Calling friends or relatives abroad, wearing a headscarf, closing a restaurant during the fasting month of Ramadan are all activities that have doomed thousands of Uighurs from the Karakax district of Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China. A list of prisoners that was leaked to DW and other media partners provides information on the arbitrary criteria used to justify interning members of the Muslim-minority Uighurs in Chinese "reeducation" camps.
The leaked document also details the extensive surveillance of Uighurs in the region: In addition to information about the detainees, it contains data about hundreds of their relatives, neighbors and friends. In total, more than 2,000 names with references to their social behavior appear in the list. DW also identified numerous references to forced labor in factories.
Top German official calls for UN investigation
The German government's commissioner for global religious freedom, Markus Grübel, responded to the revelations with "great concern."
"We cannot accept the forced assimilation that the Chinese government exercises on the Uighurs," the Christian Democrat told DW. "People are detained for their beliefs, children are separated from their parents, and the Chinese government monitors all areas of life. Under these circumstances, a humane life can no longer take place." Grübel called for an independent investigation by the United Nations into the situation of the Uighurs. So far, the Chinese government has rejected this.
On February 13, prior to the revealing of the leaked documents, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a joint press conference in Berlin that he had spoken to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about the situation of the Uighurs and would now focus on "transparency."
'I am ashamed of our human race'
Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that the revelations document a "21st-century catastrophe in terms of human rights violations" and that China seems to be building "a modern slave exploitation machine" in the camps.
"I am ashamed of our human race and that we — including Muslims worldwide — are too weak to stand up against these blatant human rights violations," Mazyek told DW.
Omid Nouripour, the Greens' foreign policy expert in the Bundestag told DW that he wants to see "super-clear language, not only from the German government, but from all Europeans and all those who care about human rights." So far, the Chinese government has had the feeling "that they can do as they like, because we are quiet for economic reasons. That must finally stop."
Gyde Jensen, the chair of the human rights and humanitarian aid committee in the Bundestag, also called for concrete political action. "As an international community, it is our duty to intervene in such massive human rights violations," she said. "As such, sanctions at the EU level must also be considered."
Ulrich Delius, director of the international NGO Society for Threatened Peoples, also requested that the EU take punitive measures against China. "Those responsible for the crimes must be prevented from entering the EU with travel sanctions," he said. "German companies must review their activities in Xinjiang."
Firms resist action
Major German companies such as Siemens, BASF and Volkswagen are active in the Xinjiang region. Following the "China Cables" that were revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on November 24, 2019, VW stated that it was assumed that in its own factory in the provincial capital of Urumqi, in which about 650 people worked, "no employee was forced to work." Upon request, the carmaker has now told DW that nothing has changed since its statement at the time.
The industrial giant Siemens also announced that the company was not reassessing the situation after evaluating the Karakax list.
BASF had not responded to DW's request for a statement at the time of publication. The chemical company operates a joint manufacturing facility with a Chinese partner in Korla, Xinjiang's second-largest city. The company "is aware of the social problems in the Xinjiang area," BASF said in November.
DW spoke to Jewher Ilham, the daughter of the Uighur economist and human rights activist Ilham Tohti, who is currently serving a life sentence for "separatism" and was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2019. Ilham condemned the Chinese authorities' practices that emerged from the Karakax list. "A lot of the information, I was not surprised. I had the chills when I first heard of the reeducation camps, and this time reading the leak made the chills come back even stronger," she told DW on the sidelines of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
"Even though I have heard most of the information from camp survivors and was aware of how bad the situation is," she said. "But it is shocking to actually see proof for how someone can be targeted just because someone's family member is overseas. It is very unacceptable and tragic."
Chinese state media chief: 'Room for improvement' in Xinjiang
During his visit to Berlin on February 13, Foreign Minister Wang was asked by DW and its partners to comment on previous reports of systematic human rights violations against Uighurs. He characterized the reports as "100% pure lies" and "fake news."
Since DW and its media partners revealed the Karakax list on Monday, the Chinese state-sponsored newspaper Global Times has published an article questioning the list's authenticity. The paper cites an anonymous Chinese counterterrorism expert who claims that European and US intelligence agencies may be involved in the leaks surrounding the persecution of Uighurs and in "hyping" the issue. Twitter accounts with such names as April2154, Shannon8766 and Emily5527 spread the post in succession and with the same wording, suggesting that the profiles are operated by bots.
On Tuesday, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Xu Xijin, wrote on Twitter that there is some "room for improvement" in the "deradicalization program in Xinjiang," seemingly admitting to the existence of the camps documented in the leak. "But Xinjiang has realized the bigger goal of restoring peace and stability. This is the greatest morality [sic]."
It is estimated that more than 1 million people are held in camps against their will in Xinjiang and ideologically "reeducated" there. The Chinese leadership, however, describes such locations as offering voluntary educational measures to combat "extremist ideas."
In 2009, at least 140 people were killed in violent protests against Han Chinese in Urumqi. In 2014, many people were killed in a suicide attack on a marketplace.
DW's Jens Thurau, Esther Felden, and Andreas Becker contributed to this report.