It has the makings of another TV spy drama with a family plot line. But the disturbing revelations of a Le Monde investigation come as a shocking reality for thousands of Uyghur families in China, who may have been infiltrated by agents sent by Beijing to monitor how members of the Muslim minority group lived.
These Chinese "cousins' were trained to lower their hosts' guard while investigating their religious practices, according to revelations by Harold Thibault and Brice Pedroletti, two journalists for the French daily with extensive experience in China.
The "cousin" program began in 2016, when more than 100,000 civil servants were sent to the northwest region of Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, and which has long been most resistant to Chinese influence. The practice became more widespread in 2018, with the goal of sending more than a million government representatives into homes over the next two years.
• The program is now called "living together, cooking together, eating together, learning together, sleeping together." The "cousins' spend one week a month in Uyghur homes, with the main targets being local officials, poor families and those with family members who have been taken away by the state.
• The "cousins' usually arrive with a gift or money, but then fill out evaluations to assess potential radicalization, like the presence of religious texts and how men interact with women.
• "They initially act as guests, but the relationship is immediately reversed, the host is in fact a hostage in their own home. It's a forced relationship, which shows them that nothing escapes the state that these cousins embody. It's an extension of the camps but outside the barbed wire," says Timothy Grose, a specialist in Chinese ethnic politics at the Rose-Hulman Institute.
The program is part of a larger surveillance infrastructure, including placing informers in schools and mosques, video monitoring and tapping smartphones. At least one million Uyghurs of the approximately 11.5 million in China are currently in internment camps.
• "For them, it seemed like a game, but it was spying on us," says Zumret Dawut, a Uyghur woman who spent months in a camp and is now a refugee in Virginia. Four Chinese officials stayed in Dawut's home.
• Accusations of sexual harassment have come out, especially when male relatives are detained, leaving women alone with the "cousins."
• Zawut said one of them called her drunk and offered to take care of her daughter. Worried, she would sleep with her daughters in bed: "I used to hold them very tightly."
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Thibault and Pedroletti were currently based in China, and that their report was part of the secret China Cables series of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).