Citizen journalists and scholars are in a race against time, scouring the internet for evidence before the Chinese government can erase it. Since last year, the country has been sending vast numbers of Muslims to internment camps, where it tries to force them to renounce Islam and embrace the Communist Party, as The New York Times and other media outlets have reported based on interviews with former inmates. At this point, as many as 1 million Muslims are being held in the camps, according to an estimate widely cited by the United Nations and U.S. officials.
China has denied that it aims to indoctrinate Muslims in the camps, telling a UN panel last month that “there is no such thing as reeducation centers,” even though the Chinese government’s own documents have referred to them as such. The country now claims the camps are just vocational schools for criminals, and journalists have described attempts to keep them away from the heavily guarded sites. Yet as China went about building its massive internment system, it left behind electronic traces, such as government web pages and social-media posts containing images and details of the camps.
As Beijing faces intensifying international scrutiny—the Trump administration is weighing sanctions against officials involved with the camps—it has begun to delete these documents, according to scholars and journalists monitoring the websites where they appear. That’s left a handful of people around the world rushing to capture and archive them before they can be scrubbed. Compared with China’s high-tech surveillance state, their tools are simple: Google. Twitter. The Wayback Machine.