This summer, in her living room, Asiye Abdulaheb (46) is trembling as she stares at 24 pages of secret Chinese government documents on her laptop. Her jaw drops. Never before was there such irrefutable proof of how the camps operate in which her people, the Uyghur, are being detained in masses.
The documents are qualified as jimi – secret. Asiye is holding the evidence that Uyghur activists have been desperately seeking for years, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. ‘I posted a screenshot of one of these documents on Twitter, hoping that a journalist or some expert would find me.’
She is sitting on a bomb: documents that undermine the official version of the Chinese government. Beijing describes the camps as benign ‘training centres’ where Uyghurs and other Muslims are voluntarily ‘cured’ of extremist ideas. These documents, however, read more like a manual for a prison camp. ‘Strictly control locks and keys - the doors giving access to dormitories, hallways and floors must be doubly bolted immediately after opening and closing them.’
Students are being monitored during classes, in the showers and toilets, to prevent escape attempts. And since all this doesn’t sound very voluntarily, it must be kept secret. ‘The awareness of staff with regard to secrecy and political discipline needs to be strengthened.’
The Uyghur are an Islamic people from the west of China, from the province of Xinjiang. That was the name given to it after China annexed the region in 1949. Uyghur activists call it East Turkestan, the name of their homeland, which existed shortly at the beginning of the previous century. Uyghur resistance to the Han-Chinese domination expressed itself in social unrest and attacks, resulting in hundreds of casualties every year. If no measures are taken, Beijing thinks, this will become a Chinese version of Islamic State.
Those measures come into effect in 2014 and large numbers of Uyghur begin to disappear. According to human rights organisations up to a million people are now in camps. Proof of this remains sporadic, in the form of statements by escaped detainees or details about tenders for security equipment such as barbed wire and tasers. Evidence that is easily brushed aside by Beijing as malevolent anti-Chinese propaganda.
In these documents however, it is the state itself stating in its own bureaucratic jargon how ‘problematic cases’ are to be tracked down and locked up. China may protest all it wants that the documents present a deliberately incomplete and heavily distorted picture, their publication places the human rights situation in Xinjiang at the top of every Western political agenda. Following their publication, the American Senate swiftly passed legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese politicians who are responsible for the camps.
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This pleases Asiye, the final link in a short chain of people who found the documents and passed them on. To protect those involved she does not provide any details. Her somewhat clumsy reaching out for help on Twitter leads her to German data researcher Adrian Zenz, who has been sinking his teeth in the Xinjiang issue for many years. Zenz confirms that he has been assessing the documents’ authenticity on behalf of Asiye. Usage and layout are consistent with similar government documents from Xinjiang, says Zenz. He is ‘strongly convinced’ that they are real. A second academic, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also in contact with Asiye.
This is a game changer for the Uyghur, Zenz knows. Not because the documents are rare – Chinese bureaucracy is rife with internal instructions and reports. Passing them on, though, is extremely risky. Leaking state secrets easily leads to ten years in prison. ‘Uyghur who are caught with this type of documents could even face the death penalty’, says Darren Blyer, an American anthropologist who specialises in Xinjiang.
News organisations in contact with Asiye are also wary of repercussions from Beijing. Eventually, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The New York Times take the project under their wings under the name of China Cables. This way, the risk is spread over more than twenty different media. A week after the documents become world news, Asiye decides to reveal herself to the Volkskrant as the source. She says: ‘I can handle pressure quite well, but I fear for my children and their father.’
Asiye meets Jasur Abibula (46) at Schiphol airport where, by coincidence, they apply for asylum at the same moment in 2009. Ten years go by: the fugitives become Dutch citizens, find their way in their new country and have two children. They deliberately keep their distance from the small group of Uyghur activists in the Netherlands – Asiye wishes to remain independent of diaspora politics, she says. As a Uyghur intellectual she has functioned within the Chinese political system for most of her life. Her Mandarin is excellent and she has always worked for state institutions. Her family is not particularly religious and some were even party members, she says. She does not want to elaborate on her motives for fleeing the country.
Mild-mannered Jasur works as a gardener and is satisfied with their quiet life in the Netherlands. He is less of an activist than Asiye, who is very active on Twitter and posts political monologues on YouTube. Her life is busy now with her children starting elementary school, but she wants to be more than just a housewife. Write essays on Uyghur history, find work, improve her Dutch: later, when the children are grown, she will do all that. The differences between the couple drive them apart and their marriage ends.
Asiye does not tell Jasur what the documents contain, not even when threats start coming via Messenger. ‘You’ll end up in pieces in the black garbage bin in your front garden,’ reads one of them, written in Uyghur. ‘And I have exactly such a garbage bin. But these documents have to be published, even if it kills me.’ She becomes really scared when Jasur is approached by an unknown Uyghur who says that he is speaking on behalf of an old friend of his in Xinjiang. This friend wishes to see Jasur urgently, and the meeting must take place in Dubai. Tickets, hotel: it has all been arranged, says the contact.
