Despite public statements to the contrary, China is ratcheting up its system of mass detention of minorities, particularly the country’s Muslim Uighur population, according to a new report released Thursday from the Australian think tank. New data from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Xinjiang Data Project shows Beijing has undertaken a sweeping campaign to bolster its detention network across Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of China. According to the project’s satellite imagery analysis, ASPI researchers have been able to identify 380 detention centers that have been newly built or expanded since 2017. The Canberra-based think tank has also reconstructed 3D models from the satellite images of the structures, which compile “re-education” camps, detention centers, and prisons.
“When the scale of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang came to light in 2017 and 2018, China categorically denied their existence,” the Washington Post notes. “But as satellite imagery and testimony from survivors and relatives became incontrovertible, and United Nations experts estimated that 1 million people or more had been incarcerated, Beijing tried to explain away the camps as a necessary program to deal with terrorists… People who have been interned in the camps have described being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol; to renounce their religion and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party; and to undergo what they have described as systematic brainwashing. Women have been forcibly sterilized and the Uighur birthrate has plummeted.”
Gaining access to the detention sites to get a clearer picture of what is going on is a significant challenge, journalists are routinely followed and harassed when visiting Xinjiang and those that are allowed to visit the sites are given what are essentially choreographed propaganda tours. “The researchers for the new report overcame those barriers with long-distance sleuthing,” the New York Times notes. “They pored over satellite images of Xinjiang at night to find telltale clusters of new lights, especially in barely habited areas, which often proved to be new detention sites. A closer examination of such images sometimes revealed hulking buildings, surrounded by high walls, watchtowers and barbed-wire internal fencing—features that distinguished detention facilities from other large public compounds like schools or hospitals.”