China Cables: ‘The largest incarceration of a minority since the Holocaust’

Mass internment of Uighur people in camps laid bare in leaked documents

“Dormitory doors, corridor doors, and floor doors must be double-locked, and must be locked immediately after being opened and closed.”

“Strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes during class, eating periods, toilet breaks, bath time, medical treatment, family visits, etc.”

The quotes are from instructions issued by a top security official in the Xinjiang province of China, where since 2017 more than a million people from Uighur and other ethnic minority groups are being kept in camps.

The Chinese authorities, who at first denied the camps existed, then said they were there to provide “educational training” to “students” in centres that had a “boarding school” type of management.


“It is strictly forbidden for police to enter the student zone with guns, and they must never allow escapes, never allow trouble, never allow attacks on staff, never allow abnormal deaths.”

Contained in a telegram called “New Secret 5656”, the instructions were written in 2017, when the policy of incarcerating people from ethnic minorities in Xinjiang was being put into effect on an industrial scale.

The telegram is among a small cache of secret documents, being called the China Cables, that were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and have been shared with 17 media partners, including The Irish Times, the BBC, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung and the US TV network, NBC.

The leak puts to rest attempts by the Chinese government to portray the facilities in the western province of Xinjiang as anything other than internment camps.


Adrian Zenz, a recognised authority on what is happening in Xinjiang, told the ICIJ he believes the reference in the instructions to not allowing "abnormal deaths" has to do with torture.

The telegram does not mention torture, “but the fact that it mentions the avoidance of abnormal deaths, in my opinion, is an indication that [the camp system] is using forms of physical force on people that, however, is not supposed to kill them.”

People are being put in chain-suits, are being made stand in certain positions, and are being beaten, said Zenz. Other harsher forms of torture are being meted out in prisons and detention centres.

In October a former detainee, Sayragul Sauytbay, a Muslim of Kazakh descent who has been granted asylum in Sweden, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that some inmates were made sit on a chair of nails. “I saw people return from that room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails.”

The "special secrecy level" instructions in the telegram were issued by Zhu Hailun, the then head of the Chinese Communist Party's Political and Legal Commission (PLC) in Xinjiang, and the senior party official then responsible for the implementation of the campaign of repression in Xinjiang.

The instructions were sent to senior party comrades across the massive, sparsely populated region that borders India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, as well as the autonomous region of Tibet.

The document gives a chilling insight into life behind the walls of the “education and training centers” the Chinese government has constructed across a region that is home to approximately 10 million Muslims who are closer, culturally, to Istanbul than they are to Beijing.

In a bizarre section on “manner education”, Zhu instructed his party colleagues to “strengthen the hygiene management of students, ensure timely haircuts and shaves, regular change of clothes, and arrange bathing once or twice a week, to develop good life habits.”

According to Darren Byler, a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Washington and an authority on Uighur culture, this section of Zhu's instructions reflects a deep-seated belief among the majority, Han Chinese that Uighurs are a "backward" people who need to be civilised.

Xinjiang region

Xinjiang – the name literally means “new land” – was independent up to the 18th century. Influxes of Han Chinese in the 1960s and the 1990s mean that today up to half the population, and possibly more, is Han.

David O’Brien, a native of Birr, Co Offaly, who lectures in the East Asian studies faculty of the Ruhr University, in Bochum, Germany, knows the Xinjiang region well.

After graduating with an arts degree from NUI Galway, O’Brien worked in Xinjiang as an English teacher for three years. After returning to Ireland, he wrote a PhD thesis for NUI Cork on ethnic identity in Xinjiang, and he has just finished six years teaching in the University of Nottingham’s Chinese campus, in Ninbo, in eastern China.

O’Brien has visited Xinjiang most years since 2008, and has witnessed the region’s transformation. “When I went first it was not unusual to see Uighur and Han socialising. Now it is unheard of. There is just no interaction.”

Serious ethnic riots in the capital, Ürümqi, in 2009, saw about 200, mostly Han people lose their lives. The authorities reacted by clamping down hard on what they saw as a dangerous separatist movement with links to Islamic extremism.

What has since been put in place has been described by Zenz as "the most systematic campaign of mass surveillance and mass oppression the world has ever seen"

In April 2014, after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people in a train station, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the region. In secret speeches to party officials, he called for a response that showed “absolutely no mercy”.

In August 2016, a senior party official, Chen Quanguo, moved from Tibet, where the party has long been waging a campaign of repression, to take on the role of governor of Xinjiang.

