November 2019 was a remarkable month for the number of Iranian and Chinese secret documents leaked to the Western media. The information in these documents had more impact in countries neighboring Iran and China because in both cases the documents had an impact on foreign relations, both diplomatic and economic.
The leaked Chinese documents consisted of two batches of Chinese government reports on the progress of the Chinese crackdown on separatism or support among Turkic Uighurs in western China (Xinjiang province). The re-education camps are no secret and many have been spotted by Westerners scouring commercial satellite photos of Xinjiang. That shows camps holding over half a million Uighurs, who are, according to the leaked documents, held for up to a year until they are deemed “reeducated” and terrified enough to avoid any involvement in separatist or anti-Han (ethnic Chinese) activities. The leaked documents contained details of how the camps were run and how thousands of Chinese government officials in Xinjiang were accused of not supporting the reeducation program energetically enough. Many of these officials were jailed and reeducated.
Since 2017 the West, but not Moslem countries, have been increasingly critical of Chinese efforts to deal with Islamic extremism and anti-Han attitudes by sending over a million Chinese Moslems to prison camps where can undergo “re-education”. China considers Islamic conservatism or radicalism a mental disease that can be cured by re-education. The Moslem world was silent on this until these documents appeared. That was largely because it was a known fact that China will ignore any such criticism and seek to punish (economically or diplomatically) any Moslem country that would criticize China. Many Moslem majority nations depend on China for economic, diplomatic and military support. That is important but not as much as the fact that China simply ignores any criticism about how it treats its own Moslems. China responded to the criticism from the West by insisting the camps were for imparting useful language (how to speak Chinese) and job-related skills to improve the lives of the Moslem Turks who were once the majority in Xinjiang. This “occupational training” excuse was flimsy since the government budgets for Xinjiang show no such increase in job-related training and reports from those released from the camps make it clear the “training” is all about acquiring a more cooperative relationship with the Chinese government. All this and more was confirmed by the leaked documents.
The documents pushed many Moslem nations to reconsider their fear of China. This was especially true of Turkic nations farther west. These are the five “Stans” that, until 1991, were five components of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s the Stans have become more economically dependent on China than Russia, which has declined economically since 1991 while China continued to prosper. Even before the campaign against the Xinjiang Turks the Stans were having second thoughts about increasing economic involvement with China. The leaked documents reminded the citizens of the Stans, most of them Trukic, that China has a far larger population and economy than the Stans and that Xinjiang was once sort of a sixth Stan (Uighurstan) and is now being absorbed by Chinese money and non-Turkic Han Chinese.
Meanwhile, many local officials in Xinjiang were praised by the national government for policies that resulted in no terrorism-related deaths during 2017, 2018 and (so far) in 2019. The national officials have demanded that all local opposition to Chinese (Han) culture and control be eliminated. Local officials were given authority to try anything and that has resulted in severe hardship for the original occupants and rulers of this region; the Turkic Uighurs. Xinjiang has become a test area for whatever government monitoring and control measures local officials want to try and eventually widely implement throughout China. That is the reason for the sharp reduction in terrorism or separatist activity in Xinjiang. The most obvious examples have been the introduction of a lot more new technology for monitoring the population. This includes thousands of vidcams and a very effective facial recognition system.
This is in addition to a growing list of methods used to collect data on the non-Han Chinese population, especially anything related to ethnic separatism or Islamic terrorism. This helps the government select those who will be sent to re-education camps (for a few months to a year or more.) The camps were first used in early 2017 and their use was rapidly expanded. By 2018 there were several hundred thousand Moslems (most of them Uighur, ethnic Turks who used to be the majority in Xinjiang) in the 28 known re-education camps. The number and size of those camps increased after that. That are nine million Uighurs in the province and it appears that nearly all adult male Uighurs are spending some time in the camps. Uighurs are a shrinking minority in Xinjiang as more and more Han Chinese move in. Commercial satellite photos make it possible to locate and track the expansion of these camps.
The re-education camps contain very few Han Chinese and involved the use of many “experiments”, including the use of drugs, to induce uncooperative Uighurs to undergo an attitude adjustment. A new generation of security analysis software and hardware is replacing a lot of the older manpower-intensive data collection methods. This is used to identify potentially uncooperative Uighurs, especially those working for the government, and send them to the camps for treatment.
The Big Brother methods that worked in Xinjiang are showing up in Tibet, even though Tibet was never as violent as Xinjiang. But many ethnic Tibetans are still separatists and China considers that dangerous and subversive thought that must be adjusted. In areas where the new Big Brother-style security is imposed, it is very difficult for foreign journalists to find out exactly what is going on. If the government detects contact with a foreigner the police investigate and action is taken. China has offered this Big Brother tech to the governments of the Stans and some were tempted. Not anymore. Ultimately Big Brother will be Han Chinese, and released secret documents detail how Big Brother plans to suppress resistance and absorb non-Han populations. All that sent a message to the neighbors that China did not want to hear out loud.
The Iranian documents consisted of 700 pages of Iranian intelligence reports detailing Iranian efforts in 2014 and 2015 to gain control over senior Iraqi officials and obtain information on American operations to defeat ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq. The leaked reports named names and detailed how the Iranian approach was to recruit Shia, as well as Sunni and Kurdish officials to either have the Iraqi government assist Iranian operations in Syria or simply keep Iraq subordinate to Iranian interests. To make this happen, Iran recruited some Iraqis who worked for the American CIA. Iran used appeals to “protect Iraqi Shia” as well as bribes and threats. Not a lot of money was spent, if only because the most vulnerable Iraqi officials were often the most corrupt and were already getting rich by plundering the Iraqi government budget as well as state-owned or controlled industries. Kurdish and Sunni officials were recruited with offers to help protect Kurdish and Sunni Iraqis, as well as other favors for the officials involved. A lot of this was no secret and it was widely known which Iraqi Shia, Kurdish and Sunni officials seemed to be on good terms with Iran. It was assumed that this was done in return for some Iranian favors and the leaked messages detailed what those relationships entailed. The Iranian documents appeared after Iraq had been suffering from six weeks of anti-corruption protests, mainly by Iraqi Shia, who were the most vulnerable and abused victims. Iranian intelligence efforts in Iraq showed little concern for most Iraqi Shia and those Iraqi had already figured this out. Now they had evidence of who agreed to work for the Iranians, usually at the expense of most Iraqi Shia. This caused the protests to turn even more anti-Iran than they already were. It also showed how little Iran cared for the welfare of most Shia Iraqis. That played a role in the senior Iraqi Shia clergy openly turning against Iran. Now Iran has a more difficult time obtaining cooperation from the Iraqi government and Iraqis in general.
While these leaked documents concentrated on Iraq, other neighbors of Iran could sympathize with Iraq because all had felt similar pressure from Iran to bend the knee to the ancient local superpower. Maybe not as bad as Big Brother China, but bad enough and right next door.
The Chinese government was pre-occupied with a pro-democracy uprising in Hong Kong and were surprised by the release of the Xinjiang documents. Similarly, the Iranian government was concentrating on growing anti-government protests in Iran as well as anti-Iran protests in Iraq and Lebanon as well as setbacks in Syria, Yemen and Gaza. The question now is, who obtained and leaked the documents? The answer to that will add another interesting layer to this flood of unleashed secrets.