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Documents Detail Chinese Government's Crackdown On Ethnic Minorities


A leaked trove of Chinese government documents has provided a chilling picture of that government's crackdown on ethnic minorities in the far western Xinjiang region. Up to a million people have been detained in internment camps and prisons in the sparsely populated region over the past three years. The government has repeatedly described its camps as nothing more than job training centers. But these documents paint a very different picture of a government afraid of Muslim extremism and looking to control it at any cost.

New York Times reporters Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley have just released an extensive report on these leaked documents, and Austin Ramzy joins me now from Hong Kong. Welcome.

AUSTIN RAMZY: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this leak is unprecedented. What exactly are these documents you've obtained, and what can you tell us about their authenticity?

RAMZY: There's about 400 pages of documents, speeches by Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders, directives on policy in Xinjiang and also some records of officials who were punished. And we have great confidence in their authenticity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These are internal documents, right? That would be Communist Party documents. It wouldn't be disseminated outside of the party elite.

RAMZY: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Remind us how many people are being detained in China and who they are.

RAMZY: There's no exact number, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands, as many as a million or more. These people are largely from Turkic ethnic groups. The Uighurs are probably the largest, followed by Kazakhs. These are predominantly Muslim minority groups in China.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your story focuses, at least initially, on students from the Xinjiang province studying elsewhere in China who return home to suddenly find parents, relatives and neighbors missing. And they're met by a local official to explain the situation. What were those students told?

RAMZY: They were told several things. They were told that their detained relatives were not criminals but that they had issues that were often described as, like, infections of their thinking. And so because these people were considered, in the language of these documents, to have infections of their thinkings, they were sent to a place where they would be treated for that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the language in these documents that you received is, at times, chillingly Orwellian. I don't think there's another word for it. I'd like to read some of it. (Reading) Students should be grateful that the authorities have taken their relatives away. 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. This offers a great foundation for a happy life for your family. It's very explicit and unsparing.

RAMZY: That's right. And that document also sort of points out at the suffering that these policies are causing. And so in these sample questions, you hear from students who say, we can no longer plant crops because family members are detained, or, my detained family member is so old; they don't work anymore. Why do they need to be detained? It shows a wide range of the suffering caused by these policies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we said in the introduction, the government has repeatedly asserted that these camps are nothing more than job training centers that don't abuse people. There's been a lot of reporting by NPR and others refuting that. But what these documents do show is the Communist Party's internal thinking and the genesis of this. And your report is titled "Absolutely No Mercy," a quote from President Xi Jinping. Can you put his thinking and motivations into context?

RAMZY: You can hear from these that Xi is - seems quite frustrated and upset with what is happening in Xinjiang in terms of separatism and extremism and acts of terrorism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because there had been a huge attack - right? - by Uighur separatists...

RAMZY: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Where more than a hundred people had been killed and wounded.

RAMZY: That's right. You can see that he's really trying to figure out what to do. And in the past, there have been crackdowns, and there was also this belief that economic development would sort of ease all the problems. And you hear Xi sort of turning away from that and saying we shouldn't believe that improving the economy in Xinjiang is going to solve this.

And so he seems to be sort of pushing for a very tough line, although at points he does say, you know, we should be careful. We shouldn't worry about discrimination against minority groups in Xinjiang. But most of the speeches are very tough. And while he doesn't outline specifically the policy for camps, you can see quite clearly how it follows from there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does the leaking of these documents hint at possible dissenter concerns within the Communist Party on these issues?

RAMZY: Yes. I mean, and leaks are quite rare in China. I've covered China since 2003 and can't really think of anything comparable to this. You know, the person who gave these to us basically wanted the party leaders to be held accountable for these policies. And within the documents themselves, you can see a certain degree of dissent. There's a couple officials who were punished for not enforcing the efforts to incarcerate large numbers of people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And has the Chinese government reacted or responded to your report? I mean, they're known to, you know, be very firm when these kinds of leaks happen or this kind of reporting is unearthed.

RAMZY: Yes. I spoke with the foreign ministry spokesman in Hong Kong this afternoon, and he didn't have anything to say yet. So we're expecting a reply Monday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the importance of these documents are in terms of how the Chinese government has been framing these internment camps and what's happening there?

RAMZY: Well, I think they show pretty clearly that while this is described externally as sort of this rather mild education and job training program, that it is internally considered punishment. And we see that word used in the documents. And there's a realization that the camps are quite tough, and it's very much in direct opposition of this public line that these are just here to help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Austin Ramzy of The New York Times. Thank you very much.

RAMZY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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