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When Chinese officials claimed in February 2018 that reeducation camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang did not exist, German researcher Adrian Zenz decided to prove them wrong. He started digging through Chinese government data on the internet—construction bids, hiring ads, local budgets—and found evidence that the government had built massive reeducation camps that held 1 million Uighurs. Zenz, a Christian, views his research as a way to serve the voiceless, including Uighurs who see China eradicating their language and culture. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
What most surprised you as you sought evidence that China was detaining Uighurs? That there is so much. I found information on government websites, private websites, and Chinese media. I realized the importance of looking at the past years to build up a case, with strong evidence from 2014 to 2016 when reeducation was a small-scale campaign. Then it grew gradually, so you could trace the development of the system and the terminology. The key is figuring out the government’s terminology for reeducation camps. Uighurs say, “We’re going to study,” but a key phrase for the government is “transformation through education.”
What changed after the publication of your research last year? The Chinese government stopped using that key phrase in issuing bids and official reports. The links to several websites that were instrumental to the report, especially construction bids, went dead. Sometimes I was able to find alternative information at another link, sometimes not. The Chinese have become much more careful in what they put out and how they put it out, but at the same time, the amount of available information has only ever tended to increase over time. So now it takes more sifting. You can’t expect to find documents with the old key terms—you need to find new creative ways of finding the same things. There’s a cat-and-mouse game element to this.
How much do you think average Chinese citizens know about what is happening in Xinjiang? They know only the official government line unless they have traveled to Xinjiang. Even if they traveled to Xinjiang, they could get the wrong impression if they go as tourists. They think everything in Xinjiang is safe and beautiful and modern. It’s only when they have firsthand contact with locals that they find out things.
For a long time I thought that research was a fun thing that maybe can get you prestige. But now I realize research can expose entire nations as telling lies.’
How could they learn the truth? Technically they can find out about it from Western media pieces that have been translated into Chinese, but a lot of that is blocked unless you have a virtual private network, which is getting harder to get. Plus a lot of Chinese people think Western claims are exaggerated—the trust in the Western media is not very high. The state was really successful in reducing that in the course of the Tibetan uprising in 2008. When there was any little mistake in Western media reporting, Chinese officials would immediately point it out. That has paid off for them, and it makes spreading the word about Xinjiang really difficult.
Are you blacklisted from entering China? I haven’t tried to go back. It’s possible they would let me in, but since the detentions of the Canadians [Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor], a lot of us academics and experts believe that the Chinese state is transgressing some key boundaries. For my own safety and because I have children, I wouldn’t consider going.
How is the Chinese government changing? In the past, we had the impression that the Chinese government was intense, but still quite rational. And even though they are still rational and calculated, they have lost certain boundaries. We wonder, where is the limit? Perhaps they are so confident in themselves that they think they can do anything to foreigners, which would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. They are capable of doing anything now, and that requires us to take a step back.
How does your Christian faith affect your work? My faith informs what matters to me in life. I have a built-in passion for other cultures and I’ve developed a passion for research. But I don’t believe in doing research for its own sake: I want my life to serve a higher purpose, to serve other people. I don’t just want to live so I can become wealthier and more famous. I want to use the gifting God has given me in His service, and ideally that should benefit other people.
Do you enjoy doing research like this? For a long time I thought that research was a fun thing that maybe can get you prestige. But now I realize research can expose entire nations as telling lies. It can expose evil. So I discovered a whole different side to research. I feel God is using this gift in me to achieve good things for other human beings. That gives me a lot of purpose.
How did your spiritual beliefs develop? I grew up Catholic, but as I became an adult, I began to lose interest in the ritual of Sunday worship. I had bigger questions in life: What is my life about? Where am I headed? So I left the church, although I generally believed in the existence of God. Later during an encounter with a Korean American pastor in Washington, D.C., I felt the presence of God come upon me very powerfully as he talked to me about where I was headed after death. I was actually shocked to realize that Christianity, which I had been taught my whole life, was actually true. I realized this was the answer to all my questions. Christianity was the foundation of why I exist and why I’m doing what I’m doing.
What can Christians do to help Uighurs in Xinjiang? It’s important that at least some people in Christian circles stay informed. Not everybody needs to read all the news all the time, but some people should really be informed to keep people posted. One of the concerns I have about the North American church is that many people are very poorly informed. They read very little international news and only know about events in their immediate surroundings.
What would you like U.S. Christians to do when they become better informed? Christians can create more awareness. They can take up an issue like the one in Xinjiang or the house churches in China and hold an event concerning it. They can write a letter to a local politician. They can connect with scholars and activists. I’m not saying every church must do everything. But the church sometimes thinks too little about speaking out about matters of justice and leaves that field to specialist organizations and NGOs.
Do we sometimes pay attention only to things that directly affect us or our purses? Yes, often the Church is very much like the society around it, but for Christians that’s not acceptable. We are called to care for others, to look to the interests of others and not just ourselves, as Philippians 2:3-4 says. There’s no way to do that if you’re not even informed. We have a calling to speak out even at the risk of incurring personal loss. That’s what motivates me to speak out.