Leaked data shows China’s Uighurs detained due to religion

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China leaked data shows the country detained people because of religion
A man wears a face mask as he rides a bus in Fuyang in eastern China’s Anhui Province

A leaked database has exposed in detail reasons for the detentions of hundreds of people in the Chinese territory of Xinjiang.

The database profiles the internment of 311 individuals with relatives abroad in Karakax County, and lists information on more than 2,000 of their relatives, neighbours and friends.

Each entry includes the detainee’s name, address, national identity number, detention date and location, along with a dossier on their family, religious and community background, the reason for detention, and a decision on whether to release them.

Taken as a whole, the database offers the fullest view yet into how Chinese officials decided who to put into and let out of detention camps, as part of a crackdown that has locked away more than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims.

The database shows that the state focused on religion as a reason for detention – not just political extremism, as authorities claim, but ordinary activities such as praying or attending a mosque. It shows that people with detained relatives are themselves more likely to end up in a camp, criminalising entire families.

“It’s very clear that religious practice is being targeted,” said Darren Byler, a University of Colorado researcher studying Xinjiang. “They want to fragment society, to pull the families apart and make them much more vulnerable to retraining and reeducation.”

Asked whether Xinjiang is targeting religious people and their families, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “This kind of nonsense is not worth commenting on.”

The Chinese government has said in the past that the detention centres are for voluntary job training, and that it does not discriminate based on religion.

China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where the native, predominantly Muslim Uighurs have long resented Beijing’s rule. After militants set off bombs at a train station in Xinjiang’s capital in 2014, President Xi Jinping launched a so-called “People’s War on Terror”, turning Xinjiang into a digital police state.

The leak of the database follows the release in November of a classified blueprint. Obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which includes the Associated Press, the blueprint shows the camps are in fact forced ideological and behavioural re-education centres run in secret.

The database comes from sources in the Uighur exile community, and does not spell out which government department issued it or for whom. The detainees listed come from Karakax County, a traditional settlement on the edge of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan desert where more than 97% of its roughly 650,000 residents are Uighur. The list was corroborated through interviews with former Karakax residents, identity verification tools, and other lists and documents.

The database shows that cadres compile dossiers on detainees called the “three circles”, encompassing their relatives, community, and religious background.

The detainees and their families are then classified by rigid categories. Households are designated as “trustworthy” or “not trustworthy”. Families have “light” or “heavy” religious atmospheres, and the database keeps count of how many relatives of each detainee are locked in prison or sent to a “training centre”.

Officials used these categories to determine how suspicious a person was – even if they had not committed any crimes.

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