Confessions of a Chinese torturer

Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th October, 2021)

As we sat in the cafe of a smart hotel, the beefy man beside me disclosed how he beat, brutalised and tortured scores of men and women who had been seized by Chinese security forces. 

‘There would be three officers in a room kicking and punching people, using whips on their naked backs. They used belts – which is the cruellest method. People can’t last long and end up being beaten to death.’

The former Chinese police officer demonstrated to me their tactics with kicks and punches to an imaginary victim.

‘Their heads and eyes would become swollen; they could not see with all the blood on their face. Some would even lose their eyes. Then we would use water to revive them. They might not be allowed to sleep for a couple of days – sometimes the easiest ways are the worst and most effective. Afterwards they would go to hospital to be sewn back up.’

Electric batons were used on the victims’ genitals and there were special methods for women, such as placing steel cuffs tightly on their hands, then slamming them repeatedly on a table.

‘After two or three minutes, they’d be crying because it hurts so much,’ the whistleblower said.

Victims included children as young as 14. Their ‘crime’ was to belong to Muslim minorities in western China, especially the Uighurs, who are being subjected by the Communist regime to such terrible and wide-ranging atrocities that human-rights groups and the US government term it genocide.

I have previously interviewed Muslims who were sent into China’s sinister internment camps, estimated to be holding up to two million people, along with Uighurs who have escaped China for their safety, and to women subjected to horrifying forced abortions and sterilisation.

But this former detective, who can be identified only as Jiang as he fears recriminations from the regime for speaking out, is the first member of China’s security forces to dare blow the whistle on Beijing’s barbarity, offering fresh and damning evidence of the ethnic cleansing campaign in Xinjiang province.

His shocking testimony is especially powerful since he comes from a loyal family of police officers and party members. He had believed he was doing his patriotic duty, convinced by the regime’s propaganda that it is combating a lethal terrorist insurgency, separatism and Islamist militancy.

Maya Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said his story adds to the ‘harrowing testimonies of victims and witnesses, official records and satellite imagery, all of which point to crimes against humanity by the Chinese government’.

Jiang, 39, showed me confidential official documents, police materials and photographs to back up his story. They include an official directive issued in late 2015 to ‘convey’ President Xi Jinping’s instructions to all police forces to monitor, interrogate and share information on ‘persons of concern’ – code for Uighurs, according to Jiang.

This followed the previous year’s launch of Xi’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaign that ramped up repression of Muslim minorities by sending them into harsh ‘re-education’ camps for simply wearing veils, growing a beard or having family members outside China.

Jiang was used to seeing Uighurs targeted and routine police brutality. Once, three of his colleagues beat a taxi-driver so badly that the man – who had given a lift to passengers with stolen goods – died later of his injuries in hospital.

But after joining thousands of police officers and auxiliaries recruited under Beijing’s ‘Building Xinjiang’ policy – joining up partly to escape the institutional corruption he saw in his local police – Jiang was surprised by the introductory talk given by a senior official after his arrival in the region three years ago.

He said the atmosphere was ‘strange and very intense’, adding: ‘We were told not to get close to local people and not to pity them.’ He and his fellow officers were taught about traditional signs of Uighur appearance, like the beards and veils, and about their traditions such as funeral rites.

Then the recruits were shown how the Chinese regime used technology to monitor all phones, spy on social media communications and observe everyone’s movement via facial-recognition systems. DNA samples had also been taken from every Uighur citizen.

For a Uighur, even making a complaint about poverty or expressing a desire to move could lead to arrest. ‘Anything negative would be seen as criticism of the party and lead to questioning,’ said Jiang.There were police checkpoints on streets every 300 to 500 yards. Loudspeakers blared messages all day telling people to support the party, follow rules and back national unity. ‘I just wanted this to stop – it was so disturbing to everyone,’ said Jiang.

He explained that if three Uighurs were seen walking together during holiday periods, police would order them to go home separately. Having a beard could lead to brutal interrogation.

Coercive rules were so extensive that shops, for instance, had to use Chinese writing on signs that was at least the same size as any Uighur typography and sell cigarettes and alcohol, regardless of the owner’s wishes or religious beliefs.

Soon, the police recruits were rounding up people in huge numbers. Jiang said that after he arrived, 300,000 Uighurs were arrested as suspected members of ‘riot gangs’, with entire villages sometimes carted off to the expanding network of mass detention camps.

Some teenagers were jailed for up to ten years on terror offences for sharing an Islamic video on social media, then discussing resisting the crackdown and buying knives. But Jiang says the youths hadn’t bought any knives – ‘they were just kids boasting’.

