Xinjiang Data Project Maps Detention Centers, Religious Sites Across Region

On Wednesday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute unveiled the Data Project, which maps over 380 suspected detention centers as well as 570 mosques and 396 important cultural sites in the region. ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser’s report alleges that at least 61 detention centers have undergone new construction between July 2019 and July 2020, including at least 14 facilities still under construction in 2020. This directly contradicts a 2019 Xinhua report that all “trainees” in the camps had graduated and an assertion in August of this year by Chinese Foreign Minister that “all of them have graduated, there is no-one in the education and training centre now.” ASPI’s report expands on Buzzfeed New’s August investigation that identified 268 new detention centers in Xinjiang. On Twitter, Nathan Ruser highlighted his findings:

The ASPI report classified camps into four tiers, ranked from low security re-education camps to suspected maximum security prisons. Ruser found that there was a “germ of truth” in Wang Yi’s claims that re-education camps have been closed, but that re-education was but one aspect of incarceration in Xinjiang:

[… A]ccording to ASPI’s monitoring of satellite imagery, it seemed many of these facilities have been “desecuritised”, and in some cases appeared to be decommissioned altogether.

Internal fencing, barbed wire and external perimeter walls had been removed from many Tier 1 and Tier 2 facilities.

“So there seems to be a germ of truth perhaps in China’s “graduation” claim, in that a lot of people in the lower-security camps do appear to have been released, and this is corroborated by victim testimony as well,” Mr Ruser said.

‘However, that’s only a small part of the detention regime.’ [Source]

In an opinion essay at the Guardian, Ruser summarized his perception of the camps’ significance:

Xinjiang’s continuing detention camps cast a shadow over the whole region. They underpin a vast network of labour programmes where consent is impossible. They contaminate the supply chains of hundreds of multinational companies with forced labour, and they implicate not only Chinese authorities, but much of the rest of the world in a concerted campaign of ethnic replacement that credible reports suggest may well amount to genocide. [Source]

Both the Buzzfeed and ASPI reports on camps in Xinjiang relied on satellite imagery as on-the-ground reporting in Xinjiang has become increasingly difficult due to government harassment of both sources and reporters. Buzzfeed News reporters used blanked-out spots on Baidu maps to uncover camps. ASPI researchers analyzed night time images to find clusters of light in lightly populated areas to identify camps.

In an article on her reporting in Xinjiang, outgoing Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Anna Fifield details now-abandoned reeducation centers and still-extant detention centers off-limits to foreign reporters:

When a Post reporter tried to visit the detention center half an hour’s drive south of Kashgar this month, her vehicle was quickly surrounded by at least eight cars that had previously been tailing at some distance. This site was clearly sensitive.

When The Post’s reporter and two European journalists headed toward another new camp in Akto, south of Kashgar, they were stopped repeatedly, made to register their passports and drive behind police cars, only to be turned around at a county border. Coronavirus precautions were given as the reason.

Conversely, when they visited several compounds that previously held local Uighurs, authorities didn’t bother much with trying to obstruct the reporters.

Those facilities appeared empty. Windows swung open at one former “vocational training” center. Bunk beds lay in piles in the yard at another. Litter rolled past ping-pong tables and over lonely soccer fields. [Source]

Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy’s report for the New York Times quantified the high-rate of sentencing and incarceration among Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang:

An investigation by The New York Times last year found that courts in Xinjiang — where Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities make up more than half of the population of 25 million — sentenced 230,000 people to prison or other punishments in 2017 and 2018, far more than in any other period on record for the region.

Official sentencing statistics for 2019 have not been released. But a report released by the authorities in Xinjiang early this year said that prosecutors indicted 96,596 people for criminal trial in 2019, suggesting that the flow of trials — which almost always lead to convictions — was lower than in the previous two years, but still much higher than in the years before the crackdown took off.

“Even though the internment camps are obviously the most headline-grabbing aspect of what’s happening, there’s been a much broader effort from the beginning that has also included significant incarceration” in prisons, said Sean R. Roberts, an associate professor at George Washington University. [Source]

ASPI’s Xinjiang Data Project includes a detailed catalogue of mosques and mazars, including a gradient denoting structural destruction. Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China, writes that a mazar is “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.”

The Guardian’s write-up of ASPI’s report notes that the detention centers often form a prison-to-labor pipeline,

Many are also near industrial parks; there have been widespread reports that inmates at some internment camps have been used as forced labour.

“Camps are also often co-located with factory complexes, which can suggest the nature of a facility and highlight the direct pipeline between arbitrary detention in Xinjiang and forced labour,”the report said. [Source]

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill effectively banning imports from Xinjiang due to suspicions about the use of forced labor. The House bill comes after the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a total of 48 Chinese companies and security units for human rights violations over the summer. A CNN report published on Monday shared a Xinjiang government fax that confirmed, “the birth rate in the region had dropped from 15.88 per 1,000 people in 2017 to 10.69 per 1,000 people in 2018.” The fax was sent in response to a July CNN article alleging a campaign of forced sterilization in the region.

In the hours following the publication of ASPI’s report, Global Times, a Chinese state news media outlet, reported that two Australian “anti-China” researchers including ASPI’s Alex Joske had been barred from the mainland:

Former ABC China correspondent Bill Birtles noted that the ban is likely a response to tit-for-tat recriminations between China and Australia involving Australian coverage of the mainland, which included the expulsion of all accredited Australian reporters at Australian outlets:

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