“It became a bit like Belfast in the 1970s and the 1980s,” said O’Brien. “It felt a bit like that. You’d see the military everywhere. You were very aware of the security being very intrusive in people’s lives. There are checkpoints everywhere. There are CCTV cameras everywhere, and people are very wary of it.

“When I was there last time, you’d see people being detained on the street and you’d look around and what would strike you is that people were deliberately not watching it, not looking, because if you [are seen] watching it, you could be drawn into it.”

When Quanguo moved to Xinjiang, Zhu was appointed as his top law-and-order official, heading up the party’s regional PLC, which in turn oversees policing, interior security, and the courts.

What has since been put in place has been described by Zenz as “the most systematic campaign of mass surveillance and mass oppression the world has ever seen”, including what is probably “largest incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust.”

Descent of silence

For O’Brien, one of the ways in which the massive campaign of repression manifested itself was the descent of silence. “All of us would have seen our friends there just go quiet. That’s the reality of it. It’s pretty chilling stuff.”

The last time he visited the province, in early 2017, he noticed that people whom he would normally meet up with were reluctant to do so. “No one ever said to me, don’t contact me, it’s too dangerous. But it became obvious.”

Most of his Uighur friends and contacts have deleted his details from their phones, and he does not try to reach them lest he might bring their relationship with a foreigner to the attention of the authorities. Likewise, they do not try to contact him.

“They have all gone quiet in my life, and it has been confirmed to me by others that some are missing, and presumed to be in those camps.”

To try contact anyone would be irresponsible. “They stop people at checkpoints and take their phones. They put the phones through machines that check all their contacts. Even if you have no foreigners among your contacts, just having WhatsApp would be enough.”

When both parents in a family are sent to the camps, their children are put into state orphanages where they are educated through Han Chinese rather than their native Turkic language. The children are taught to be loyal to China and the Communist party.

No religious activity is allowed in the camps or the orphanages as the law in China forbids the mixing of education and religion.

“Getting up, rollcall, washing, going to the toilet, organising and housekeeping, eating, studying, sleeping, closing the door, and so forth” for each inmate, is to be formulated in detail and monitored, Zhe said in the leaked instructions.

“Increase the discipline and punishment of behavioural violations.”


While the surveillance of the ethnic population in Xinjiang’s cities, towns and villages is on a scale the world has never seen before, the monitoring inside the camps is absolute.

“There must be full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms, free of blind spots, ensuring that guards on duty can monitor in real time, record things in detail, and report suspicious circumstances immediately,” Zhu wrote, under the heading “prevent trouble”.

“I am very confident that the document is genuine,” said Zenz, a German academic and senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, DC.

“To my knowledge this is the first time a classified Chinese government document that directly talks about the [camps] has been leaked to the public.”

The Chinese ambassador to Ireland, He Xiangdong, was asked to comment in advance of the publication of the China Cables. He was told the documents showed that people are being held against their will in harsh conditions, and that “ideological transformation” is necessary before a person is released.

"The issue Xinjiang faces is not about ethnicity, religion or human rights," he said in a statement. "Rather, it is about fighting violence, terrorism and separatism."
Thanks to the preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation efforts, "including establishing vocational education and training centers," Xinjiang, a place that once suffered gravely from terrorism, hasn't seen a single violent, terrorist incident over the past three years, the ambassador said.

“We will continue to handle our domestic affairs well. We will continue to implement our Xinjiang policy and ensure Xinjiang’s sound development.”

Zhu’s classified instructions to local PLCs across Xinjiang detailed how the camp inmates are to be subjected to an “ideological transformation” that is a qualification for release.

Culture control

Alexander Dukalskis, an assistant professor in UCD's school of politics and international relations, and a specialist on Asian politics, reviewed the Zhu document for The Irish Times.

“This is about enforcing another language on a minority group as part of stamping out their independent culture. The document doesn’t mention teaching maths, or science – it focuses on language and ideology. It is about wiping out their language so as to control their culture and enforce political loyalty.”

The ultimate aim, according to Dukalskis, is to destroy any possibility of serious opposition to the government in Xinjiang by Uighurs, forever.

“This sounds exaggerated, but there is really no other way to put it. The strategy is to eliminate dissent, enforce loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, via indoctrination camps and other coercive methods, and to stamp out the independent practice of Islam and Uighur culture.”

