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New documents link Chinese leaders to crackdown on Uyghurs

William Yang Taipei
December 1, 2021

German academic Adrian Zenz tells DW how new documents show that speeches made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders link the government to the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks in Beijing
The 'Xinjiang Papers' include transcripts of three speeches made by Xi Jinping about XinjiangImage: Li Xueren/Xinhua/imago images

In an exclusive interview, German academic Adrian Zenz offers insight into a new set of documents which he says show that speeches made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders laid a foundation for the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The documents, dubbed the "Xinjiang Papers," include three speeches made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014, and highlight a range of measures that have been carried out in Xinjiang, including mass internment, forced birth control, and labor transfers to other regions. 

Zenz, an expert on China's crackdowns on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, was commissioned to review and analyze the documents by the Uyghur Tribunal in the United Kingdom, which received the leaked documents in September. According to him, the documents provide fresh evidence that China's top leaders directly or indirectly mandated the policies implemented in Xinjiang since 2014. 

Zenz says the leaked documents are an identical subset of the Xinjiang Papers that were first reported by The New York Times in 2019. However, the Times didn't highlight the key items and disclose all of the transcripts, he said. Zenz believes this new evidence validates the previously disclosed information about the crackdowns in Xinjiang. 

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang over the last few years. Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a daily press briefing stressed that "Xinjiang-related issues are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism, not about human rights or religion."

Adrian Zenz speaks at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva
The documents include speeches made by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which Zenz says validate previous evidence of the crackdown in XinjiangImage: Martial Trezzini/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

DW: What's the significance of the latest Xinjiang leaked document? 

Adrian Zenz: First it's the connection between what Xi Jinping said and the subsequent policy development. It is much stronger than we understood in 2019 based on the revelation made by The New York Times. That's not simply because our knowledge of the atrocity has increased, but also because I've undertaken a careful comparison with the subsequent texts. 

The second biggest difference is that the file contains several documents, including documents issued by the central government, which were not mentioned by The New York Times. What we see is a bombshell connection to experts who understand the language and evolution of the language and how these languages end up in the subsequent policies. 

The big deal is that Xi Jinping really set the stage for the internment and re-education camps, and also focused on the forced labor transfers for promoting employment in factories and for population-equalizing birth control, which sounds quite innocuous on paper, but if you identify and compare the exact same phrase in policy documents in Xinjiang, you will realize that the implication is much bigger than that. 

Do the newly leaked documents prove that the top leaders in the Chinese government gave instructions for the subsequent policy execution that the international community has been witnessing in Xinjiang over the last few years? 

There are significant policy changes that happened very shortly. For example, in late 2014, we had the construction of dedicated transformations to education facilities. In early 2015, we have the drafting of the re-education legislation group, which talks about two years, from April 2015 to March 2017, to produce the legal framework that legalizes the extrajudicial internment in the so-called vocational centers. 

In late 2014, there were developments that made labor transfer more expansive and this evolved very quickly in 2015 and 2016. It's not just saying in 2014 we have certain thoughts, and suddenly in 2017, we have something concrete. This is a very clear evolutionary development and it can be directly linked to Xi Jinping due to the way he put it. 

In many cases, he didn't make it optional. He put it as a demand, as was the case with the centralized boarding schools. These connections are in many cases quite direct, non-experts might miss the connections.

Amnesty: China committing 'crimes against humanity'

One of the biggest points is that Chen Quanguo [Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] gave a top-secret speech to officials to study in October 2016.

If you look more closely, you will realize how intensive that really was and how strong the mandates were for officials to study them [the speech]. It was said to "guide them" for the work in the upcoming year. 

The fact that this was distributed for study in 2016 really strengthens the evidence in terms of the role of the central government for the evolving atrocities, including after 2016. The new evidence absolutely links all aspects of the atrocities in Xinjiang, from the internment, parent-child separation, to labor transfer and birth prevention, to the central government. It is approved by Beijing and mandated by Beijing. 

What actions do you think the international community should take following this latest revelation, which suggests that China's top leaders have a direct connection to the execution of policies in Xinjiang?

The international community already has a lot of evidence on its table but they are not acting on it. Now with this evidence, we have a much stronger case that these policies are directly ordered by the central government for the purpose of safeguarding China's national security and Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative. 

That makes an even stronger case if you look at the determinations of mass atrocities, for example, a genocide determination. It's really supported by the new evidence because for that, you need to look at the intent. To realize that this is about very strong language connecting several of the measures to China's national security really makes a much stronger case for genocide determination or crimes against humanity

I think that actually triggers some treaty obligations. There are many countries that are signatories to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. They have an obligation to prevent genocide from happening. If it's determined that there is a risk of genocide, they need to start to act and the risk has become a lot stronger. 

This triggers a whole lot of obligations. It also strengthens the whole body of evidence that we already have. It serves as a foundation. You could put all the evidence that we have, from witnesses, existing documents to existing leaks, they are now being put on a very firm foundation. 

From the speech that Xi Jinping delivered, how much do you think the measures that have been executed in Xinjiang were based on Beijing's rhetoric of counter-terrorism? 

The rhetoric of Xi Jinping and other leaders in justifying and legitimizing the measures is entirely counter-terrorism. In one of the statements, Xi said the causes can be external but the fertile soil [for terrorism] is domestic. It means that these external extremist radical ideas can spread. 

This is a misportrayal of the reality, which is that the problem is pretty much domestically made by failed Chinese policy and failed Chinese actions. The Uyghurs are using some religious language to reassert their ethnic identity. Or there has been some radicalization but the cause of that was domestic. It would not have flourished without the domestic conditions. 

By adopting this kind of framing, Xi Jinping tested the ground by saying "Look, the problem is the external links, so we need to close down those links," which he did. He was penalizing people for traveling abroad and communicating with people abroad in order to increase the immunity of the domestic population, which is basically the justification to re-educate people. The language of counter-terrorism has always been the justification of their policies in Xinjiang. 

Edited by: Leah Carter. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.