This article originally appeared on VICE US.
ISTANBUL— When Rozinisa Memet Tohti’s family stopped returning her calls three years ago, she feared the worst. But nothing could prepare her for seeing a leaked Chinese government database document of Uighurs targeted for internment.
There, in row 358, she found her younger sister's ID number and full name: Patem Memet Tohti. The document says she was sent to “re-education camp” No. 4, in the county of Karakax, on March 7, 2018.
Rozinisa broke down in tears. “Of all my family members, my parents, I miss my sister the most,” she told VICE News.
Rozinisa’s family are Uighur Muslims living in northwest China, where one million or more Muslims have been interned in “re-education” camps since 2017. Rozinisia left China for Istanbul, Turkey in 2003 to pursue an education; now she was receiving the news that every Uighur living outside China dreads above all else. The 137-page document is titled “Trainees whose relatives went abroad and did not return.”
Now, she realized her presence in Turkey could have put the rest of her family in jeopardy.
The goal of China’s so-called re-education camps in the region of Xinjiang is to assimilate long-marginalized Muslim minorities, mostly Uighurs and Kazakhs, into Han Chinese culture. The government says the centers have expanded development and helped prevent terrorism. But the internee records reviewed by VICE News reveal that the vast majority of people sent to the camps were detained for mundane and legal behavior, including wearing a hijab, having “thick beards,” visiting a foreign website, applying for a passport, traveling abroad to a “sensitive country” or having family members living in one, or being part of a “religious family.”
Once in the camps, internees are kept behind double-locked doors, surveilled 24 hours a day, given scores based on their behavior, allowed little or no contact with the outside world, and indoctrinated into the Communist Party line, according to a handbook on how to run the camps, previously seen by VICE News. They are held for at least a year. Many Muslims who have been in the camps and then moved abroad have also detailed physical and psychological torture.
Rozinisa’s family suddenly stopped responding to her in 2016 as the Chinese Communist Party began rounding up Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang. It was the government’s latest response to discontent over Han Chinese rule in the region, tension that has led to occasional violence over the last decade. Beijing blames the unrest in Xinjiang on Islamic extremism and ethnic separatism.
Rozinisa and Patem had been close. “She was one and a half years younger than me, but we were like best friends. Some people mistook us for twins.” Rozinisa said her sister was “mischievous,” and that when they were younger they sometimes fought over clothing.
When Rozinisa was just 18, she moved to Turkey to study. “When I left to go that evening, my sister was the one who cried the most. She couldn't let me go.”
Rozinisa would call Patem every few days, chatting about what their family had been up to, what they’d been eating, and fashion. Then one day in early June 2016, her sister’s phone was switched off. She hasn’t heard from Patem, or any of her other family members, since.
But as news of what was happening to her fellow Uighurs back home trickled out, Rozinisa never suspected that her sister could be one of them. She hadn’t done anything wrong afterall, but was simply living a peaceful life running a small bakery with her husband and looking after her four children, Rozinisa said.
VICE News received a document in November 2019 that would crush Rozinisa’s heart.
The list contains detailed records of 311 individuals, all from Karakax County in southern Xinjiang, which is mostly Uighur. All of those listed have been incarcerated in one of four indoctrination camps in the area. It reveals for the first time the specific reasons why individuals were detained and the information collected in order to determine their eligibility for release.
The Karakax List was leaked to VICE News and several other media outlets, by the same source as the collection of government files known as the China Cables, which came to light in November. Beijing’s foreign ministry has condemned previous leaks. China’s ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, told reporters last year, “Don’t listen to fake news,” when questioned about the authenticated classified documents. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a VICE News request for comment.
Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on the re-education program in Xinjiang and senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington DC, spent several weeks reviewing the documents, confirming their authenticity, and analyzing the data. He has corroborated the details with past reports and cross-checked individual ID numbers with his database of documents. He shared his findings with VICE News and other journalists.
“The document shows us the anatomy of the internment drive.”
“The document shows us the anatomy of the internment drive. It’s the first time we have a document that in one paper tells us why people were interned and why they are being released or not,” he said.
China claims that their “vocational training centers” provide much-needed education and skills training for a politically unstable and economically disadvantaged region. But since late 2019, a trove of secret documents leaked out of China have sharply contradicted Beijing’s narrative. Official government memos, speeches and a manual on how to run the internment camps exposed high-level directives for the internment campaign. Now with this latest leak, the Karakax List shows the inner workings of the re-education drive.
Each row in the document pertains to one main person and serves as a case study in how individuals are swept up in China’s dragnet. Taken as a whole, the list also reveals how government localities are collecting a chilling level of detail on Uighur individuals, suggesting that they are all treated with suspicion and distrust.
“We can compare it to coronavirus. They can detain someone because the family has become infected. They view religion like a disease.”
In one column, it states why each individual has been sent for “training.” Some are charged with extremist thoughts or behaviors. But the vast majority are in for far more innocuous behaviors. This falls in line with what former detainees now living abroad have told us about the often tenuous reasons they were sent to camps.
The most common categories for internment are violating China’s one-child policy, religious behavior, having a link to anything “abroad,” or simply being labeled an “untrustworthy” person.
Another column contains information on family members, social circles, and religious heritage. Three generations of family members are meticulously named, alongside their current whereabouts, occupation, and behavior — including any others in training, sentenced to prison, or living abroad. There are notes on whether the family members comply with community officers and their current behavior.
In one entry, which is typical of the entire spreadsheet, it says the main person’s wife and younger brother are also sent to training. Then it lists their eldest son, daughter-in-law, second son, eldest daughter, and second daughter, along with their ID number, job, and either “OK behavior” or “good behavior.” It even includes their granddaughter, a preschooler who shows “good behavior.”