Under the heading ideological education, Zhu instructed party colleagues to “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past behaviour”.

The camps were to have three “management areas” – very strict, strict and general – and inmates were to be assigned to the areas of varying strictness according to their “performance”.

Scoring was to be used, and all records of how each inmate performed were to be put into his or her file, as part of the massive “one file, one person” system that the Chinese are implementing in Xinjiang.

“Take the student’s score as the basis for measuring the effectiveness of education and training, and link it directly to rewards, punishments and family visits. Implement level management and differentiate treatment according to the score, and encourage students to obey management, earnestly study, and truly transform,” Zhu told his party comrades.

At the end of their period in the camps, those inmates deemed suitable for release were “to be sent to vocational skills improvement class for intensive skills training” for three to six months.

Forced labour

China is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton, and Xinjiang accounts for more than 80 per cent of it. Western observers have warned that products being sold in the West, often by well known brands, could involve forced labour.

"You can't be sure that you don't have coerced labour in your supply chain if you do cotton business in China," according to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Other products besides textiles may also be involved. Zenz has been using official Chinese documentation, available online, to trace what he last month told the US Congressional Executive Commission on China, in Washington DC, is a developing system of forced labour.

“Beijing is turning its internment campaign into a business of oppression,” he said.

Companies are being paid subsidies for using forced labour in factories being built in or alongside the camps, and the products are being exported, or sent east where they become components of products that are being exported.

He called for a “global investigation” into the supply chains linked to goods coming from China, with the burden of proof being on the Chinese companies to show that their goods had no link with what is happening in Xinjiang.

“Of course products could be ending up here that come from forced labour in Xinjiang,” said O’Brien. “Irish consumers need to ask very careful questions about this. Stuff that’s made in factories that are in prison camps, could be ending up in Irish shops.”

‘Terrorism’ threat

In a white paper published by the Chinese government in March, it said it had been working hard to “wipe out” the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism in Xinjiang, with the education and training centres being designed to “nip terrorist activities in the bud”.

The centres “adopt a boarding school management system” that is aimed a providing students with “a normal study and life routine”, the paper said.

The centres fully respected the customs and habits of “trainees” from different ethnic groups, the paper said, while also saying that “in accordance with the law” on separating education and religion, “trainees may not organise and participate in religious activities at the centres”.

There is no doubt there have been acts of violence and killing in Xinjiang that meet the definition of terrorism, said O’Brien. “But the disproportionate reaction to that, to imprison a million people, without trial, I think gives an indication of how deeply worried the Chinese government is. It touches on the paranoid, and is historically unprecedented.”

The Beijing government and the Chinese Communist Party firmly believe they are doing the right thing, in trying to force the ethnic people of Xinjiang to assimilate into the rest of Chinese society, he said.

“These are Marxist socialist materialists who believe that if people have a better life materially and economically, then they will be happier. While on the Uighur side you have people, many of whom are religious, who see things beyond the material as being fundamentally important.”

While the Beijing government believes the Uighur people, as they become more “modern”, will come to appreciate what is being done, “the reality is that they are creating generations of people who are going to despise them”.

“We know that in Ireland from internment,” adds O’Brien.

The minorities are receiving the benefits of civilisation from the superior Han race. "Therefore they're not to be killed; they're to be integrated and assimilated."

The historical echoes are very troubling, he said. “I don’t want to directly compare it with what happened in Germany, but you have people in authority talking about a people who have diseased minds. That has historical echoes.”

Zenz also does not see an exact parallel with what happened in Germany. Hitler saw the Jews as a threat to be eliminated, so he tried to eliminate them.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, the minorities are an essential aspect of a multiethnic empire that’s being revived, akin to former Chinese empires.”

The minorities are receiving the benefits of civilisation from the superior Han race. “Therefore they’re not to be killed; they’re to be integrated and assimilated.”

The main purpose behind the camps – the breaking apart of families, putting children into orphanages where they are to be raised as Han-speaking atheists – is not to combat terrorism, but to “protect the power of the party”.

O’Brien is not convinced that what is happening in the camps could not become transformed into something even more horrific.

“What happens if a bomb goes off, or some people are killed [in a terrorist attack], and the government starts to think that what is being done in Xinjiang is not working? The Chinese government doesn’t tend to think that what it has been doing is wrong. That’s what worries me. What if they think, we haven’t been hard enough?”

Additional reporting Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, ICIJ

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent