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Beijing Sends Spy 'Cousins' To Infiltrate Uyghur Families

Children outside their traditional Uyghur-style house in Xinjiang
Children outside their traditional Uyghur-style house in Xinjiang
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

It has the makings of another TV spy drama with a family plot line. But the disturbing revelations of aLe 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).

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Russia Is Doomed In Southern Ukraine: Logistics (And History)

The history of war shows that the losing side tend to lose ground as they are cut off from supply lines to replenish troops with weapons, food and material. Independent Russian publication Important Stories reports why this appears to be the dynamic at play right now for Russian troops in southern regions of Ukraine.

photo of a soldier carrying water

A Russian serviceman in June providing logistical support in Ukraine.

Russian Defense Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Vazhnye Istorii

Updated October 3, 2023 at 3:05 p.m.


A century and a half ago, during the American Civil War of 1861–1865, the foundations of modern warfare were laid out, marking the transition to large-scale, industrial-era armies.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Innovations like the telegraph played a pivotal role, enabling coordinated operations across vast distances and swift responses to changing battle scenarios. The advent of breech-loading firearms and rifled artillery disrupted traditional infantry formations, driving soldiers into trenches for protection.

Meanwhile, the introduction of all-metal warships and the first use of submarines in combat hinted at the future of naval warfare. Balloons were employed for battlefield observation and reconnaissance, foreshadowing the era of aerial warfare.

Over the next five decades, automatic weapons, tanks, and aircraft further transformed the landscape of warfare. However, the most revolutionary and foundational innovation was the utilization of railways for the transportation and supply of troops. In 1862, the US Military Railroad Agency pioneered this concept, marking a historic milestone in military history.

These developments did not go unnoticed in Europe. Otto von Bismarck's Prussia, emerging as a European military leader, drew inspiration from North American military strategy and technology. They adapted these ideas to European warfare, systematically incorporating them into their military development.

Count Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the Prussian general staff and the architect of the blitzkrieg concept, succeeded in nationalizing Prussian railways and aligning railway communications with the needs of troop mobilization and deployment. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 showcased the formidable effectiveness of the Prussian army, culminating in the capture of the French Emperor Napoleon III.

The Prussian school of military planning became a model for many European continental armies, including the Russian military. To this day, the principles of the Prussian military school continue to shape military education, traditions, and staff culture in post-Soviet armies. One such principle is the integration of military planning with the logistical framework provided by railways.

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