The faces of China’s detention camps in Xinjiang

A new leak of Chinese government records reveals thousands of never-before seen mug shots of Uyghurs and other photos from inside the notorious internment camps, as well as new details of the national mass detention program.

Ten detainees wearing blue and yellow prison smocks sit in a basement cell, staring up at a TV   that shows a speech by a local Xinjiang government official. Blue-clad guards, one holding a club about as big as a baseball bat, stand nearby.

Beneath Chinese flags, several officials stroll along a brightly lit detention center corridor, like visitors at a zoo, peering down through grates into basement cells whose inhabitants are out of view.

A third photograph shows what appears to be an interrogation. A young man, hands and feet shackled to what Chinese police call a “tiger chair,” faces an officer at a desk equipped with a computer, a camera and a microphone. A framed poster displaying the Chinese Communist Party’s hammer and sickle emblem leans against a wall, and a helmeted officer in full riot gear, visor down, holds a riot shield.

These photos are part of the Xinjiang Police Files, an unprecedented leak of thousands of images and documents from the public security bureaus of China’s Konasheher and Tekes counties. The two counties are in Xinjiang, the majority-Muslim region in northwestern China where the national government has held hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in mass-internment camps.

The leak contains the first photographs taken inside the camps and obtained by news organizations without official authorization. The photos serve as irrefutable evidence of the highly militarized nature of the camps and present a stark contrast with those, previously published, that were taken on government-organized press tours.

Also included are the mug shots of more than 2,800 detainees, dazed men, women and teenagers staring blankly into a camera. Xinjiang residents’ faces also occupy one column of a spreadsheet amid thousands of rows of personal data —  age, profession, hometown and other personal information — in Chinese characters.

Photo of detainees watching TV while guards stand over them
Detainees inside Tekes detention center in Xinjiang watch a televised speech by a local politician as guards watch them in 2017. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

In addition to photos, the leak provides confidential government documents, including speeches by high-ranking Chinese officials outlining their plans to repress, “educate” and punish members of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Among the files, too, are internal police presentations, some for training purposes, on how to search and arrest suspects, and how to use handcuffs and other equipment. One document marked “confidential” outlines surveillance measures to be put in place by Yili prefecture officers during a visit to Xinjiang by a group of European diplomats in the summer of 2018.

Taken together, the photographs and documents refute the Chinese government’s claims that the camps are merely “educational centers.”

The leaked records, most dating to 2017 or 2018, represent a major advance in public access to knowledge of China’s mass-detention policy and the implementation of that policy at the local level, in this case, the western prefectures of Kashgar and Yili.

It’s [one] thing to know it, and another thing to see it.— researcher Adrian Zenz

The Xinjiang Police Files were obtained by researcher Adrian Zenz, who shared the documents with a group of 14 news organizations, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, wrote a peer-reviewed academic paper based on the documents that analyzes the leaked data and compares it with publicly available information. He found, for instance, that about 23,000 people in Konasheher county, in Xinjiang’s southwestern Kashgar prefecture, or more than 12% of the adults there, were in some form of internment in 2018. The paper was published in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies.

“The image material is stunning,” Zenz told ICIJ. “It’s really fortunate that this material can come out because it would blow away Chinese propaganda attempts” to whitewash what’s happening in Xinjiang.

“It’s very touching,” he added. “It’s one thing to know it, and another thing to see it.”

Photo showing man chained to chair surrounded by guards
A young man is shackled in a “tiger chair” during what appears to be an interrogation at Tekes County Detention Centre in 2018. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

The leak comes as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, prepares to make a long-delayed visit to Xinjiang this week.

A growing body of evidence documents the campaign of mass detention and forced assimilation in Xinjiang, begun under President Xi Jingping and his subordinates in 2017. The Chinese government has called the camps “vocational skills education and training centers,” but the Xinjiang Police Files and previous exposés by journalists, researchers and activists point to another conclusion. They reinforce allegations that the camps are part of a nationwide policy to promote conformity to Communist Party doctrine and majority Han cultural norms and crack down on expressions of cultural, political and religious diversity.

As many as 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic minorities were held in the camps in 2018, according to estimates by U.N. and U.S. officials. There is no precise estimate of the number of detainees since 2017.

