Asiye Abdulaheb risked everything to share the first-ever leak of secret documents describing China's mass internment of ethnic minorities. She's hoping their release will make the world see what is going on in her native Xinjiang.
Beijing (dpa) – When Asiye Abdulaheb looked at the documents on her laptop, she immediately knew the stakes were high.
China’s mass internment of ethnic minorities in its western region of Xinjiang had long been documented by journalists and rights activists using survivors’ testimonies, analyses of satellite imagery and government procurement documents.
Beijing at first dismissed such reports as a smear campaign by the West. The government later said the internment camps, which experts estimate hold up to 1.5 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities, were voluntary "vocational training centers" meant to eradicate "ideological viruses."
But in Abdulaheb’s hands were 24 pages of Chinese documents that substantiated the previous reports on Xinjiang. The papers included an operations manual for running the internment camps similarly to high-security prisons, as well as four "bulletins" detailing how Chinese police relied on big data collection and artificial intelligence to sweep up entire groups of people for detention.
"These official documents show the criminal behaviour of the Chinese government," Abdulaheb, a Uighur, said last week in an interview through a translator. "I thought these documents can tell the world what is really happening in my homeland and show the world that every detail told by survivors was true."
The 46-year-old Dutch citizen, who left her native Xinjiang in 2009, said she received the documents electronically in June. She told dpa she realized it was dangerous to publish them, but felt she had no other choice.
The files came from an official in Xinjiang along with an ominous message: "I have to send you these documents even if by sending them I risk losing my life. I expect the tragedy that is happening here will end as soon as possible. I hope the international community can stop what's happening here."
The files, which would come to be known as the China Cables, were published in November by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in partnership with 17 news organizations from around the world. They followed a separate leak to the New York Times of internal papers showing how Chinese authorities created and justified the crackdown.
The leaks drew responses from several governments. Shortly after the publication of the China Cables, the US House of Representatives passed a bill seeking to impose sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for the Xinjiang abuses. The European Union and Germany called for unimpeded access to the region.
"The China Cables have acted to solidify claims about the re-education camp system made by former detainees, journalists and scholars over the past two years," said Darren Byler, a researcher focused on Xinjiang at the University of Washington.
The files have also added important detail about the camps, which are run like high-security prisons, said Adrian Zenz, a German researcher on Xinjiang who helped authenticate the leaked documents.
"The moral cost for other nations to ignore this issue has increased," Zenz said.
'I TRY TO FORGET WHAT HAPPENED'
Abdulaheb came out in December as the whistleblower behind the documents, in an interview for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. She said she hoped that revealing her identity could help keep her and her family safe. They had already received threats. Her social media accounts were hacked.
Beijing’s current campaign in Xinjiang, which reportedly includes mass internment, forced labour and family separations, did not come as a complete surprise for Abdulaheb.
Back in Xinjiang, when she was working as a journalist for a Uighur magazine, she witnessed the ethnic riots that erupted in the regional capital of Urumqi on July 5, 2009.
The clashes left about 200 people dead, most of them from the Han Chinese majority, according to the government. The riots followed Uighur protests against the "Shaoguan incident" in south China, where two Uighur factory workers were killed and hundreds injured following allegations of sexual assault by a Han woman.
Abdulaheb recalls thinking the government responded with silence to the Shaoguan incident, but with brutality to the Urumqi protests. After the riots, her previous friendships with Han Chinese broke down.
"I found it was impossible to live there in peace," she said. "The treatment against the demonstrators terrified me."
Towards the end of 2009, she left Urumqi on a business trip and never returned. She later applied for asylum in the Netherlands, where she married and had two children.
Ten years later, with the incendiary documents on her laptop, Abdulaheb was at loss as to what to do. She decided to post an excerpt on Twitter, where it was noticed by Zenz, the German researcher. Soon, she was in contact with journalists.
But she had also attracted unwanted attention. After she posted the excerpt on Twitter, Abdulaheb said her social media and email accounts were hacked. On Facebook Messenger, she received a message that read: "If you don’t stop, someone will find your dead body in the black trash can in front of your door."
Then, in September, Abdulaheb’s ex-husband was approached by an old friend from Xinjiang, who invited him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Dubai. There, he was met by Chinese state security officials who tried to convince him to spy on Abdulaheb, she said.
While her account cannot be independently verified, several Uighurs abroad have spoken before about being approached by Chinese authorities and asked to spy on Uighurs in the diaspora.
Abdulaheb is unaware of any retaliation her family in Xinjiang might have suffered after the leaks. But she said relatives of her friend Abduweli Ayup, a Uighur linguist in exile, have been targeted.
After learning that her ex-husband received veiled threats from Chinese state security officers in Dubai, Abdulaheb said she felt like the Chinese government already knew everything about her.
"I have nothing to hide now, so I feel relaxed," she said. "I try to forget what has happened to me and live my life as usual."