“All you need is Mandarin skills, a computer, and an internet connection,” said Timothy Grose, one of the China scholars involved in this effort, which he characterized as virtual detective work. “The situation is becoming urgent because the government is becoming more aware that there is this paper trail and they’ve been erasing a lot of documents. So anyone who wants to get involved should, and they should do so quickly. The more time we wait, the fewer pieces of evidence are going to be left on the Chinese internet.”
Grose starting hunting down evidence in the spring. Step one was running a search for “reeducation center” using Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google. He said that led him to news reports that described how local officials, under a policy known as qu jiduanhua gongzuo (“de-extremification work”), were “reeducating” Muslim ethnic minorities—notably Uighurs and Kazakhs—in the northwestern Xinjiang region, which Beijing has long viewed as a breeding ground for extremism and separatism. Step two was using that policy’s name as a search term in Baidu, which he said led him to government websites. Step three was seeing what those websites said about the centers’ activities and locations.
Using this simple process, Grose said he found photos of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a recently built facility in Xinjiang, along with a local government press release. “They have officials standing in front of a gate, and the gate quite clearly says in Chinese and Uighur ‘reeducation center,’” he said. “So there we have physical proof.” After finding photos like this or other documentation, Grose would save the material as PDFs or upload them to the digital archive known as the Wayback Machine, and post the contents on Twitter.
Another important type of evidence has come in the form of construction bids and tender notices that Chinese government officials posted online as they sought companies to build the camps. Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, has found and listed more than 70 of them. Many bids specify that the compounds must include high walls, watchtowers, barbed wire, surveillance systems, facilities for armed police forces, and other security features, according to Zenz.
He has also catalogued official recruitment notices for camp administrators, which he told me have “suspiciously low educational requirements, such as a middle school education.” If the camps were really vocational schools, as the government now claims, they would be recruiting staff with college degrees, Zenz said, adding that that’s the level of education typically required to work in such schools in China.
Along with scholars, citizen activists are joining the search for online traces of China’s camps. It’s worth noting that in other cases, internet sleuthing has yielded false leads and misinformation. For instance, in the cases of both the Boston Marathon bombing and the Newtown school shooting, some Twitter and Reddit users misidentified suspects and publicized their photos, generating harassment for innocent people. Such cases highlight the informational limitations, and possible risks, of a citizen-driven approach.