Don’t go, is their first reaction, but then they start to doubt. Because of his position, this friend has access to confidential government information – perhaps he knows things that may help the Uyghur cause. On 9 September, Jasur flies to Dubai to meet this friend who has come with a whole entourage, obviously headed by a Han Chinese who speaks Uyghur and says he works for the state intelligence agency. The rest of the company is also made up of spies.
Intimidation by Beijing
It’s a story that cannot be verified. Jasur has his boarding passes, screenshots of a WhatsApp conversation with the contact and snapshots of Arabian tourist attractions. Not exactly hard proof of intimidation but his story is in line with the modus operandi of Chinese intelligence agencies abroad. Going on holidays with state intelligence agents is quite common for dissidents in China, by the way.
Jasur talks about five confusing days. At night there are dinners with lots of booze in luxury hotels, in the daytime there are excursions with menacing overtones. ‘We would drive through the desert and they would say: if you hide a body here, no one will ever find it.’
Since 2011, infiltration in the Uyghur community in the Netherlands is mentioned as a point of concern in the annual reports of the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD. Lately, more and more Uyghur are complaining about being intimidated by the Chinese government. This openness is a new phenomenon. Before, most Uyghur restricted themselves to making video messages about family members who had disappeared. Byler: ‘The local police in China would then contact them to make them stop talking about this. And sometimes there were gains: video chats with family members in camps, people being released early. If it solves the problem of talking Uyghur, the police have that manoeuvring space. It shows how much China is focused on controlling the narrative about the camps.’
This also explains the hefty effort made in Dubai. Jasur’s hosts want those documents. What brand of laptop are Jasur and Asiye using? What type of smart phone? Jasur is not very tech-savvy. They teach him how to hack a laptop with a memory stick. The stick contains music videos and a video in which Jasur recognises the route to his parents’ house, up to the front door. They then show him, on their smart phones, video images of his mother being questioned about Jasur. In tears, the elderly woman says she cannot reach her son.
‘We can’t sleep any more’
Uyghur who have family living abroad are potential candidates for a ‘training centre’. Many Uyghur therefore break all contact with their family, as have Jasur and Asiye. ‘If I would help them, I would be allowed to visit my mother. I would be given a visa without any problem’, says Jasur. Where he works, how much he earns, where he lives and the people he sees: his companions know everything. As a cushy side job, they suggest that he spy on his compatriots in the Netherlands. ‘There are so many Uyghur in the West who help us. You can help us too.’ Jasur is aware of the veiled threat: they are everywhere.
Back in the Netherlands he becomes paranoid. When he visits Asiye in her home he first takes of all the clothes and other things he had with him in Dubai and places them in the garden, out of earshot – what if they’re bugged? Upon hearing about the content of the documents Jasur become so desperate with fear that he wants to flee to the United States. ‘Holland is so small. Where can I hide?’
Scary phone calls, vague acquaintances suddenly turning up: the pressure is put on. They file a report with the local police about the threats and they in turn contact AIVD, says Asiye. ‘That helps a little, but we can’t sleep any more. We need more protection. Going public makes us safer.’
According to anthropologist Byler their fears are justified, especially with regard to family members in Xinjiang. Still, he thinks that the Chinese intelligence community eventually gives priority to stopping sensitive information from becoming public. ‘In this case it is already out there; that can’t be helped. If you do not remain silent about intimidation, if you challenge them and call their bluff, they usually give up at some point.’
Asiye and Jasur are looking the one-party state square in the eyes and say: here we are. Adrian Zenz: ‘The Chinese government already knew that she was the conduit. With these new revelations she does insult China, but if they act against her this will only draw attention to Chinese interventions abroad and place the Xinjiang issue higher on the agenda.’
Now that she has come forward, her heart feels lighter, says Asiye. ‘Thank God we haven’t betrayed anyone. We are reasonably well integrated in the Netherlands and we have faith in our local policeman.’
The Chinese province of Xinjiang has a population of 12 million Uyghur and other Muslims. A special computer programme that is fed with unimaginable amounts of data seeks out ‘problematic cases’ in the population. Suspicion falls on people who watch religious videos on their phones, use software to bypass Internet censorship, or on those who have family members living abroad.
In one of the documents the system identifies 24,412 ‘problematic cases’ in South Xinjiang. Of these, 15,683 people were sent to a ‘training centre’, 706 to a police cell, and more than 2000 were placed under ‘preventive surveillance’. And that was the harvest of just one week, in June 2017. Based on this type of information human rights organisations conclude that up to a million Uyghur are being detained.
Caught by the Algorithm
In China, hundreds of thousands of innocent people end up in re-education camps because a supercomputer classifies them as suspect on the basis of a risk analysis. Secret government documents show how Beijing uses artificial intelligence for wholescale violations of human rights.