Hacked files revealing the repression of Uighur Muslims in China were published on Tuesday by a consortium of media. Labeled the “Xinjiang Police Files”, these documents owe a lot to one man in particular: Adrian Zenz. In recent years, this German anthropologist has become a central target of Chinese propaganda for his work on the ethnic group’s living conditions.
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It’s almost 3am in Minnesota where Adrian Zenz has been living since 2019, but it takes him no more than 30 seconds to respond on Twitter. Yes, he’s willing to answer a few questions, but not for too long. He’s getting tired.
And it’s not only due to being awake this late at night. The German anthropologist, a specialist in China’s treatment of the minority Uighur Muslim ethnic group, has had a busy day.
‘Paranoia of the Chinese authorities’
Zenz is the man behind the Xinjiang Police Files, new revelations published on Tuesday 24 May by several media, including French newspaper Le Monde. The documents expose the repressive machinery put in place by Beijing in the Xinjiang region, where the Uighurs live.
“It’s the first time we have police evidence that is unfiltered. It comes from hacking, so censorship is virtually impossible,” Zenz insists. He obtained several thousand computer files containing the records of 20,000 Uighurs who were arrested, along with countless instructions, briefings and police reports dating from between 2000 and 2018 in Xinjiang. The data trove was extracted from hacked servers of the public security bureau (PSB) in two districts of the region.
The documents also include speeches by Chen Quanguo, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) secretary for Xinjiang, as well as notes by simple security officers on individuals detained or under surveillance. “These files show just how paranoid Chinese authorities are about alleged terrorist dangers from Uighurs – from the bottom to the top of the hierarchical ladder,” Zenz says.
The revelations add to the case lodged against Beijing these past years. China has been accused of perpetrating “crimes against humanity” directed at the Uighurs, to use the term adopted by the French National Assembly in a March 2022 resolution.
Further evidence of repression came from visual illustrations of practices carried out by Chinese authorities. The files contain 5,000 photos of Uighurs aged between 3 and 94 years old. “It’s striking to see pictures of 14-to 15-year-old girls who are going to be sent to re-education camps,” Zanz confesses.
In a way, this massive set of documents is the culmination of all the hard work the 48-year-old anthropologist has carried out for years. For many, Zenz is one of the main characters driving the international effort to expose the Chinese government’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.
An accidental encounter with the Uighurs
Zenz has even become the man who “thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades”, according to a 2019 Wall Street Journal piece about the German anthropologist.
A year earlier, Zenz had single-handedly pushed Beijing to back down. As the first reports on China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims came out, China kept saying there was nothing to see in Xinjiang. But Zenz eventually discovered various official Chinese administrative documents online, from purchase orders for equipment to budget reports, that proved internment camps were being constructed.
When that evidence was published, China decided to change its tune. Instead of denying the allegations, authorities began describing the camps as mere training centres.
“Adrian Zenz’s tenacity has hugely contributed to exposing the crimes of the Chinese regime,” says Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropologist and Uighur specialist at Cornell University, who was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
And Zenz didn’t stop there. He was the first to give an estimate of the number, 1 million, of “interned” Uighur people. That figure was later confirmed and taken up by the UN. He was also the first to come across documents establishing the forced labour of Uighurs in 2021, and contributed to a better understanding of the cyber and police apparatuses set up in Xinjiang.
It’s an amazing feat that is all the more impressive because Zenz “didn’t ask for any of this. It happened kind of accidentally, all I was doing was searching for documents available online” he says. He got his anthropology degree from Cambridge University and has very little knowledge from the ground in Xinjiang. He’s only been there “once, 14 years ago, as a tourist,” according to German daily newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Zenz is a specialist on Tibet, to which he’s devoted most of his work. At the time he was studying in the region, Beijing’s strongman in Tibet was Chen Quanguo, who was carrying out his “pacification” programme in the region. When this CCP dignitary was appointed head of Xinjiang in 2016, Zenz decided to focus on this province instead.
Priority target for Chinese propaganda
In the absence of knowledge from the field, Zenz makes the most of his mastery of Mandarin and the mysteries of the web. After all, for years he had been financing part of his research “thanks to a second job as a programmer for a streaming start-up,” the Wall Street Journal notes.
“It’s impossible to do fieldwork in Xinjiang anyway, and analysing online data is the best opportunity I have to understand what’s going on there,” Zenz explains. He has been blacklisted in China since last year and compares his work to that of a detective. Still, his method has served as an example to others. Whether it’s Shawn Zhang, a Chinese student in Canada who used Google Maps to draw out camp construction sites in Xinjiang, or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which runs the Xinjiang Data Project to collect public data on the province.
Between his revelations and the door he has opened for others to follow suit, Zenz has become one of the main targets of Chinese propaganda. Searching his name online, you can find articles criticising him by pro-Beijing publications all over social media and within the first Google search results.
This born-again Christian who works for the US Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has been portrayed on numerous occasions as a far-right pseudo researcher. He’s even one of the few researchers critical of the Chinese government to have had a double-page spread in the Global Times, one of the country’s leading media outlets.
“I think it’s understandable China is attacking me, they’re actively trying to cover their tracks in Xinjiang,” Zenz admits. “But I was very surprised by the criticism I received by people who feel they have to defend Beijing.” He has found it difficult to come to terms with the deluge of hate he faces, especially since “attacking me calls into question the suffering Uighurs are facing,” he concludes. A suffering that 5,000 photos published on file in the Xinjiang Police Files is difficult to deny.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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