How China Tracked Detainees and Their Families


The last time she heard from her family was over three years ago, before China began rounding up Muslims in the country’s far west. She lived abroad and knew nothing of her family’s fate — until the contents of a leaked government document surfaced, describing their lives in chilling detail.

Rozinisa Memettohti, an ethnic Uighur who has lived in Turkey since 2003, learned in the document that two of her sisters had been sent to indoctrination camps for having more children than the region allowed. One of the sisters was also targeted for obtaining a passport.

“The reality is already far worse than any of my fears,” Ms. Memettohti said in a telephone interview this month. “My father, my brothers and my sisters are in danger.”

For the past few years, the authorities in the Xinjiang region have placed hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups into indoctrination camps in the most sweeping mass detentions since the Mao era. The document provides a rare, finely grained view of how the ruling Communist Party has carried out the system of detentions that has shredded the fibers of society in Xinjiang.

The leaked document, a 137-page spreadsheet, outlines information that the authorities in Karakax County (also spelled Qaraqash) in southwestern Xinjiang have gathered on its residents. It includes the names and government identification numbers of more than 300 people held in indoctrination camps and information on hundreds of their relatives and neighbors. Even children as young as 16 were closely monitored for signs of what Beijing considered to be wayward thinking.

The document, one of numerous files kept on the more than one million people who have been detained in the camps, shows the range of behaviors that the authorities see as problematic that would be normal elsewhere, such as giving up alcohol, wanting to go on a religious pilgrimage or attending a funeral.

In Ms. Memettohti’s case, her sisters were flagged for praying regularly and participating in routine religious ceremonies.


The spreadsheet adds to a growing body of evidence on these detentions. Reports on other leaked government documents last year by The New York Times and a group of outlets led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed the coercive nature of the crackdown and detailed the tight controls placed on detainees in the indoctrination camps.

The authorities scrutinized three generations of each detainee’s family, as well as their neighbors and friends. Officials in charge of monitoring mosques reported on how actively the residents participated in ceremonies, including the naming of children, circumcision, weddings and funerals.

The list specified whether detainees learned about religion from parents and grandparents or elsewhere. Dozens were listed as having a “heavy religious environment” at home — a designation that was often followed by a recommendation that they not be released.

The authorities also studied how many times a day detainees prayed and whether they took part in — or were even interested in — religious pilgrimages.

Outward signs of piety were also recorded. “Wore a beard from March 2011 to July 2014,” reads a description of one detainee related to several people who had been sent to camps. Officials categorized as “trustworthy” another man, the father of two detainees, who had cut off his beard and started drinking alcohol after a year of abstaining.

The entries offer detailed explanations of why officials ordered each person to be sent to a camp — information that has previously mostly trickled out through accounts by former detainees and activists.

Officials dissected their movements or plans to travel, particularly to predominantly Muslim nations. Even obtaining a passport was flagged, regardless of whether it was used. One of the most common reasons cited for detention, little known until now, was the violation of China’s birth restrictions by having too many children.

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