The world has been learning through survivor testimony, government contracts, and satellite photos that the Chinese government has been holding hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in massive internment camps in the remote western province of Xinjiang.
But the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists acquired the plans documenting this system in the Chinese government’s own words: Secret documents that outlined how Muslim minorities in Western China were being targeted, and how that internment was designed to indoctrinate them.
NBC News was a key partner for this collaboration both in the reporting and visualization.
NBC News produced a 4,000-word digital interactive with two accompanying video stories that aired on television — to 8 million viewers — and online, with over 700,000 viewers in the first 3 hours. Our story harnessed satellite imagery, classified Chinese government documents, and the harrowing accounts of two Uighur women who went through an ordeal most can’t imagine.
The impact of the China Cables was immediate, profound and is ongoing.
A week after publication, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill calling on the Trump administration to sanction the Chinese officials responsible. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Beijing to release the detainees. And government officials in the UK and Germany demanded that China allow international observers into Xinjiang.
Sens. Rick Scott and Josh Hawley wrote to NBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal, urging it to refuse to air the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
But the most important response may have come from China itself. Beijing denounced the China Cables as “fake news,” while Xinjiang officials began ordering subordinates to delete data, destroy documents, and tighten controls on information.
Two weeks after publication, the chairman of the Xinjiang regional government suggested China was moving to close the camps. He announced all detainees had now “graduated,” and the government would “normalize” the facilities. Whether this means the camps will close remains to be seen. But the announcement was evidence the China Cables leak is having a real effect at the highest levels, and might change lives.
NBC analyzed satellite imagery for over 100 potential camps to build a map showing their prevalence across Xinjiang. The story highlights a specific camp that is representative of the system: a high-walled, heavily-guarded compound built where nothing existed just three years prior.
The tools used by NBC News included Google Earth Pro, ArcGIS and imagery from multiple sources, and were analyzed to reveal guard towers, high walls and even Potemkin basketball courts seemingly laid out for Western eyes, because for roughly two years they were courts with no hoops.
To analyze camp locations, NBC News used ArcGIS and Google Earth Pro. To display the camp locations, NBC News used QGIS.
Among the documents were an operations manual for the camps, personally approved by the region’s top security chief, and intelligence briefings, revealing the inner workings of China’s massive data-collection program. The leak contained a rare look at Xinjiang’s harsh justice system, with a court sentencing document that showed a Uighur man imprisoned for 10 years for urging his Muslim co-workers not to use profanity and to eat Halal.
The documents showed how camp personnel were instructed to prevent escapes, maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, and forcibly indoctrinate the detainees. They also laid bare the chilling nexus of technology and totalitarianism that collects vast amounts of personal information, and uses that data to select candidates for internment.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The effort involved a painstaking process to verify the authenticity of the documents, while taking precautions to keep our very possession of the documents secret. At NBC News, we couldn’t involve our China-based colleagues for fear of endangering their safety. Other reporters in the collaboration asked not to be identified at all.
Our document verification effort drew on experts in Uighur language and Chinese government documents, and sources at two intelligence agencies. The documents were meticulously scrubbed to remove identifying marks that could be traced back to our sources.
In addition, NBC News analyzed satellite images of more than 100 probable internment camps,
To report the story, NBC News spoke to more than a dozen experts on everything from Chinese law to Uighur culture, employed six Uighur translators, and interviewed two survivors of the camps. These sources helped inform the backbone of a complicated and nuanced story in an invaluable way.
Reporting took place in Istanbul, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Virginia, and in 13 countries where our collaborators were based. We interviewed sources in Kazakhstan, Canada, and the UK. NBC’s production team consisted of more than 30 editors, cameramen, photographers, graphic designers, reporters and producers.
What can others learn from this project?
The stakes for this story were high, and posed great danger to reporters at NBC News and other journalists that were part of this ICIJ collaboration. The verification effort was arduous, with great concern for not revealing the sources of the documents.
Security was a great concern for the documents. It may go without saying, but news organizations that obtain secret Chinese government documents should exercise great caution and plan carefully about publishing them.
Preparing the multimedia presentation took weeks of planning and coding. Teaming journalists with a variety of technical skills is crucial .News organizations will likely also find that projects like these require a dedication of time and people to make happen.