His job was to interrogate detainees to discover if they displayed criminal or subversive intent, first breaking down any resistance to questioning. ‘Initially, people would show disobedience. But that did not last long.’

Chillingly, he admitted ‘all kinds of methods’ were used. ‘There is no book saying what to do – so everyone uses different tactics.’

Some prisoners had plastic bags tied over their heads or water forced into their lungs. Others were hit by sticks, chains and electric batons, with Jiang explaining: ‘You fix a wire between two tips and then put that on their genitals to shock them.’

The ex-detective hesitated as he discussed this torture technique, saying such memories upset him. ‘My heart gets quicker just thinking about it,’ he said, describing how he was armed with an electric baton. ‘I want to forget all these experiences because it was so cruel. I am only human.’

But he said some colleagues had ‘psychological abnormalities’ that seemed to ‘make it fun to torture people’. He claimed they used hammers to break legs of prisoners, denied them food or stripped them naked, then poured very cold water on their bodies.

One Uighur scholar held in custody has since revealed that he was subjected to gang-rape by more than a dozen other detainees who had been forced to do so by guards.

Jiang said other officials shared his concern over the scale of a crackdown that saw all Uighurs as enemies of the Chinese state. ‘Everyone knew the threat was exaggerated but no one talked about it because that would have been going against the party.

‘The campaign was so broad. The aim was to control people, to get rid of Islam, their beliefs and their traditions. It was to change their identity. Some of these people were just following Uighur traditions such as washing the dead bodies.’

Jiang says that even police officers were sent to the camps, including a former teacher at the police academy, a professor in his 50s with many badges for good service, who was sent for ‘re-education’.

At first, Jiang had been surprised to find such internment camps in Xinjiang since he associated such places with the past from the Cultural Revolution – a long period of chaotic violence that began in 1966 when Chairman Mao unleashed mobs to reassert his control.

Despite an international outcry over these complexes, China claims they are ‘vocational training centres’ to help stamp out extremism. Many ‘graduates’ are afterwards sent on to forced labour programmes in factories and cotton fields, while their children are taken to state orphanages for assimilation into Han Chinese culture.

Jiang said he went inside the centres only while pursuing leads or for interrogations – but he disputed Beijing’s claims that they were education units. ‘If it is a school, why can people not go home?’ he said. ‘It is ridiculous – they are prisons.

‘There are two groups inside –criminals and students. But they sleep together, work together, do everything together. The only difference is that one group have the word “criminal” on their clothes and have gone through court procedures.’

Jiang recounted how detainees who ‘did not listen to an order or had wrong thoughts’ had their hands and feet shackled in special restrictive chairs in crammed cells containing about 50 detainees.

I asked how long they might stay in such torturous contraptions – perhaps a couple of hours? ‘That would not be long enough to make them learn,’ he replied, smiling at my naivety. ‘They would be there one or two weeks. Other prisoners help with their food and toilet.’

Each cell had a prisoner designated as ‘mayor’ who was put in charge, with orders to report any infringements to the guards. ‘This was a measure to ensure people followed the rules and recited all their texts. Otherwise they’d get punished.’

Recent reports suggest that thousands of Xinjiang mosques and shrines have been destroyed by the Chinese authorities.

‘The ones I saw were not demolished but had construction work so no one could go in,’ Jiang says. ‘It was part of the country’s political fight against extreme religion.’

Jiang claims he fled China early last year after talking to the US intelligence services about promoting democracy in his home country.

Today, he is in hiding in an EU country and is seeking asylum. He hasn’t spoken to his parents or any other relatives for 18 months as a precaution so as to protect them. ‘I am not worried for myself but I am scared the authorities will find my family,’ he said.

He admits he is lonely and suffers depression but wants the world to know of Beijing’s brutal oppression, having become a fierce enemy of the corrupt elite he once served.

‘It was devastating to discover that everything I believed was wrong,’ he said. ‘Everything in the country is part of the system. So if you want change, you must confront the system – but the party has killed so many people.

‘My aim is to reveal what is happening in China. So many people face repression. I want the world to know the real face of the Communist Party.’

Uighur activists believe such a confession from a former Chinese police officer has huge significance since it validates the claims of survivors who have escaped the country and spoken out about the dark horrors being inflicted on their people.

‘The disturbing torture and violence he describes confirms that the regime is using the most inhumane methods to traumatise and break the Uighur community,’ said Rahima Mahmut, UK director of the World Uighur Congress.

‘Deniers who espouse the regime’s propaganda should pay close attention. The evidence is mounting – the Chinese government is committing genocide and it is time for the world to act.’ 

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