China is expanding its vast network of re-education camps for Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang despite Beijing’s assurances that their inmates had all “graduated”, according to a report by an Australian think-tank.
The study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute compiled satellite video evidence of construction in at least 61 re-education and detention facilities between July 2019 and July 2020.
The findings appeared at odds with a statement from Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, who was quoted by official media last December as saying that “trainees participating in education and training programs” in vocational and training centres had “all graduated”.
It was not clear if he meant that all detainees had left or just those engaged in training.
“Our findings show the misleading nature of the comments from Xinjiang officials that all detainees have been released,” said Nathan Ruser, a researcher at Aspi, which has identified and mapped 380 detention facilities in Xinjiang during more than two years of research that used a mix of source material, not just satellite images.
“The satellite imagery evidence shows that newly constructed detention facilities, along with growth in several existing facilities, has occurred across 2019 and 2020,” Mr Ruser added.
The time-lapse satellite video above shows a re-education camp in Kucha, northern Xinjiang, under construction from 2017 until this year.
The treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minority people living in China’s Xinjiang has become one of the most incendiary aspects of Beijing’s deteriorating relationship with Washington.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, referred to “horrific and systematic abuses in Xinjiang” in July as Washington imposed sanctions on several top Chinese officials over their suspected involvement in the incarceration programme.
Beijing describes the facilities as training centres to curb extremism and promote the acquisition of new skills. Chinese officials have denied foreign media reports that the camps may hold 1m to 2m people.
Mr Ruser estimated that the size of the 380 detention facilities that Aspi identified was consistent with the capacity to detain about 1m people. He added that it was possible that there were further camps that had not been identified by Aspi.
Aspi categorised the facilities into four tiers, ranked by level of security.
Tier one venues were generally existing buildings that have been transformed into detention facilities through the “erection of significant external walls and internal fencing”.
Tier two facilities were similar but retained a large external wall and often watchtowers, suggesting that detainees were more closely watched.
While tier one and tier two establishments were thought to be orientated towards the rehabilitation of inmates ahead of their release back into society, tier three and tier four camps were thought to be actual prisons and detention centres.
“They have no factory warehouses or vocational amenities that could nominally be used to train detainees for a future in factory work,” Aspi said.
“They are fully enclosed by a rectangle of high concrete walls, regular watchtowers and several layers of barbed-wire fencing. There’s generally an aerial walkway so guards can access the perimeter wall without entering the facility.”
Mr Ruser said Aspi had noticed that a high proportion of the facilities that have been constructed this year were high-security facilities, whereas most of about 70 facilities that have been “de-securitised” with the removal of internal fencing and perimeter walls in recent months appeared to be low security venues.