Interviews | Society | East Asia

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: What the ‘China Cables’ Tell Us About Xinjiang

The takeaways from and significance of a trove of leaked Chinese government documents on Xinjiang.

Shannon Tiezzi
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: What the ‘China Cables’ Tell Us About Xinjiang

In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a section of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region.

Credit: AP Photo/File

In November 2019, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) dropped a bombshell: The China Cables, described by ICIJ as “an investigation into the surveillance and mass internment without charge or trial of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang province, based on leaked classified Chinese government documents.” The China Cables served to confirm previous eyewitness accounts about life in the detention camps, along with chilling new details.

The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the lead reporter for the China Cables project and currently a China reporter with Axios, about the significance of the investigation.

The centerpiece of the China Cables is the “telegram” containing instructions on how to run the internment camps in Xinjiang. The details therein — including tight security measures and a strict emphasis on secrecy — put the lie to Beijing’s official claims that these are merely centers to train “students” in Mandarin and workforce skills. We’ve seen China do an about-face on this topic before, from denying the camps existed to rebranding them as benign “vocational training centers.” How do you expect Beijing to adjust its defense in the wake of the ICIJ report?

What we’re seeing so far from Beijing are attacks on the information sources themselves — calling the documents “pure fabrications,” accusing international media outlets of “smearing” China, and even some very targeted attacks against scholars Adrian Zenz and Darren Byler, who served as invaluable sources of information for us in our reporting (the Global Times in a recent article accused both Zenz and Byler as working on behalf of a U.S. intelligence agency).

What we’re also seeing is that Beijing is doubling down on its promotion of detention camps in Xinjiang as a successful model for other countries, and that Xinjiang is prosperous and stable because of its policies there.

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That latter response is something we should keep an eye on. Our documents revealed an explicit directive to keep the camps shrouded in “absolute secrecy.” Having failed utterly at that, the Chinese government now seems to have adopted a somewhat Trump-like approach — brag about the terrible thing that they once tried to keep secret.

One of the most startling things revealed in the China Cables is the extent to which the crackdown depends on artificial intelligence. One document you cite reported that over 15,000 Xinjiang residents had been rounded up in a single week based on the recommendations of the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which uses AI to flag “suspicious persons.” Would the internment campaign have been possible, at least to this extent, without such advanced technology? And what does that tell us about the culpability of tech firms based far away from Xinjiang — including some in the U.S.?

Yes, I do believe the internment campaign would have been possible without this technology; it simply would have relied on the traditional method of rounding up people at their homes, at checkpoints, and in public places, based on investigations, tips, or nothing at all.

But IJOP has changed the nature of the mass detentions, and it has especially changed the psychological environment in which people live. There is a strong sense in many places in Xinjiang that it is impossible to escape the state’s all-seeing eye. The Chinese government is seeking to scrape data from every source imaginable, whether that is cell phones or water meter readings or gas stations or its embassies and consulates abroad. There are facial recognition cameras everywhere; some of them are equipped with a technology that directly sounds the alarm when certain faces are recognized.

IJOP shows us what the Chinese government believes about itself and its capabilities. It believes that there is a way to predict and prevent unrest. This analogy may be getting old, but it’s too perfect not to invoke again and again — the movie Minority Report. Even the primary problem in Minority Report (that the system wasn’t perfect and put forward the names of innocent people) is also a problem in Xinjiang’s system. How could it not be? It’s not just that the basic assumption of IJOP — that it is possible to predict illegal behavior before it happens — basically guarantees the miscarriage of justice; it’s also that an authoritarian one-party state is defining “crime” in a way that props up the authoritarian state’s interests, not the best interests of society.

And yes, many, many international corporations, organizations, and individuals are complicit in what has been happening in Xinjiang, and in the surveillance state there. It’s not just companies but also people like former U.S. Senator David Vitter, who is now lobbying directly for HikVision, which has profited greatly from the high-tech security state there.

Another revelation in the leaked documents was the role of Chinese embassies and consulates overseas in flagging Xinjiang residents for investigation and potential detention, as the information they provide is fed into IJOP. You have done extensive reporting on Chinese influence operations overseas, which sometimes involves the participation or encouragement of embassy officials. With that background in mind, what do you make of the relationship between Chinese diplomatic missions abroad and the Xinjiang crackdown?

Chinese diplomatic missions are outposts of Chinese government repression. The Chinese government views embassies not just as its representatives abroad but as bases from which to gather information and control people who are outside of China. This is yet another example of that.

The New York Times also recently reported on a separate cache of leaked documents detailing the origins of the mass detentions in Xinjiang. The Times said that “the leak suggests greater discontent inside the party apparatus over the crackdown than previously known,” saying its source was motivated by a desire to “prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.” In the case of the China Cables, do you believe there was a similar motivation? And if so, why are we seeing these leaks now, over two years after the mass arrests and internments began?

The last time that classified Chinese government documents were leaked was, to my knowledge, the Tiananmen Papers in 2001. Those documents related to a time when China was undergoing a self-inflicted political and social crisis. It is my belief that the reason we are seeing another massive leak of internal party documents right now is that China is once again undergoing a self-inflicted political and social crisis. And many officials in the Chinese Communist Party know it.

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The two-year time lapse is more a result of how long it takes for these documents to find the right “home” for the leak, and for the outlet to fully authenticate and research them. The New York Times was working on their project for about a year. ICIJ has also had the documents for many months. These are extensive projects that take a long time to do right.

The situation in Xinjiang was well-known even before these leaks, yet many foreign governments have proven unwilling to confront Beijing about the situation. In one of the most ironic examples, the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers last March “commend[ed] the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.” What do you think it will take for other governments to act?

I do not think most governments will act. If they were going to act, they would have already. The reason for this is that China, like the United States, has gotten too big and too powerful to punish. The United States behaves with virtual impunity on the world stage. We are now seeing what it is like when China can do the same.