Half a year after the release of the “China Cables,” the Western world had harsh words for Chinese abuses of the Uighur people, but have taken no significant actions to back up those statements.
(CN) — In an immortal line quoted by proponents of government transparency, the late and legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously noted, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant; electric light the most effective policeman.”
The son of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia — now the Czech Republic — Brandeis knew about ethnic persecution, but he did not envision the endurance of the tight information control of a Chinese dictatorship.
Uighur leaders report that little has changed since two watershed releases of secret Chinese government documents last November: the “Xinjiang Papers” in the New York Times and the “China Cables” spearheaded by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the outfit behind cross-border investigations analyzing the Panama and Paradise Papers.
Cataloguing the fallout of the cables’ publication, the German-based advocacy group Faces of Democracy released transcripts of interviews with the lead investigator behind the series, a woman who claimed to supply the secret files and a Uighur leader responding to the reporting.
The portraits that emerge from the group’s interviews depict how breakthrough gave way to disappointment over official stagnation.
“Despite the fact that the ‘China Cables,’ the ‘Qaraqash List’ and other recently leaked documents have proved, beyond doubt, that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated against Uighurs in East Turkestan, not enough has changed,” Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uighur Congress, told the initiative.
“The European Union, Germany and the USA have been taking some action to address this issue and have raised the leaked documents at the United Nations and in bilateral discussions with China; but more substantial action is still needed.”
The month before the publication of the documents, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted Chinese surveillance companies whose technology fueled the camps. The “China Cables” shined a light on how that technology functioned.
“The significance of [the ‘China Cables’] slowly dawned on me because you know at first, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at,” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, ICIJ’s lead reporter on the China Cables now working for Axios, recalled in an interview.
A fluent Chinese speaker, Allen-Ebrahimian noted that the documents obtained by ICIJ and partnering organizations exposed the first Chinese government documents describing the functioning of the camps.
“It was a very first look inside the camps in the words of the Chinese Communist Party that proved, in their own words, beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly what they’re doing,” she said, adding that these records corroborated existing accounts.
Another set of ICIJ documents showed how the Chinese government used mass data collection around Xinjiang that would spit out the names of ethnic Muslims, mostly Uighurs, and ping the apps of policemen to interrogate and transfer them into camps.
“It’s kind of like the movie ‘Minority Report,’ if you’ve seen that,” Allen-Ebrahimian said. “But it’s real, and it’s based not on psychics, but on basically machine learning.”
Using its hallmark approach of cross-border collaboration, ICIJ worked together with 17 media partners across 14 countries to report on the significance of the documents weeks after a separate New York Times article revealed how Chinese bureaucrats would deflect questions about the disappearance of family members.
“They’re in a training school set up by the government,” the talking point began, according to the Times.
Despite massive media firepower around the globe, some participants found themselves underwhelmed by the impact of the exposure of what the Chinese government could no longer credibly deny.
“There has not been significant action and that’s highly discouraging,” Allen-Ebrahimian said. “I think what it shows is once the country becomes powerful enough, they can’t be restrained by the system that that we set up after World War II that was intended to help prevent ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.”
Global diplomats offered little more than words. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the cables at the time: “They detail the Chinese party’s brutal detention and systematic repression of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang,”
Other Western leaders and global institutions offered harsh words, but not meaningful action such as sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, designed to inflict economic penalties on human rights abusers.
“What it does is it makes it really easy for the president to put sanctions on government officials who are complicit in gross human rights violations,” Allen-Ebrahimian said of the Magnitsky Act, named after the whistleblower whose death in a Moscow prison led to international outcry against Russia. “That’s specifically what it’s intended to do, and those things have not been put in place.”
Members of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have described the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where approximately half of the estimated 20 million Uighurs live in the northwest of China, as an “open-air prison” and “no rights zone.”
“Uighurs live in constant fear of being taken to the camps or otherwise punished. Uighurs are not able to practice their religion, engage in Uighur cultural activities or even use their native language in schools and public spaces,” Isa told Faces of Democracy. “The very existence of the Uighur people is under threat and the Uighur people inside and outside of East Turkestan are suffering incredibly due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) repressive policies.”
Since the U.S. government-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia first described the camps in 2017, news has been slow to trickle out and has relied upon careful scrutiny of satellite imagery.
Following traditional principles of journalism ethics, ICIJ has refused to identify the whistleblower who broke that wall of secrecy some two years later, but one woman has stepped forward to take credit.
In an interview with Faces of Democracy, Asiye Abdulaheb claimed to have obtained the documents via a failed effort by Beijing to recruit her husband: “To put it plainly, the Chinese Ministry for State Security offered my ex-husband an opportunity to work for them as a spy.”
She said this overture first happened last September, when a friend persuaded her husband to travel to Dubai.
Upon her husband’s arrival, Abdulaheb says, ministry personnel thrust a USB stick into his hand and demanded he cooperated.
“He was instructed to ‘simply plug the USB stick into the laptop’ — which is what my ex-husband then did,” Abdulaheb told the initiative. “The USB stick contained a huge amount of information about me and other Uighurs who all live in the Netherlands.”
Upon the husband’s return, Abdulaheb says, the couple secretly contacted Dutch authorities that same day. She says she went public after learning that the Chinese government knew she had possession of the files.
Led by German advocate Sven Lilienström, Faces of Democracy lists 81 political and civil society leaders mostly throughout Europe, including ex-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial’s director Piotr Cywinski.