Research by a born-again Christian anthropologist working alone from a cramped desk in this German suburb thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades.
Doggedly hunting down data in obscure corners of the Chinese internet, Adrian Zenz revealed a security buildup in China’s remote Xinjiang region and illuminated the mass detention and policing of Turkic Muslims that followed. His research showed how China spent billions of dollars building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks in Xinjiang, and recruited police officers to run them.
His most influential work began in February last year, after a Chinese diplomat denied reports about the camps and advised journalists to take Beijing at its word.
Mr. Zenz decided to take up the challenge and prove the diplomat wrong using the Chinese government’s own documents.
“I got really irked by that,” the 44-year-old German scholar said. “I said, ‘OK fine, I’m going to look this up.’ ”
Mr. Zenz uncovered a trail of bidding papers, budget plans and other documents that rights groups, scholars and diplomats say prove the extent of the construction of the camps as part of a Communist Party campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uighurs and other minority groups.
Mr. Zenz’s initial estimate that the camps have held as many as 1 million people has been accepted by the U.S. and some other governments, though rejected by China. He has testified before U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
Chinese diplomats stopped denying the existence of the camps in August, and began defending them as vocational training centers necessary to fight terrorism. It was a rare about-face that experts and activists said Mr. Zenz’s work helped bring about.
“He’s managed to get a tremendous amount of traction,” said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia who has worked with Mr. Zenz. “The ultimate thing is to see the Chinese government change its approach on this.”
Some other researchers have also uncovered critical aspects of the Chinese campaign and illustrated how unconventional approaches can often be effective, and increasingly necessary, in shedding light on events Chinese authorities prefer to cover up.
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Vancouver, matched satellite images from Google Earth with details in construction bid documents, providing visual evidence to confirm 66 internment sites.
Gene Bunin, a Russian-American who dropped out of a mathematics Ph.D. program in Switzerland, had studied and lived in Xinjiang. Working with activists in Kazakhstan, he has led an effort to collect testimony from relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs who have gone missing in China’s campaign.
Mr. Zenz, though he has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is also an outsider. He isn’t a specialist in Xinjiang and only visited once, more than a decade ago. He funds most of his research himself, using income from a side job coding for a German videostreaming startup.
His rigorous trawling through government sources has been indispensable, Mr. Bunin said, “because that’s the kind of evidence that China has the most trouble refuting.”
China has struggled for decades to eradicate a sporadically violent separatist movement among some of Xinjiang’s 12 million Uighurs. After a spate of terrorist attacks five years ago that Beijing attributed to the influence of radical Islam, President Xi Jinping ordered a new crackdown.
The resulting effort combined policing, surveillance and indoctrination. Chinese authorities initially kept the campaign a secret, but in recent months have portrayed the camps as an innovation in counterterrorism, organizing tightly controlled tours of certain facilities for selected diplomats and journalists.
Chinese authorities have never directly addressed the findings by Mr. Zenz and the others. The Xinjiang government and China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on the scholar’s work.
Mr. Zenz, who wrote his dissertation on Tibetan education, said he has an affinity for China’s minority groups because they seem more open spiritually. A lapsed Catholic, he said he embraced Christianity after an encounter with a Korean-American Baptist pastor while on a university year abroad at American University in Washington. His faith pushes him forward, said Mr. Zenz, who wrote a book re-examining biblical end-times with his American father-in-law in 2012.
“I feel very clearly led by God to do this. I can put it that way. I’m not afraid to say that,” says Mr. Zenz. “With Xinjiang, things really changed. It became like a mission, or a ministry.”
Much of his research has been done from a house on the corner of Immanuel Kant and Herman Hesse streets in Korntal, outside Stuttgart. Until recently, he taught research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology.
In 2016, Mr. Zenz found caches of job-recruitment advertisements online that added up to a buildup of police forces in Tibetan areas of China. The discovery caught the attention of Mr. Leibold, who asked if he could find similar data related to Xinjiang.
“He was sending me emails at three in the morning saying, ‘Look at this’ and ‘There’s tons of stuff here,’” Mr. Leibold said.
Working with Mr. Leibold and others, Mr. Zenz began publishing research that unveiled a security buildup in Xinjiang.
After he came across the denial of the camps by the Chinese consul-general in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Mr. Zenz threw himself into researching the facilities. In a report published last May by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, he estimated they collectively held anywhere from 100,000 to slightly more than a million people.
The high end of his estimate became widely cited, including by experts on a United Nations panel that criticized the camps in August. It also generated controversy—with some scholars questioning its accuracy—and dismissive statements from China.
To arrive at the estimate, Mr. Zenz extrapolated from a partial tally of detainees attributed in Japanese media reports to a Xinjiang security official. He cross-referenced that with testimony from former detainees and the documents he unearthed indicating the size and number of camps.
“It was like collecting puzzle pieces,” he says.
In March, at a U.N. panel in Geneva, Mr. Zenz provided a higher, upper-range estimate of 1.5 million. He said the number is speculative, based on continued expansion of detention facilities and pervasive accounts from Uighur exiles with relatives in detention.
“The entire middle-age range is being interned and re-educated,” he says. “It’s absolutely massive.”
China’s government is purging websites of the documents Mr. Zenz has relied on, making his work more challenging. And he said he is sometimes overwhelmed by media requests and government invitations.
He also recognizes it is rare for an academic to shape global discourse and feels that burden. “A lot of the work I do is unemotional, working with data,” he said. “But there have been moments that I’ve been moved to tears.”