“Social circle” includes neighbors and co-workers, while “religious heritage” include specifics like whether the person prays or goes to mosque, and who gave them their religious education.
In his report, Zenz compares this to a witch-hunt and argues the list “reveals a mindset whose perhaps most notable feature is the endless vicious cycles of suspicion by association.”
More than 3,000 Uighurs are named and described in total throughout the document. And this is just one subset of data, organized by the interned having relatives abroad and registered at addresses in one area. The list reveals the government’s substantial investment in mapping out webs of intimate family and social connections among the Uighur population.
All of this information factors into the last column, an “evaluation” of each person and a verdict on their eligibility for release. Some are approved for various forms of release or “graduation,” either to their home village or into community control, while others are judged to need further “training.” In still other cases, the main person has already been released but is still being closely monitored.
“No major issues were found in the case of [an individual], besides the fact that his wife covered her face… [he] poses no threat to society. It’s therefore approved that he shall be handed over to his local offices for future management, after completing his training and leaving the center,” reads one man’s evaluation.
In another individual’s evaluation, it states, “Many of his family members are detained or arrested. His ideological transformation is not good. He needs deeper repentance. It’s advised that he continues his training.”
Notes about the family circle are often repeated in the evaluation. For those who had yet to be released, their relatives’ behavior factors into their release verdict in 67% of cases. This document confirms what many Uighurs abroad have testified and feared — that people are punished for their relatives’ actions. The records show the mechanics of how family dynamics are systematically recorded and analyzed in breathtaking detail.
“We can compare it to coronavirus. They can detain someone because the family has become infected. They view religion like a disease,” Zenz said. “It’s like a virus mindset. Something that is dangerous and contagious can only be contained by taking everybody who has the virus.”
“I think this is torture”
In the case of Rozinisa’s sister, Patem, the document says she was detained for violating the one-child policy. Rozinisa told us she fears that Patem’s husband could be detained too, leaving their four young children, aged 7 to 13, without anyone to look after them.
But at the time of Patem’s evaluation, her husband and children are listed as living in their hometown, a rural village about 30 minutes north of the camp. It says that Rozinisa’s parents and other siblings are also living at home and they “show good behavior.” Her older sister appears again further down in the document — this time as the subject of an entry. It states that she has completed her “training” but is still being monitored and that she “attends roll calls on time every night in the community, after she gets off work.”
“Until I hear her voice on the phone, I won't believe that the Chinese released my sister.”
Rozinisa is mentioned in Patem’s record, both under family circle and again in the evaluation. It says that she moved to Turkey (which is considered one of 26 “sensitive countries”), but it also says she hasn’t been in contact with her family for a while. This appears to be a positive thing for her family back home, as contact with those abroad is often a black mark. It’s possible that Patem and her family had sensed this and cut off all contact.
“I think this is torture, what the Chinese are inflicting on us and our parents. They are saying that because you moved to Turkey, they tortured our parents and oppressed them. I don’t think that this is anything but oppression,” said Rozinisa. She would never have left her homeland had she known that her movements could have an impact on her own family, she added.
It’s not clear from the document why a list of detainees who have relatives abroad was created. VICE News spoke to a number of other Uighurs in Turkey whose close family members were also listed in the document. Each expressed anger, sadness, and guilt that they could be used as cause to further oppress their relatives.
Testimonies from former camp detainees have made headlines outside of China, and these accounts haunt Rozinisa. Many have described the camps as ridden with physical, psychological, and sometimes sexual abuse. Rozinisa worries that Patem’s boisterous personality and tendency to speak her mind might get her in trouble, and she wonders if her sister may have been beaten into acquiescence.
According to the evaluation, the community office in Patem’s hometown assessed that “her relatives complied with village officers.” It then says that Patem “also showed good behavior and poses no threat.” She is recommended for graduation into “local community control.” This is a term that frequently comes up in the records without further explanation. Initially, Rozinisa was ecstatic to see this part of the record, but she quickly tempered her expectations.
“Until I hear my sister's voice, a phone call or a picture, even a picture of her current condition, or until I hear her voice on the phone, I won't believe that the Chinese released my sister” she says.
Cross-referencing Patem’s ID against Zenz’s database of records reveals further clues about her time in the camps. She appears on a list of participants in vocational skills training. According to that document, in December 2018 Patem began three months of so-called professional training in housekeeping in the same facility. After that, it says that Patem is to be employed “nearby.” But we found no further record of Patem’s whereabouts after February 2019.
The final verdicts for nearly 75% of cases in the document, like Patem’s, suggest some type of release, which is often connected to employment. But release from re-education doesn’t necessarily mean freedom.
According to the China Cables, those who complete re-education will then be “included” in vocational skills improvement training for 3-6 months, and after that, “they must not be out of sight for one year.” Recent reports suggest the camps are effectively acting as a pipeline for Muslim detainees to move from ideological indoctrination into forced labor.
When Rozinisa learned that Patem was sent to “vocational training,” she said it was hard for her to imagine her sister doing housekeeping. She remembered how much Patem hated cooking and cleaning when they were growing up. In spite of that, Rozinisa mostly felt relief. “I’ve been worrying about her a lot these days and wondering whether she is alive or not. If she really did get the training, I can at least believe that she is alive.”
Video by Isobel Yeung, Nicole Bozorgmir, and Titi Yu. Edited by Kimmy Gorden.
Cover: This photo taken on June 2, 2019 shows buildings at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)