The Chinese government dismisses accusations of human rights violations as “fabricated lies and disinformation,” asserting that the so-called training centers are intended to improve labor skills and to alleviate poverty. The government also says that some of the measures deployed in Xinjiang are part of a campaign to combat what it calls acts of terrorism by Uyghur extremists.

“Xinjiang has taken a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalization measures,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson with the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., told ICIJ and its media partners in an email.

“The region now enjoys social stability and harmony, as well as economic development and prosperity. The local people are living a safe, happy and fulfilling life,” Liu said.

“These facts,” he added, “speak volumes about the effectiveness of China’s Xinjiang policy” and “are the most powerful response to all sorts of lies and disinformation on Xinjiang.”

Liu did not respond to the reporters’ specific questions about the Xinjiang Police Files.

Photo of officials peering down into cells
Chinese officials tour a detention center in Tekes county, Xinjiang, where inhabitants occupy basements cells out-of-view. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

The camps’ punitive function stands out in photographs and other information in the leak.

“The people in them are being treated very much as criminalized elements,” said Michael Clarke, an adjunct professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute in Sydney, who reviewed Zenz’s report and underlying documents.

In an interview with USA Today, an ICIJ media partner, Clarke said that “dribs and drabs” of visual evidence of the camps’ prison-like conditions had emerged previously. “But nothing like this,” he said.

The camps’ existence and an extrajudicial program for the mass detention of minorities in Xinjiang first emerged in satellite photos and sporadic firsthand accounts of Uyghur refugees and former detainees. Witnesses also told of widespread torture, rape and forced sterilization. In 2019, the China Cables investigation by ICIJ and 17 media partners, based on classified Chinese government documents, exposed the operations manual for Xinjiang detention camps and the region’s system of mass surveillance.

The revelations have prompted the United States, members of the European Union, and other Western nations to sanction Chinese officials and companies deemed to have enabled human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The U.S. and other governments now officially refer to Beijing’s targeting of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as a form of “genocide.” In 2021, the U.S. enacted a law to stop the import of goods suspected of being made using Uyghurs’ forced labor.

Beijing, in turn, has levied sanctions against Zenz and others who, the government claims, “severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.”

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The Xinjiang Police Files

The leaked documents were created or collected when the Chinese government’s mass-detention program was at the height of its intensity.

The data set’s 5,074 mug shots appear to be of area residents photographed by law enforcement authorities from January to July 2018, possibly as part of an effort to collect biometric data, according to Zenz’s review of timestamps accompanying the images.

About 2,900 of those in the mug shots had been detained before their pictures were taken, and their ages ranged from 15 to 73, according to Zenz’s analysis of text files. The detainees included 15 minors.

Some photos show detainees being photographed under close watch, women by female staffers in civilian clothes, men by male guards in full tactical gear.

Others are just mug shots. In one, an older man, unshaved and wearing a stained sweater, looks shyly at the camera. In another, a female staffer in glasses towers over an older woman who sits in front of a light gray background and stares blankly at the camera.

Compilation of mug shots of Uyghurs from leaked Xinjiang files
The Xinjiang Police Files contains more than 5,000 photos of individuals taken in 2018 at police stations or detention centers in Konasheher County, in Xinjiang, and identifying information on most of them. The data indicates that more than half of the individuals were interned or imprisoned in 2017-2018, including those pictured in the top row. The second row displays mugshots of family members of a man sentenced to more than 10 years imprisonment for “illegal study of the scriptures.” Image: Xinjiang Police Files

Other images in the cache show an interior space that may have been used for so-called re-education purposes in Xinjiang’s Tekes county, Zenz’s report says.

The pictures of detainees watching the televised speech by the politician and of the young man in restraints are from this batch.

Some photos present chilling images of training programs. In one, three guards in full combat gear point assault rifles at a prisoner held to the ground by eight guards taking part in an anti-escape drill.

In another, at least six guards in riot gear — helmets, visors, and clubs, and one with a shield — surround two prisoners who are shackled hands-to-feet and forced to squat with their hooded heads bent toward the floor. An officer bends over one prisoner and speaks into a walkie-talkie;  another holds a camera beneath his flipped-up visor and takes a photograph.

Photo showing guards in riot gear with weapons standing over crouching detainees
Chinese guards at a detention center in Tekes county in Xinjiang take part in an anti-escape drill in 2018. Image: Xinjiang Police Files

There are photos in which small groups of male and female detainees in prison uniforms stand in a row, either singing or reciting something, as guards watch.

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