What initially inspired your motivation to investigate such a tough topic as the Uighur issue?
I’ve been travelling to the region since 2009, when I was still a student. As a China correspondent, I report on what’s happening there. I’ve been based in China since 2016, and since then, I’ve been trying to visit the region at least once a year to see how things have changed. This experience has enabled me to compare the changes taking place in the region from year to year. The most significant changes were evident in 2016, 2017, and 2018. By 2017, it was already quite challenging, but it was still possible to travel without feeling like you were being followed everywhere. However, that is no longer the case. There are police officers everywhere you look, and it’s impossible not to be followed.
How did you and your team navigate the ethical concerns surrounding the publication of this sensitive and potentially dangerous information?
Our primary concern was that the documents we had obtained were classified, and we were unsure of how the authorities in China would react if I were to possess this material within China. Therefore, one of the first things we did was to fly out of the country and download the documents. Once I had landed in Frankfurt and was on my way to Berlin by train, I began to read the material and look at the photos. It was only then that I began to grasp the significance of what we had obtained.
We had several ethical concerns, one of which was that we did not have the consent of the people in the photos. Therefore, we decided to blur their faces, unlike the BBC. However, our most significant concern was to be sure that the material was authentic. We spent most of our time verifying the authenticity of the documents, forensically examining the photos to ensure that they had not been manipulated. We even paid a company to fly a satellite over the camps to get a fresh image from where we thought the camps might have been.
As someone who is computer-savvy, I was mainly responsible for tracking down relatives of people in the picture. I flew to Amsterdam to meet with them. These conversations were often disturbing. I had to inform an 80-year-old that their son had been sentenced to 11 years in prison. I had to tell a husband that his wife had been sentenced to 16 years. It was not easy to have these conversations.
In light of the international attention that the story has received, what do you hope will be the impact on human rights issues in China and the world in general?
The Xinjiang Police files have brought more awareness to the crime against humanity being perpetrated by the Chinese government. My hope for the future is that there will be more scrutiny of China’s actions in Xinjiang, and that the international community will take action to hold China accountable for its actions. The situation in Xinjiang is quite grim, and I fear that it will only get worse if no action is taken.
What term would you use to describe what’s happening to the Uyghur people in China?
Personally, I would describe it as cultural genocide or a crime against humanity. The situation in Xinjiang is not like the mass murders in Rwanda. It’s more like a slow erasure of the Uyghur culture, which is deeply concerning. It’s also a crime to arbitrarily detain millions of people for an extended period, as is happening in Xinjiang, especially when the charges are often based on flimsy pretexts such as praying, growing beards, or refusing to drink alcohol.
There are a few other Muslim minorities in China, such as the Kazakhs and Tatars, but the Uyghurs are the largest. Interestingly, if a Han Chinese person converts to Islam, they become a Hui Chinese. This is different from the Uyghurs who are considered a separate ethnic group. The Hui Chinese are generally integrated into Chinese society and are not targeted in the same way as the Uyghurs.
Do you think the situation in Xinjiang is related to the amount of resources the region has?
Yes, that’s certainly one of the reasons why Xinjiang is so strategically important. Most of China’s natural resources are located in that region, including nuclear test grounds. It’s also of strategic importance to China for other reasons.
Do you think the Chinese government does similar things in other parts of the country?
Yes, the Chinese government has also cracked down in Tibet and Mongolia, but not to the same extent as in Xinjiang. The grip is felt throughout the country, but it’s particularly tight in Xinjiang because China wants to make sure it doesn’t become a dangerous region like Afghanistan.
So you’re saying that there is a perception among Chinese that Xinjiang is a scary and dangerous place?
Yes, that’s been the narrative put out by the government. There have been some riots and terrorist attacks in the past, but the propaganda says these were fueled by separatism and religion. The real reason is social inequality. Uighurs are Chinese citizens, but they’re treated like second-class citizens because they look different and have Uighur names. They can’t get jobs in other parts of China, so there’s a high degree of social frustration. This has been erupting in small-scale incidents.
Once the regime has decided to handle a problem in a certain way, it’s difficult to change course. In 2016, a party secretary was appointed to handle the issue in Xinjiang. He hired a lot of police and started the “re-education camps”. He had the backing of Xi Jinping, who told him to solve the problem at all costs. Even if it doesn’t make sense, the government wants to make sure it looks like they’re doing something.