In what might first appear to be a progressive measure to help a religious and ethnic minority group, China sends the brightest Uyghur college students to universities across the country. But what happens when Beijing is simultaneously detaining the parents of these students to be brainwashed with communist propaganda? Well, the Chinese government has directives on how to handle uncomfortable conversations that ensue when Uyghur students return home and ask why their parents have disappeared.   

Following a historic leak of Chinese government documents, The New York Times released a document that instructed local officials on how to explain the forced disappearance of Uyghur students’ family members. Officials were encouraged to quickly meet with students to mollify concerns and ensure compliance with the policy. Their parents were merely “in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction.”

Students were to be comforted that they “have absolutely no need to worry.” Yet, they were also warned that their behavior would affect the length of their relatives’ detention.

When students inquired as to what crime their family members have committed, the officials were instructed to tell the truth. “They haven’t committed a crime and won’t be convicted.” Rather, officials were to try to sell students the narrative that the minds of their relatives had been “infected by unhealthy thoughts.” This is what China is trying to fix.

Though guilty of no crime, these students’ families had been caught up in China’s wide-scale campaign against religion. China currently detains at least 1.5 million Uyghurs, a mostly-Muslim Turkic ethnic group, in what it calls “concentrated education and training schools.” Others have preferred the term “concentration camps.” This program forces Uyghurs to adopt the language and beliefs preferred by the regime. The testimonies of detainees report daily Chinese Communist Party indoctrination sessions, torture, and sexual assault.

The leaked documents contain many references to “infections” and “viruses.” But religion is not a disease. And forcibly detaining members of a religious minority group who aren’t guilty of any crime is not a legitimate counter-terrorism effort, as China has repeatedly claimed.

Among the leaked documents are speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping in which he directed officials to show “absolutely no mercy” when carrying out the party’s policies in Xinjiang.

However, the documents revealed that not everyone was quick to embrace China’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang. In 2017 alone, the party opened over 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the “fight against separatism.”

In response to the leak, China’s foreign ministry said the report was “a clumsy patchwork of selective interpretation” that was “deaf and blind to the facts.” The Chinese government can complain about how their actions in Xinjiang are perceived all they want. The fact is that their own internal documents show exactly what their intentions are. Notably, the Chinese foreign ministry didn’t bother to deny the authenticity of these documents.

This news has prompted U.S. lawmakers to renew calls for the House of Representatives to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was passed in the Senate in September. Lawmakers are also calling for the imposition of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against top Chinese officials responsible for abuses against Uyghurs. U.S. politicians should use the momentum fostered by The New York Times’ report to take these actions and others. China needs to hear loud and clear that their repression of Uyghurs and other religious groups will not be tolerated by the rest of the world. The evidence has never been more obvious. And the situation has never been more urgent.