The New York Times has received a 403-page leak of internal Chinese state documents related to the ethnic cleansing effort in Xinjiang province, which has seen the creation of more than 500 concentration camps where Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been subjected to torture, rape and medical experimentation.
Though it's not clear where the leaks originate from, the Times speculates that they were released by Chinese officials who are upset with the authoritarian measures and attendant human-rights abuses.
The contents of the leaks support this theory, as much of the material deals with the microeconomics of the regional Chinese officials who implemented the ethnic cleansing program. The story begins with a wave of terrorist attacks in the region in 2014, most notably a train-station stabbing attack with more than 150 victims.
This prompted an internal hard-line speech from president-for-life Xi Xinping, who argued that a virus-like contagion of Islamic extremism had infected people from the region. Xi argued that China should learn from the American hard line on terrorism and use the "organs of dictatorship" to root out Islamism, showing "absolutely no mercy."
Xi compared the political currents in the region to the independence movements in the outlying regions of the USSR in its last days, when "ideological laxity" and "spineless leadership" allowed the Soviet empire to be shattered.
In 2016, Xi's vision was supercharged by a change in regional government, when Chen Quanguo was put in charge of Xinjiang; Chen had previously been the hard-line official in charge of Tibet, and had been responsible for the systematic human rights abuses there.
Chen undertook a purge of Xinjiang officials, sidelining, firing (and in one case, jailing) officials who didn't cooperate with the ethnic cleansing program, which he summarized with the slogan: "Round up everyone who should be rounded up."
The leaks revolve around a 2017 manual for dealing with Uyghur students who had been studying elsewhere in China and were about to return from their holidays and learn that their families had been sent to concentration camps. These young people had been sent away to get elite post-secondary educations in the hopes of training a new generation of China-loyal Uyghur officials who could become the backbone of a new regional civil service that would serve as a counter to ethno-religious unity among Uyghurs.
The manual advises officials on how to both soothe and threaten these returning students, with a packaged narrative about how their loved ones had been sent away not to concentration camps, but to luxurious educational institutions where their room, board and tuition would be generously provided by the Chinese state as a benign means of curing them of the infection of radical Islamism. The manual goes on to explain how officials could imply that the students' parents' incarceration and treatment would depend in part on the students' behavior and demonstrations of loyalty to the Chinese state.
Other documents reveal an internal division within Chinese state officialdom over the potential blowback from the ethnic cleansing measures, which some officials fret could give rise to a new generation of radicals, and the need to live up to Xi and Chen's hard line on ethnic minorities and religious dissent.
"The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated," Mr. Xi told officials in Urumqi on April 30, 2014, the final day of his trip to Xinjiang. "People who are captured by religious extremism — male or female, old or young — have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye."
In another speech, at the leadership conclave in Beijing a month later, he warned of "the toxicity of religious extremism."
"As soon as you believe in it," he said, "it's like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything."
In several surprising passages, given the crackdown that followed, Mr. Xi also told officials to not discriminate against Uighurs and to respect their right to worship. He warned against overreacting to natural friction between Uighurs and Han Chinese, the nation's dominant ethnic group, and rejected proposals to try to eliminate Islam entirely in China.
"In light of separatist and terrorist forces under the banner of Islam, some people have argued that Islam should be restricted or even eradicated," he said during the Beijing conference. He called that view "biased, even wrong."
'Absolutely No Mercy': Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims [Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley/New York Times]