‘Window into a police state’: Data leak provides a look into China’s brutal camp system

The images from the camp refuse to fade from the mind’s eye – hours, days, even weeks after the folder has been clicked shut.

A gaunt prisoner, perhaps in his mid-50s, is holding out his bound hands to a woman wearing a white lab coat while a guard holding an angular truncheon stands behind him, a smile on his face. A young man is sitting in a “Tiger Chair,” a steel torture device in which the arms can be immobilized. Another photograph shows a prisoner naked from the waist up, his torso and back revealing clear signs of violence.

The next photo: A man, accompanied by guards, is walking down a prison hallway, past heavy doors and locks, his posture bent, his hands and legs bound. It is impossible to say how old he might be – his head is hidden beneath a black hood. Like all the other prisoners, he is wearing a reflective vest.

These men and women were not photographed in an official high-security prison, but rather in a reeducation camp in Tekes, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the vast majority of those locked up are Uyghurs. On paper, they are Chinese, a Muslim minority in the People’s Republic. But in their home region of Xinjiang, Chinese officials have built up a powerful system of surveillance in recent years that controls almost every aspect of their daily lives. Experts believe that more than a million Uyghurs have been locked away in reeducation camps. They are forced to learn communist songs and attend flag ceremonies. Canada, the Netherlands and the U.S. have classified the Chinese policies in Xinjiang as “genocide.” Chinese propaganda, by contrast, refers to the institutions as “free vocational training.”

The people in the camps? China says they are all there voluntarily. Human rights violations? Invented lies and disinformation. China has thus far denied access to the region to all independent human rights organizations from abroad. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has been demanding access to the area since 2018 – and she is finally being allowed to visit Xinjiang this week.

The only information about what really goes on in the camps has come from a handful of eyewitnesses who were able to first leave the camps and then leave China. Until now.