Hacked files revealing the crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in China were released by a media consortium on Tuesday. Labeled “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 living conditions of the ethnic group.
It’s almost 3 a.m. in Minnesota where Adrian Zenz has lived since 2019, but it takes him no more than 30 seconds to respond on Twitter. Yes, he is willing to answer a few questions, but not too long. He is tired.
And it’s not just about being awake so late at night. The German anthropologist, who specializes in China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority group, had a busy day.
“Paranoia of the Chinese authorities”
Zenz is the man behind the Xinjiang Police Files, new revelations published Tuesday, May 24 by several media, including the French newspaper Le Monde. The documents denounce the repressive machinery put in place by Beijing in the Xinjiang region, where the Uyghurs live.
“This is the first time we have had unfiltered police evidence. It comes from piracy, so censorship is virtually impossible,” Zenz insists. He obtained several thousand computer files containing the records of 20,000 arrested Uyghurs, as well as countless instructions, briefings and police reports dating from 2000 to 2018 in Xinjiang. The treasure trove of data was extracted from hacked Public Security Bureau (PSB) servers in two districts in the region.
The documents also include speeches by Chen Quanguo, secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for Xinjiang, as well as notes from ordinary security officers on individuals detained or under surveillance. “These files show how paranoid the Chinese authorities are about the alleged terrorist dangers of Uyghurs, from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy,” Zenz said.
The revelations add to the case filed against Beijing in recent years. China has been accused of perpetrating “crimes against humanity” directed against Uyghurs, to use the term adopted by the French National Assembly in a March 2022 resolution.
Further evidence of the crackdown came from visual illustrations of practices carried out by Chinese authorities. The files contain 5,000 photos of Uyghurs between the ages of 3 and 94. “It’s striking to see photos of young girls aged 14-15 who are going to be sent to re-education camps,” admits Zanz.
In a way, this massive set of documents is the culmination of all the hard work the 48-year-old anthropologist put in for years. For many, Zenz is one of the main figures behind the international effort to expose the Chinese government’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.
A chance encounter with the Uyghurs
Zenz even became the man who “shoved China and the West into one of their biggest human rights clashes in decades,” according to a 2019 Wall Street Journal article on the German anthropologist.
A year earlier, Zenz single-handedly pushed Beijing back down. When the first reports of China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims came out, China kept saying there was nothing to see in Xinjiang. But Zenz eventually discovered various official Chinese administrative documents online, ranging from equipment purchase orders to budget reports, which proved that internment camps were being built.
When this evidence was published, China decided to change its tune. Instead of denying the allegations, authorities began to describe the camps as mere training centers.
“The tenacity of Adrian Zenz has contributed enormously to exposing the crimes of the Chinese regime,” said Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropologist and Uyghur specialist at Cornell University, 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” Uyghurs. This figure was later confirmed and taken up by the UN. He was also the first to come across documents establishing Uyghur forced labor in 2021, and contributed to a better understanding of cyber and police arrangements in place in Xinjiang.
It’s an incredible feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Zenz “didn’t ask for any of this. It happened a bit by chance, all I was doing was looking for available documents online,” he says. He graduated in anthropology from Cambridge University and has very little knowledge of the field in Xinjiang. He only went there “once, 14 years ago, as a tourist”, according to the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Zenz is a specialist in Tibet, to which he has devoted most of his work. During his time studying in the region, Beijing’s strongman in Tibet was Chen Quanguo, who led his “pacification” program in the region. When this CCP cleric was named leader of Xinjiang in 2016, Zenz decided to focus on that province instead.
Priority target of Chinese propaganda
In the absence of knowledge of the field, Zenz takes advantage of his mastery of Mandarin and the mysteries of the web. After all, he had been funding some of his research for years “through a second job as a programmer for a streaming start-up,” notes the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s impossible to do fieldwork in Xinjiang anyway, and online data analysis is the best opportunity I have to understand what’s going on there,” Zenz said. He has been blacklisted in China since last year and likens his job to that of a detective. Yet his method served as an example to others. Whether it’s Shawn Zhang, a Chinese student in Canada who used Google Maps to draw 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 opened for others to follow suit, Zenz has become one of the main targets of Chinese propaganda. By searching his name online, you can find articles criticizing him by pro-Beijing posts all over social media and in the top Google search results.
The born-again Christian who works for the US Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has been repeatedly portrayed as a far-right pseudo-researcher. He is even one of the few researchers critical of the Chinese government to have been the subject of a double page in the Global Times, one of the country’s main media.
“I think it’s understandable that China is attacking me, they are actively trying to cover their tracks in Xinjiang,” Zenz admits. “But I was very surprised by the criticism I received from people who feel compelled to defend Beijing.” He finds it hard to come to terms with the deluge of hate he faces, especially since “attacking me calls into question the suffering that Uyghurs face”, he concludes. A suffering that 5,000 published photos filed in Xinjiang police archives are hard to deny.
This article has been translated from the original in French.