Xi Jinping authorised mass detention through speeches after terror attacks in Xinjiang: Project manager 'China Cables'

WION Web Team New Delhi, Delhi, India Nov 25, 2019, 08.43 PM(IST)

Fergus Shiel, the Project manager of 'China Cables', an ICIJ investigation report. Photograph:( WION )

Story highlights

The documents reveal that the minority Muslim population have been held in detention camp even if they have not committed a crime, but have downloaded apps to download religious material. 

By: Saurabh Bose

A popular mobile application has been used by Chinese authorities to carry out surveillance against minority Uighur population. A leak of highly classified documents, China Cables exposes the horrors of AI-usage by China to put a million people In detention without judicial recourse. 

The documents reveal that the minority Muslim population have been held in detention camp even if they have not committed a crime, but have downloaded apps to download religious material. 

WION caught up with Fergus Shiel, the Project manager of 'China Cables', an ICIJ investigation report to discuss the horrors of Xinjiang.

WION: How is China Cables different from other exposes, including the latest NYT expose?

Fergus Shiel: Two things differentiate China Cables from previous investigations, that an operation manual has revealed the camps in which more than a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are understood to be detained. The NYT had policy settings of these camps, anecdotal reports, satellite images, but this is the very first time that a document outlining the camps have been leaked we understand that it is the first document of it's kind to come out of China for the last thirty years because of it's classification level.

The second thing that we can say about it is, that the first time the surveillance platform and it's a vast sweep has been revealed in such details. We have one document which is the operational manual for the camps where more than a million Uighurs are believed to be detained We also have four(bulletins) directives from the Chief security person in Xinjiang outlining the kind of data which is used as the basis for detaining the person without charge, without judicial process. And the smallest thing can get you detained, in 2017 one week alone 15,000 people were detained according to the bulletins and many of those people were detained because of an app on the phone, visa to travel outside the country or returned to the country or mere suspicion of the behaviour which the govt considers unacceptable.

WION: What do the classified intelligence briefings reveal about the scope and ambition of Chines govt's AI-based policing platform?

Fergus Shiel: Do you think the AI platform is trying arrests as pre-crime prevention efforts and does the Xinjiang police take these orders directly from IJOP or cybernetic?

The cybernetic tools pull out the most intimate details of the people's lives into a huge database and that becomes the basis for local authorities to believe that they can predict who may commit a crime in the future. 

The final document illustrates a court case of a Uighur man who is incredibly jailed for 10 years, for telling his work colleagues that they should be good Muslims, they should not swear, they should not watch pornography for that he was jailed for 10 years. And this gives you an idea of the repressive nature of the data collection.

WION: Is there evidence that can link him to Xi?

Fergus Shiel: What we know is that Xi Jinping authorised in speeches and directions after some horrific terror attacks in Xinjiang and the response from Chinese authorities have been extraordinarily sweeping. 

Xinjiang authorities with the approval and encouragement of Beijing have detained more than a million people. There are 11 million Uighurs in Xinjian. Every family has someone who has disappeared into camps. Documents that we have shown that once they are in the camps they have to learn Mandarin, forced to learn Chinese law we are not sure what that means. Essentially it is targetting of ethnic minorities to socially re-engineer them. China says the reason to do this is to prevent terrorism and to re-educate impoverished community, but what our documents show is that people who are never suspected of terrorism, people who have never committed a crime, more than a million people who have never committed a crime have been detained nevertheless.

Once they are in the camps the regiment that they suffer under is rigorous, they are guarded by police stations, cameras. 

The detainees must use the same seat every day and must line up in the same way.

WION: What are the differences between the 3 categories of security zones?

Fergus Shiel: According to the Chinese govt, the camps are entirely designed to re-train, re-skill impoverished people to improve themselves but in reality, the documents show they are prisons, where you are put right off the street without going through a judicial process.

We also know that there are three levels of security inside the camps. The detainees/trainees find themselves either in minimum, medium or maximum-security jails.

And in order to be freed from the camps, you have to be in minimum security, so if you are in maximum security you will spend longer time in the camp and we also know from the documents that they should stay for a year in the camps and after that, they should be retrained but in effect we have spoken to 40 Uighurs who had stayed in the camps we know that is not accurate and some have spent less time and some more time there. The manual states they have to stay for one year but in reality, it could be more or less than one year.

WION: What do you infer from the creepy section on manners, change of clothes?

Fergus Shiel: We understand from experts that many of Han Chinese view Uighurs as less cosmopolitan, less modern than they are. 

Consequently, we see in the documents is this bizarre, chilling, horrific effort to retrain, reengineer a huge community of more than a million people in basic hygiene.

We learned from former detainees that conditions are so awful that some of the dormitories are crowded, there are one or two commodes so that people who want to go to the toilet in the night are forced to use very few facilities. One of the oddest and most chilling aspects is that people have two to three minutes in the toilet, so even the toilet time is regulated. The way you sleep is regulated, they are told that they can sleep only on one side, so camp guards tell them where to sit, where to line up, where to sleep, how long can they can go to the toilet. They monitor them with facial recognition, they take away their phones. They are not allowed to contact friends or families. And this is called by Chines govt as free and voluntary camps but everything in the manual and what we have learned from talking to former inmates that this is not the case.

WION: How local authorities are targeting Uighurs?

Fergus Shiel: IJOR has 4 bulletins (directives) essentially to collect data. It is mass surveillance Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, what they say amongst other things that people who have a certain app on their phones can be targetted, detained, people who leave the country , the people who come back into the country , people who apply for visa , connections with people overseas or if you try to bypass the firewall to contact people overseas so essentially anyone who has connection to the outside world from Xinjiang is immediately suspect and can be targetted for detention. and we know the huge number of people detained something like more than 15,000 people in one week of June 2017 were detained, that is not fanciful not exaggerated but real, they are targeting everyone and viewing everyone with suspicion.  

WION: What is the evidence against the role of Chinese embassies in tracking Uighurs?

Fergus Shiel: All we can tell the Uighurs that we have spoken with abroad in Ireland, Turkey, Netherland, Germany, and Canada. 

What they all say is that only their friends and family being monitored in Xinjiang but also have their local embassy monitoring them, that they are frightened whether it is Melbourne, Berlin or it's Dublin or Toronto they worry that their Chinese embassy is monitoring them 

WION: What is the number of non-Chinese or foreign citizens in these prisons?

Fergus Shiel: Oh Yes we think so, I think the figure is like forty-eight Australian Uighurs in detention camps and it makes sense as that documents say that people who are under target are people who have visas for other countries so it makes sense, these are people with dual nationalities who are in the camps. Nobody knows the exact number of people in the camps, what we do know is that human rights groups, overseas govt have said that it is one million but some people expect it to be more than two million. To give an example in India it will be the city with a size of the equivalent to Varanasi, so it is what you are to talk about. You have to go back in history to World War two to find anything similar. You see almost one-tenth of the community disappears in detention camps.