China's Xinjiang Muslim 'detention camps': Documents show what PM Jacinda Ardern knows

Jacinda Ardern visited China knowing the Xinjiang region had become a "high-tech surveillance state" that "targets Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities" and puts them in secretive camps.

Documents obtained by Newshub reveal the advice given to the Government about China's "re-education camps" in the superpower's northwest where up to two million Muslims have been indefinitely detained.

The Prime Minister visited China in April and this was the advice provided ahead of that trip. The documents show how much she knew about the secretive camps before she met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.

Ardern knew authorities in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, had been cracking down on religious traditions, and what they call 'halal-ification' - arguing it "blurs the boundary between religion and secular life".

Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined by the Quran.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement to Newshub: "The Prime Minister was briefed on a wide range of issues before her visit to China, as she is for other countries."

The Prime Minister told Newshub she has researched the camps in Xinjiang.

"I receive comprehensive briefings on such matters and that for me is a comprehensive source of information… I have done some reading." 

PM Jacinda Ardern and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
PM Jacinda Ardern and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photo credit: Getty

While the advice highlights concerns raised by New Zealand and the international community, an expert is describing it as "light on the gory details".

Former detainees have spoken of torture and brainwashing at the facilities in Xinjiang, and women being forcibly sterilised.

In July, a Uyghur man living in New Zealand told Newshub Nation he feared for his safety after receiving threatening phone calls from the Chinese embassy.

James Leibold, an Associate Professor at Melbourne's La Trobe University, said the advice given to the Government put forward "the accepted view of those in the liberal West".

He researches ethnic policy and conflict in contemporary China with a particular focus on Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities.

"I think sufficient evidence out there from academics, human rights groups and journalists confidently says what is occurring in Xinjiang is not only barbaric, but in violation of international norms."

This image and description was included in the advice.
This image and description was included in the advice. Photo credit: Supplied

Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics, said the advice appeared to be quite China-friendly.

Brady warned MPs at a select committee in May about President Xi Jinping's foreign interference agenda to bring the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand "under control".

What's going on in Xinjiang?

Located on the Silk Road trade routes of west China, Xinjiang comprises one-sixth of the country's land area - about half the size of India - and is rich in oil and gas reserves.

Of China's five ethnic minority autonomous regions, Xinjiang is one of two (the other Tibet) where Han Chinese are slightly outnumbered by other ethnicities, including Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

The advice to Ardern highlighted how China today fears religious extremism.

This image and description was included in the advice.
This image and description was included in the advice. Photo credit: Supplied

That's why the Chinese government allowed local governments to "educate and transform" people influenced by religion at "vocational training centres".

Xinjiang's policies are portrayed as being "absolutely necessary" to ensure stability to prevent the region from becoming "China's Syria" or China's Libya", as reported in the state-backed Global Times.

China says the training centres offer classes on Mandarin Chinese, laws, regulations and vocational skills training; and provide counter-terrorism training and psychological counselling for those affected by "extremist thoughts".

How has the world responded?

New Zealand, along with 21 countries including Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK, issued a joint statement in July condemning the Xinjiang detention centres.

Some of the world's response includes the US considering sanctions on Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, other senior officials, and producers of surveillance technology, reports say.

According to Reuters, the US is considering how to confront China during the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN over the re-education camps.

And the Australian National Imams Council issued a statement on September 10 "condemning the ongoing persecution and violation of human rights against Uyghur Muslims by Chinese authorities".

This image and description was included in the advice.
This image and description was included in the advice. Photo credit: Supplied

China has provided limited access to reporters and foreign diplomats in strictly guided tours of the facilities. But human rights groups have criticised China's measures to pacify Xinjiang as extreme.

The New Zealand officials' advice notes that foreign press coverage of developments in Xinjiang has picked up "significantly".

But Leibold believes Beijing is "getting far more sophisticated" in its propaganda efforts and is "winning that information war on the issue".

New Zealand-China relations

The Prime Minister's visit to China this year was initially delayed.

It prompted speculation the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had taken offence to the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) warning Spark against using Huawei's 5G equipment.

Last year the New Zealand Defence Force explicitly named China as a threat that challenged international governance values and norms.  

While in Beijing, Xi called on China and New Zealand to "deepen the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership based on the principles of mutual trust and mutual benefit".

He went on to highlight New Zealand as the first developed Western nation to sign a free-trade deal with China. 

Ahead of Ardern's trip, Human Rights Watch urged her to "publicly express concern about mass abuses of Turkic Muslims in meetings with Chinese leaders".

This image and description was included in the advice.
This image and description was included in the advice. Photo credit: Supplied

Ardern said she "raised the issue [of human rights] directly" with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. "You can't do much more than that."

The Prime Minister also publicly noted that she had raised the issue with Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi on his visit to New Zealand last year.

National leader Simon Bridges also says he raised the issue when he visited Beijing earlier this month.

He was criticised for an interview he gave state-owned news channel CGTN in which he praised the CCP for taking the country from mass poverty to economic prosperity in the state media interview, calling it an "amazing story".

Brady noted how Bridges' delegation to China included Yang Jian, a National MP, who in 2017 admitted training Chinese spies so they could monitor other countries' communications. 

China is New Zealand's largest export destination following the signing of a 2008 bilateral Free Trade Agreement.

It accounts for nearly $NZ15.3 billion and 24 percent of total exports.

Where did the conflict begin?

Under the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (1984), Uyghur and other ethnic groups are guaranteed a minimum level of self-government and protection of their languages and culture.

But in July 2009, Urumqi was hit by large-scale inter-ethnic violence, during which almost 200 were killed and 1700 were injured, the officials' advice says.

China's State Ethnic Affairs Commission said the riots "were not because of ethnic policies", and instead the Chinese government blamed "hostile foreign forces" and "separatists".

Since the 2009 riots, the Xinjiang authorities have responded with a "350 percent increase in the public security budget and advertising the recruitment of a large number of new police and security-related positions".

Simon Bridges being interviewed in China.
Simon Bridges being interviewed in China. Photo credit: CGTN

Following a series of attacks in late 2013 and early 2014, then-Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian declared a "people's war on terror".

A "grid-style social management" system was introduced, using mobile internet technology, CCTV cameras and big data analysis to "monitor suspicious behaviour within a specific geographical area".

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) conducted a review of China in August last year and expressed alarm at reports of detentions, often for long periods and without charges or trials.

China responded officially for the first time, categorically denying the claims of detention or lack of religious freedom and the existence of re-education camps.

It said there are "vocational and technical education training centres" in Xinjiang in which "criminals involved in minor offences were provided with assistance and education to assist them in their rehabilitation".

Since then, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called on China to allow UN monitors to investigate the "deeply disturbing allegations of large-scale arbitrary detentions".