XINJIANG, China (CNN) – Growing a long beard. Making an international phone call. Having a passport. These are all reasons that can land you in what US officials call “concentration camps” in China.
Chilling revelations, detailed in what appears to be a Chinese government surveillance report on its citizens leaked from Xinjiang. That’s a region in western China where a mass internment policy has forced up to 2 million Muslims, mostly from the country’s ethnic Uyghur minority into detention.
The documents are spreadsheets of data on more than 300 families living in one neighborhood of Karakax County. They provide highly detailed personal information on family members: their national ID numbers, home addresses, history of foreign travel, religious practices, and whether or not they are “a threat.” Authors, believed to be Chinese government officials, then decide whether to keep individuals in what the Chinese government calls “vocational training centers.”
Beijing wants the world to believe this mass job training program is rooting out violent extremism. But several survivors tell CNN the reality is these camps were crowded, prison-like facilities where inmates were subjected to torture.
Due to China’s crackdown and a heavy curtain of censorship, independently confirming anything in Xingjiang is incredibly difficult.
On a recent visit to the region, Chinese security forces harassed and blocked CNN’s Matt Rivers from visiting the internment camps. However, a CNN investigation tracked down Uyghurs living in exile who verified the identities of at least 8 of the families profiled in the leaked report.
The investigation led CNN to Istanbul, Turkey where Rozinsa Mamattohti lives. She’s a mother of three from Xinjiang whose name is on an Uyghur translation of the documents as a relative of a detainee.
Her name appeared under case number 358, which also revealed that her younger sister Patem, was sent to a camp in March of 2018, supposedly for violating China’s family planning policy, that is, having too many children.
Rozinsa said, “When I saw the document and learned that my younger sister was in prison for the past two years, I couldn’t sleep or eat for days.” Rozinsa said this is the first information she’s had about her family in Xinjiang since 2016
Many Uyghurs living overseas say communication with their family back home was completely cut off when China intensified its crackdown in Xinjiang. But some Uyghurs are risking their lives to expose this sensitive information.
Uyghur activist Tahirjan Anwar said this is the first time he’s speaking publicly about these documents. Anwar is living in exile in the Netherlands. Last summer, he received this trove of documents from a source in Xinjiang he won’t identify, for their safety. He said, “That was my birthday. And I got the attachment document… and very surprised.”
And it is Anwar, along with a patchwork of other Uyghurs in exile, who are sharing this information with the outside world.
Adrian Zenz is a U.S.-based academic who has been studying what he is convinced are internal CHINESE government documents. “This document is like a microcosm of what’s happening all over Xinjiang,” Zenz said. “This is the future of authoritarianism. This is the future of changing populations who don’t agree with the main regime in terms of ideology, spirituality, political identity or other criteria.”
CNN’s data analysis reveals among at least 484 people sent to camps. Five were detained because they communicated with people overseas. 25 were detained for holding a passport without visiting a foreign country, and the most, 114 people, were labeled a threat for simply having too many children.
Those Uyghurs were sent to four different camps, all apparently located within the same community. Using other open-source Chinese government documents, we were able to find the locations of these four facilities, including the number two training center, somewhere near the Karakax train station.
And that is where Rozinsa Mamattohti’s second older sister, Rozniyaz was sent, according to case number 597. Her offense: having a passport and giving birth to too many children.
Rozinsa fears her family could be punished further because she is going public.
When asked why she’s showing her face to the outside world, she answered, ”Because I love and miss my parents and my family so much. Because I want to know what’s happened to them. I want to know if they are alive and well. But if they are dead i need to know that as well.”
CNN reached out to the Chinese foreign ministry and Xinjiang regional government in writing with detailed questions. But Chinese officials did not respond. In the past Beijing has strenuously denied allegations of mistreatment and arbitrary detention.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “The so-called concentration camps with 1 million people, are 100% rumors. It is completely fake news.”
As for Tahirjan Anwar, he hopes that sharing these documents will force Beijing to ease its crackdown in Xinjiang and lead to information about his own missing loved ones. He said, “This is my father and he is now in the jail. And I don’t know what exactly crime of him. Chinese government, let free my father immediately. And let free all Uyghurs immediately.”