How China Tracked Detainees and Their Families

How China Tracked Detainees and Their Families


The last time she heard from her family was over three years ago, before China began rounding up Muslims in the country’s far west. She lived abroad and knew nothing of her family’s fate — until the contents of a leaked government document surfaced, describing their lives in chilling detail.

Rozinisa Memettohti, an ethnic Uighur who has lived in Turkey since 2003, learned in the document that two of her sisters had been sent to indoctrination camps for having more children than the region allowed. One of the sisters was also targeted for obtaining a passport.

“The reality is already far worse than any of my fears,” Ms. Memettohti said in a telephone interview this month. “My father, my brothers and my sisters are in danger.”

For the past few years, the authorities in the Xinjiang region have placed hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups into indoctrination camps in the most sweeping mass detentions since the Mao era. The document provides a rare, finely grained view of how the ruling Communist Party has carried out the system of detentions that has shredded the fibers of society in Xinjiang.

The leaked document, a 137-page spreadsheet, outlines information that the authorities in Karakax County (also spelled Qaraqash) in southwestern Xinjiang have gathered on its residents. It includes the names and government identification numbers of more than 300 people held in indoctrination camps and information on hundreds of their relatives and neighbors. Even children as young as 16 were closely monitored for signs of what Beijing considered to be wayward thinking.

The document, one of numerous files kept on the more than one million people who have been detained in the camps, shows the range of behaviors that the authorities see as problematic that would be normal elsewhere, such as giving up alcohol, wanting to go on a religious pilgrimage or attending a funeral.

In Ms. Memettohti’s case, her sisters were flagged for praying regularly and participating in routine religious ceremonies.

The spreadsheet adds to a growing body of evidence on these detentions. Reports on other leaked government documents last year by The New York Times and a group of outlets led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed the coercive nature of the crackdown and detailed the tight controls placed on detainees in the indoctrination camps.

The latest government document was leaked last year, and overseas Uighur activists shared it with several news media organizations, including The Times.

The data in it shows how China has tried to establish dominance over Uighurs and other minority groups in the name of increasing security, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has analyzed the spreadsheet.

“This document is by far the most detailed that we have,” said Mr. Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. “It allows us to dissect the anatomy of both the internment drive and what the government now is now doing with these people.”

Mr. Zenz said he was confident that the document was legitimate for a number of reasons. He said he had matched the identities of 337 listed detainees, relatives and neighbors with other government documents, spreadsheets and a leaked database from SenseNets, a Chinese surveillance company, that included GPS coordinates along with names, identification numbers, addresses and photos.

He also said that he had located three of the internment sites listed in the document based on previously identified camps, and that the language used in the spreadsheet mirrored that of official documents elsewhere in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government says that its policies in Xinjiang are intended to curb terrorism and separatism, and that the camps provide instruction in Chinese language and other skills to people who might be susceptible to extremist ideas.

But the Karakax spreadsheet shows how officials have monitored minute details of daily life to find targets for detention as Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party boss in Xinjiang, ordered officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”

The authorities scrutinized three generations of each detainee’s family, as well as their neighbors and friends. Officials in charge of monitoring mosques reported on how actively the residents participated in ceremonies, including the naming of children, circumcision, weddings and funerals.

The list specified whether detainees learned about religion from parents and grandparents or elsewhere. Dozens were listed as having a “heavy religious environment” at home — a designation that was often followed by a recommendation that they not be released.

The authorities also studied how many times a day detainees prayed and whether they took part in — or were even interested in — religious pilgrimages.

Outward signs of piety were also recorded. “Wore a beard from March 2011 to July 2014,” reads a description of one detainee related to several people who had been sent to camps. Officials categorized as “trustworthy” another man, the father of two detainees, who had cut off his beard and started drinking alcohol after a year of abstaining.

The entries offer detailed explanations of why officials ordered each person to be sent to a camp — information that has previously mostly trickled out through accounts by former detainees and activists.

Officials dissected their movements or plans to travel, particularly to predominantly Muslim nations. Even obtaining a passport was flagged, regardless of whether it was used. One of the most common reasons cited for detention, little known until now, was the violation of China’s birth restrictions by having too many children.

Some detainees were sent to indoctrination camps for crimes like drug sales or domestic violence. Others were put into camps because they had previously served prison time, including one man who finished his sentence nearly two decades ago.

The document lists cases that begin in 2017, when the mass incarceration program started in earnest under Mr. Chen, the party leader in Xinjiang. The latest listed entry is dated March 2019.

Mr. Zenz, who studied the spreadsheet, calculated that about three-fourths of the listed detainees had been released. That appears to be in line with assertions by officials in Xinjiang last year that they had begun winding down the program.

But the document shows that many of those released from the camps were later assigned work in tightly controlled industrial parks, and at least one person went into such work while remaining in detention. Some former inmates have described a system of forced labor in which they have been required to work for little or no pay after their release.

The spreadsheet also indicates that detainees are closely monitored after leaving the camps and ordered to participate in government-organized neighborhood activities. It makes clear that people could be sent to detention camps if their family members demonstrated attitudes the authorities deemed problematic, and that such a factor would affect the prospect of their later release.

“This person had many family members imprisoned and involved in many cases, and his thinking has been infected by extremism,” read the notes on one detainee. Officials recommended that he be kept in the camp under strict control.

Yet even as the document showed the extent of surveillance and monitoring in Xinjiang, it also revealed some gaps in the gathering of data.

Ms. Memettohti’s name appears in the list under entries on her two sisters, who were detained and are thought to have been released. She is described as living in Turkey in one entry, but not in the other. She also said that the date of her arrival in Turkey was incorrect.

But what she found more surprising was that the authorities had detained her sister Patem, whom she said was active in the local government and had served as the head of the local women’s association.

“I felt she would always be the safest one,” Ms. Memettohti said.



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