Baidu Satellite Gaps Highlight Xinjiang Detention Sites

A new report from Buzzfeed News identifies 268 new purpose-built detention sites across Xinjiang, detected by cross-referencing areas obscured on Baidu Maps’ satellite view with images from sources not subject to Chinese government control. From Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing, and Christo Buschek:

These forbidding facilities — including several built or significantly expanded within the last year — are part of the government’s unprecedented campaign of mass detention of more than a million people, which began in late 2016. That year Chen Quanguo, the region’s top official and Communist Party boss, whom the US recently sanctioned over human rights abuses, also put Muslim minorities — more than half the region’s population of about 25 million — under perpetual surveillance via facial recognition cameras, cellphone tracking, checkpoints, and heavy-handed human policing. They are also subject to many other abuses, ranging from sterilization to forced labor.

To detain thousands of people in short order, the government repurposed old schools and other buildings. Then, as the number of detainees swelled, in 2018 the government began building new facilities with far greater security measures and more permanent architectural features, such as heavy concrete walls and guard towers, the BuzzFeed News analysis shows. Prisons often take years to build, but some of these new compounds took less than six months, according to historical satellite data. The government has also added more factories within camp and prison compounds during that time, suggesting the expansion of forced labor within the region. Construction was still ongoing as of this month. [Source]

A separate post provided details of the team’s methodology, which Killing outlined on Twitter:

Other observers of the camps commented:

Satellite imagery has also been used to monitor what The University of Nottingham’s Rian Thum described this week as “the extraordinary scope of state efforts to replace Uyghur built environments and uproot geographically embedded expressions of Uyghur culture,” from urban neighborhoods to remote shrines. From Made in China Journal:

[Since 2018], the Chinese state has destroyed and desecrated Uyghur historical and holy places at a scale unprecedented in the history of Eastern Turkistan (Altishahr, Xinjiang) as a Chinese-dominated region. Among the demolished places were mosques, and these have received the bulk of international media attention. But another kind of sacred site, less legible to outsiders, has arguably been a more significant crux of desecration. This is the mazar, a point on the landscape that holds particular numinous authenticity, a connection to and presence of the divine that surpasses the sacredness even of the mosque as a physical structure.

[…] Even when locked behind a wall of police roadblocks and roadside informants, mazars wield power. They enter people’s dreams and give them guidance. One can petition them from a distance or send personal prayers (du’a) in their direction, as I witnessed a man do after being turned away from Imam Je’firi Sadiq mazar in 2015. Simply knowing that the mazar is standing out there between the Uyghur-inhabited oases maintains a community tie to history and the land. I met one of the handful of lucky Uyghurs who managed to reach Ordam Padshah long after it had been closed, and she told me what happened when she mentioned her good fortune, standing outside a village mosque, weeks later. The men she was talking to began weeping and begged to collect some of the dust of the mazar from her jacket. To judge from publicly available satellite imagery, Ordam Padshah is now gone too (Google Earth 2020, 38.9144°, 76.6567°). [Source]

Baidu does not offer usefully high-resolution images of the location. Thum notes that “the most renowned Uyghur scholar of mazars, Rahile Dawut, has been disappeared since late 2017. Uyghurs are unable to even document the destruction, much less to resist it.”

The Buzzfeed report’s analysis of satellite imagery is supported by interviews with former detainees. From Killing and Rajagopalan:

BuzzFeed News interviewed 28 former detainees from the camps in Xinjiang about their experiences. Most spoke through an interpreter. They are, in many ways, the lucky ones — they escaped the country to tell their tale. All of them said that when they were released, they were made to sign a written agreement not to disclose what happens inside. (None kept copies — most said they were afraid they would be searched at the border when they tried to leave China.) Many declined to use their names because, despite living abroad, they feared reprisals on their families. But they said they wanted to make the world aware of how they were treated.

The stories about what detention is like in Xinjiang are remarkably consistent — from the point of arrest, where people are swept away in police cars, to the days, weeks, and months of abuse, deprivation, and routine humiliation inside the camps, to the moment of release for the very few who get out. They also offer insight into the structure of life inside, from the surveillance tools installed — even in restrooms — to the hierarchy of prisoners, who said they were divided into color-coded uniforms based on their assumed threat to the state. BuzzFeed News could not corroborate all details of their accounts because it is not possible to independently visit camps and prisons in Xinjiang.

Their accounts also give clues into how China’s mass internment policy targeting its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has evolved, partly in response to international pressure. Those who were detained earlier, particularly in 2017 and early 2018, were more likely to find themselves forced into repurposed government buildings like schoolhouses and retirement homes. Those who were detained later, from late 2018, were more likely to have seen factories being built, or even been forced to labor in them, for no pay but less oppressive detention. [Source]

At The Guardian last Sunday, Kate Wong and David Bogi described how Chinese authorities have sought to combat accounts like these:

Sonbol, an Egyptian photographer and editor, was one of at least 80 journalists taken to Xinjiang since 2015 on the “Silk Road Celebrity China Tour”. He left convinced that accounts of mistreatment inside the re-education centres were untrue. “I keep hearing people saying the education centres were where they torture people,” he said. But the enthusiasm of the dancers impressed him, “Look at their faces! You know these are very happy people.”

