Uighur men pray before a meal during the Corban Festival, also known as Eid al-Adha, in Turpan, Xinjiang, in September 2016.
Kevin Frayer/Getty
  • The Uighurs are a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in western China. The Communist Party sees them as terrorists, and has detained at least 1 million of them in recent years.
  • Leaked internal documents, published by The New York Times, show the extent of Chinese efforts to suppress the Uighurs and deflect criticism.
  • A seven-page manual instructs officials to tell Uighur students returning home to find their relatives were imprisoned because they had been "infected" by "religious extremism."
  • The officials are instructed to liken the relatives' conditions to cancer or other diseases.
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China's Communist Party has a special manual instructing officials on how to deal with Uighur students who get back from university to find that their families have been imprisoned as part of the mass repression of the Uighur people.

It includes help for dealing with questions on how and why their families were taken away, according to leaked internal documents published by The New York Times.

The Uighurs are a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority largely based in Xinjiang, western China. Many Uighurs call the region East Turkestan.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has installed a hi-tech police state in the region and detained at least 1 million Uighurs in prisons and camps. Former detainees have described physical and psychological torture in those centers.

The 403 pages of internal documents, published by the Times on Saturday, detail the extent of China's efforts to deflect questions and criticism of unprecedented crackdown.

Footage purportedly of a re-education camp in Yingye'er, Xinjiang, taken by Bitter Winter magazine in August 2018.

One of the most striking parts is a question-and-answer briefing to explain to family members left behind why their relatives are gone.

The documents encourages officials to liken the detained relatives' mental state to having a serious, contagious disease like SARS, which required the "quarantine" of the Uighur detention camps.

"If you were careless and caught an infectious virus like SARS, you'd have to undergo enclosed, isolated treatment, because it's an infectious illness."

'A chillingly bureaucratic guide' to repression

The documents include instructions for local officials to corner Uighur students returning home for the holidays, as soon as they arrive, to stop them from speaking more widely about what is going on.

The cache of documents include a seven-page guide for officials in Turpan City, east Xinjiang, on what to tell students when they ask about their vanished families.

The guide includes 13 questions and model answers. The Times described it as "chillingly bureaucratic."

When students ask where their relatives are, officials are told to say: "They're in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction."

Many Uighurs are arrested or forced into detention on flimsy charges, such as texting people outside Xinjiang or setting their clocks to two hours ahead of Beijing's time zone to align with Xinjiang's natural daylight schedule.

The document also tells officials to say detainees "have very good conditions for studying and living there," and that tuition, food, and living costs are all free of charge.

Former detainees have described detention centers as being overcrowded and having almost nonexistent hygiene standards. They have also recalled being shackled to chairs and forced to sing propaganda songs to get food.

Officials are also instructed to tell Uighur students that their relatives had been sent away "because they have come under a degree of harmful influence in religious extremism and violent terrorist thoughts," which could lead to "severe" consequences if they acted on them.

If asked why relatives have to be detained to receive their "training," officials are told to liken their condition to a disease or a cancer that requires a quarantine.

"If you were careless and caught an infectious virus like SARS, you'd have to undergo enclosed, isolated treatment, because it's an infectious illness," the officials are told to say, referring to the deadly respiratory disease.

"If you weren't thoroughly cured, as soon as you returned home you would infect your family with this virus, and your whole family would fall ill."

Another part of the document says that the "training" has to be done being closed doors because "otherwise, they will never be able to thoroughly eradicate this stubborn cancer in their thinking and could easily again be swindled and exploited."

Officials are also instructed to tell students that to be grateful that their family members are receiving this "free education."

"Treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills," officials are told to say. "This offers a great foundation for a happy life for your family."

Many relatives of detained Uighurs in Xinjiang say their relatives are professionals - such as doctors and editors - and do not need vocational training.

China has acknowledged the existence of some "re-education camps," but repeatedly denied any reports of torture.

The East Turkistan National Awakening Movement activist group published the locations of 465 prisons and detention centers last week. The group noted that at least 72 of those camps had not been declared before, suggesting Chinese authorities may be expanding the detention program.

Map showing the suspected locations of camps and prisons China is using to lock up members of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, or East Turkestan.

The Times' tranche of documents also contain other shocking details about China's crackdown, including:

  • Xi had been warning officials as early as 2014 to ignore criticism about Xinjiang.

He told a closed-door meeting in May 2014, according to The Times: "Don't be afraid if hostile forces whine, or if hostile forces malign the image of Xinjiang."

Officials have repeatedly batted away foreign criticism - including from the US and UN - over its human-rights record, insisting that what happens in Xinjiang is an internal matter, even though many of those detained are actually citizens of other countries.

Last month, China's UN ambassador also warned that criticism over Xinjiang could jeopardise US-China trade talks.

  • Authorities set numeric targets for Uighur detentions in various parts of Xinjiang.

Regional officials were under "relentless" pressure to detain Uighurs and prevent ethnic violence, The Times said.

  • One official had private misgivings on the crackdown - and his confession, likely signed under duress, was circulated among the Communist Party as a warning to others.

The government opened more than 12,000 investigations into officials in Xinjiang for not closely following its instructions to monitor and detain Uighurs, The Times reported, citing official statistics. But the story of Wang Yongzhi, an official in the western Yarkand county, was circulated most widely.

According to The Times, Wang had complained that the Party's detention targets did not align with its economic ambitions for Xinjiang and secretly ordered the release of 7,000 Uighur prisoners.

He disappeared from public in 2017, and the Party investigated him shortly afterward for "gravely disobeying the party central leadership's strategy for governing Xinjiang," the Times said.

He later signed a confession, likely under duress, saying that he drank heavily on the job and "broke the rules" of the Communist Party.

The document was later circulated widely and read aloud to Xinjiang officials to warn that any infractions could lead to a similar demise, according to The Times.

Xi Jinping in Beijing in March 2015.
Lintao Zhang/Getty

The document leak to The Times hugely undermines Xi's grip on power. He rules the Communist Party with an iron fist, and has since his ascension to the presidency in 2012 purged dozens of officials in a nation-wide "anti-corruption" drive.

The leaker was not named, but identified by The Times as "a member of the Chinese political establishment."

They "expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions," The Times reported, paraphrasing its source.