at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, discussed insights from the leaked data with The World's host Marco Werman.

The World

A man holds a child as they watch a dance performance at the International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 21, 2021.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File photo

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is visiting the Xinjiang region of China, a trip that has been delayed for a while.

It's the first trip to China by someone in her position since 2005. Bachelet's six-day visit will include the cities of Guangzhou, Kashgar and the Xinjiang region’s capital Urumqi, but the extent of her access while she’s there remains unclear. The UN and China both barred foreign media from accompanying her.

Related: This Uyghur woman was separated from her husband by Chinese authorities. She hasn't given up hope.

Bachelet's trip is focused on allegations of abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, but rights groups fear her limited access will help to whitewash the crackdown that some Western countries have labeled as genocide.

Related: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia risk deportation to China

The visit comes just as thousands of photos and official documents — known as the Xinjiang police files, leaked to academic Adrian Zenz through hackers — were published by a consortium of media, including the BBC.

They reveal violent methods used against detainees in Xinjiang and a shoot-to-kill policy for people trying to escape.

Darren Byler has read the report. He specializes in China's treatment of Uyghurs at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He discussed with The World's host Marco Werman what new insights the leaked data gives us.

Marco Werman: These are literally police photos of Uyghurs who have been detained in Xinjiang. How do they further the story of what we know about the persecution of Uyghurs already?
Darren Byler: Well, I suppose that the greatest impact of these images is that they're images, that it's visual documentation of things that we've seen written in internal police documents already. And they're so gripping. They put the viewer in the position of the police officer taking that image. And you see tears welling up in people's eyes. You see how they're treated as criminals. And there's something really eerie in all of these images of faces because the eyes are all aligned in the same position, which is an indication that it's used as part of a face recognition surveillance system. So, it's just sort of devastating just to look at the images. And then there's these other details about shoot-to-kill those that tried to escape. Another detail about 2 million people estimated from a local official that are "infected with extremism," which is the euphemism used for those that should be detained. So, it's just really driving home the point that this is real, this is happening.
Do these photos, these mug shots, basically, do they also confirm numbers or data you and other scholars already had?
Yeah, that's right. So, the 2 million number that the local official says is the number of those that have extremism in their minds, that confirms the estimates that we had before of 900 to 1.8 million people that were detained. It's actually a bit higher than what we had seen before. And it also confirms that people are being detained for really innocuous thought crimes, for things that aren't crimes at all, for being related to someone who's been going to the mosque too often or has read the Quran on their own.
I mean, details like these have leaked out over the past few years. I'm just wondering, what is the main narrative that these pictures now alter?
What they're showing is the criminalization of average citizens, of regular Muslims, regular Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Hui people that are from this region, 15 million people in total. It is showing us that 10% to 20% of the adult population has been criminalized and has been detained. They are from the earliest stages of detention, so, the processing intake moments. But we know also from the other documents that are included in this and other documents that this process is ongoing, that many of these people — hundreds of thousands of them — are still missing. Some are now in factories, some are actually in formal prisons and others are still awaiting their trial. They're in detention centers, which we see documented in these images.
Does the 2 million figure refer to the number of Uyghurs in detention currently?
It's hard to know exactly. That was this local officials estimate. So, it's hard to know exactly if they are still all in detention. But it's giving us a classified document, a statement from an official saying that this is what they think the target should be.
Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 23, 2021.

Credit:

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File photo

 
So, let's drill that 2 million number down to just one person. Can you give us an example of one of the photos and what we know about the person who's depicted?
One of the most gripping images is of this woman who has tears in her eyes. And she has just been criminalized and our understanding is that she is being detained because she's a relative of someone, whose son was detained previous to this because of his religious beliefs. So, she's really guilty by association. Another couple of images showed the children of a couple who are also being documented, likely to be sent to a state-run residential school, which is typical for lots of children in this region now.
What do we know about who might have leaked these photos and documents?
Well, it's really important, actually, to protect the personal details of the person who's released these documents because their safety is a concern, which means that they're a Chinese national. It could be that they are working within the police force or within the party system, a civil servant of some sort who has classified access, or it could also be that they're a contractor, someone who's working with one of the technology firms who's charged with collecting this data and housing it and making it accessible for artificial intelligence analysis. It's one of the first internment camps systems that's using artificial intelligence as part of the diagnostics and also control of populations in internment.
Do you know anyone or do you recognize anyone in the photos?
I don't recognize anyone in this photo set of people that I know. But yes, dozens of people I know from the region when I lived there in 2014 and 2015 were later detained. And I know this from going back in 2018 and going to their neighborhoods, talking to the neighbors and them confirming that these people had been taken. So, I have many personal friends who are in camps that are quite similar to the ones that are documented in these images.
So, this latest report coincides with a visit to Xinjiang of UN high Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. There's some ambiguity about the purpose of her visit. Do we know what kind of access she'll have to actual Uyghurs?
It's not entirely clear. I know that she and her team are quite aware of the situation on the ground. They've spoken to so many of us prior to their visit. So, I think they're doing their due diligence by actually going to visit. But I think they're quite aware of how the visit will be planned and how access will be actually quite tightly controlled. There's also a lot of changes that have happened since the first waves of mass internment. And so they're, I'm sure, going to see factories where people are working and appear to be kind of within a normal factory complex, at least during this visit.
How surprised were you when you saw this new evidence and the details?
Well, it confirms a lot of what I've seen in internal police documents and other evidence over the years. But it's always just shocking to see it presented visually in high resolution. You staring directly into the face, into the eyes, of someone whose life has been completely shattered just moments before and is now disappearing. For me, it recalls images I've seen in Cambodia or in the Holocaust. Of course, these people are likely still alive, the people we see in these images, but it's a similar dynamic of a systematic targeting of an ethnic group.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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