[…] But one journalist who had a very different reaction to an official tour was Albanian-Canadian freelance Olsi Jazexhi. In August 2019, he flew to Xinjiang for an eight-day tour with another 19 journalists from 16 countries.He had always vocally opposed the United States, and when he approached the Chinese embassy in Tirana, he only had one aim in mind. “I wanted to write a good piece on China,” he admitted, “I wanted to prove to the world that the Americans, like they lied about us in the Balkans, they are lying about the Chinese as well.”

[…] But the key moment for Jazexhi came during a visit to Wensu County Vocational Skills Training Centre, a re-education camp in Aksu prefecture. When the group arrived, they watched a series of song-and-dance routines. After around 15 minutes, Jazexhi asked if he could speak to some of the detainees. He was ushered into a classroom and was told he could conduct interviews under supervised conditions. He noticed that whenever he started speaking to the detainees in their own language, they responded in Mandarin Chinese. He realised that the inmates were afraid. [Source]

At The Spectator on Friday, Darren Byler described the background to the mass detentions and the human and technological apparatus that surrounds and feeds the camps themselves, noting that “less attention has been paid to the remaining 85 to 90 per cent of the population outside the detention system, whose lives have also been dramatically affected, particularly their daily use of technology.”

The police who checked Sholpan’s phone did so with AI-enabled auto-recovery tools, built by companies such as the Chinese tech giant Meiya Pico. The information received from her and others was fed—sometimes manually, sometimes automatically—into a region-wide Integrated Joint Operations Platform, serviced by the China Electronics Technology Corporation, the parent company of Hikvision, the world’s largest camera manufacturer. As Human Rights Watch has shown, the platform, along with data collected through interrogations, was then used by the police to determine which Muslims were “untrustworthy” and therefore sent to re-education camps and prisons.

[…] Sholpan’s family, like hundreds of thousands of others whose men have been imprisoned, was assigned a Han “older brother” who came to the home on regular overnight visits. Luckily, Sholpan’s family were able to work out a deal with him. Many other of these Big Brothers slept in rooms with their hosts to demonstrate, in the state’s sinister vernacular, “ethnic harmony,” with the attendant risks of sexual and other forms of abuse. But in Sholpan’s home, the allocated monitor agreed to sleep in the guest room. Sometimes, when Sholpan’s husband was away, their enforced guest and Sholpan agreed to pretend that he had visited; Sholpan would repost old pictures of a previous visit on WeChat. In return, he wouldn’t have to pay the 100 yuan (£11) that he was mandated to give them towards food and housing.

[…] On the advice of a police contact, Sholpan and her husband started going to dance parties and drinking alcohol in order to show they were not religious. Once, on their way home from a party, the police pulled them over and breathalysed them. They asked why Sholpan’s husband had not been drinking. He said he didn’t want to drink and drive. When the police found that Sholpan had been drinking, they let them go. “We had to perform the way they wanted us to perform,” said Sholpan. “If they said drink, we drank.” [Source]

The intense securitization of Xinjiang appears to have shaped local authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been blunter and even less transparent than recent responses to outbreaks elsewhere. The disease began to spread in Urumqi, the regional capital, in mid-July. Xinhua reported that as of Tuesday, there were 168 active cases in Xinjiang of which 44 were asymptomatic, while 3,024 people remained under medical observation, and nearly 900 had been discharged from hospital or released from observation. Millions, though, have been placed under strictly enforced lockdown, even in areas with no known cases. Severe and indiscriminate measures have prompted online protests from Han residents. A frustrated young Urumqi resident complained to NPR that “the government has used an ax where a scalpel was needed. I just want government officials to refrain from lazy policymaking and combat the outbreak with scientific, reasonable measures.”

The state-owned Global Times, reporting on local officials’ efforts to soothe public anger by relaxing some restrictions and publishing their phone numbers to solicit feedback, acknowledged that the Urumqi outbreak had been handled differently. It attributed this to the purportedly distinctive regional characteristic that “people, especially the youngsters, enjoy hanging out outdoors and like to gather together.” Another Global Times article cited experts’ view that “compared with Beijing, which has the ability to take targeted measures in areas with different level of risks, many cities in Xinjiang are short on experience and social governance ability in terms of smoothly dealing with urgent situations, like a coronavirus outbreak.”

The experts did not explain why officials on what Xi Jinping called the “front line against terrorism” would be unprepared to handle urgent situations, but did suggest that having “had the trauma of terrorism, some people in Xinjiang may be inclined to give priority to stability and take a one-size-fits-all approach in managing other issues.” Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang told South China Morning Post this week that “Xinjiang authorities had responded to the Covid-19 outbreak with the same mentality and tools used for surveillance of residents in past crackdowns on Uygurs and other minorities in the region.”

In the Made in China article cited above, Rian Thum discusses other cases in which nationwide policies have been implemented differently in Xinjiang, including “modernization” of sleeping arrangements and reform of grave sites.


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