Tracking China’s Muslim Gulag

A UNITED  Nations panel has accused China of turning its far-flung western region of Xinjiang “into something that resembled a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a ‘no rights zone’.” It estimates that there could be as many as one million Muslims who have been detained there.

Former detainees describe being tortured during interrogation, living in crowded cells and being subjected to a brutal daily regimen of Communist Party indoctrination that drove some people to suicide. Most of those who have been rounded up by the security forces are Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority that numbers some 10 million. Muslims from other ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, have also been detained.

China rejects the allegations that it has locked up large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps. The facilities, it says, are vocational training centers that emphasize “rehabilitation and redemption” and are part of its efforts to combat terrorism and religious extremism.

The crackdown includes tight control over information and access to the region. Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, according to academics and human rights groups. This follows the launching of a “people’s war on terror” in 2014 after a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China that authorities blamed on religious extremists.

While China says the Uighur camps are vocational training centers, they are heavily guarded. Researchers have resorted to using satellite imagery to view and track the expansion of these facilities.

Reuters worked with Earthrise Media, a non-profit group that analyzes satellite imagery, to plot the construction and expansion of 39 of these camps, which were initially identified using publicly available documents such as construction tenders. The building-by-building review of these facilities revealed that the footprint of the built-up area almost tripled in size in the 17 months between April 2017 and August 2018. Collectively, the built-up parts in these 39 facilities now cover an area roughly the size of 140 soccer fields.

Construction notices published on local government websites, including tenders and procurement requests, have provided clues about the location and features of many of the camps. The technical specifications in these documents include references to guardhouses, surveillance systems that leave “no blind spots,” automatic weapons and their safe storage.

A tender issued for the center at Turpan (pictured above), for instance, canvassed bids for a telecommunications “control system,” saying the facility was in “urgent need to know in real time” the content of trainees’ telephone conversations so that they could be forcibly interrupted.

Having identified 80 detention facilities using construction notices, Reuters focused its analysis on 39 that were clearly identifiable from satellite imagery. Earthrise then scrutinized hundreds of satellite images spanning a two-year period.

“I was immediately struck by how many camps there were, how large, and how quickly they are growing. In a matter of months they are throwing up five-story buildings, longer than football fields, lined up in rows in the desert,” said Edward Boyda, co-founder of Earthrise. “The construction and arrangement of buildings is very similar from site to site, in the new sites especially, which means there is a method behind it.”

China’s State Council Information Office, foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Uighurs have bristled at what they say are harsh restrictions on their culture and religion. They have faced periodic crackdowns, which intensified after riots in the regional capital in Urumqi in 2009 killed nearly 200 people.

Bombings in Xinjiang and attacks allegedly carried out by Uighur separatists, including a mass stabbing in the city of Kunming in China’s southwest in 2014 that killed 31 people, led to further restrictions. In recent years, under Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang and a loyalist of President Xi Jinping, measures against Uighurs have included a ban on “abnormal” beards for men and restrictions on religious pilgrimages to Mecca.

Chen has also overseen the installation of a pervasive, technology-enhanced surveillance apparatus across Xinjiang. Tens of thousands of security personnel have been recruited to staff police stations and checkpoints. Security screening, including scanners equipped with facial recognition cameras, has been installed in public places such as mosques, hotels and transportation hubs.

Reuters did not receive a response to questions sent to Chen via the Xinjiang government.

Reuters visited the locations of seven of the facilities identified as detention camps from construction documents and satellite photos. All had imposing perimeter walls, guard watchtowers and armed guards at the entrances. Signs at two of the facilities identified them as vocational training centers. When reporters approached the compounds, police pulled them over and told them to leave.

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