Buzzfeed has done an extensive investigation using satellite imagery to identify the massive network of re-education camps that have been built in the western province of Xinjiang by the Chinese Communist Party. Some of these camps are truly massive in scale, large enough to hold 10,000 people.
BuzzFeed News identified more than 260 structures built since 2017 and bearing the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds. There is at least one in nearly every county in the far-west region of Xinjiang. During that time, the investigation shows, China has established a sprawling system to detain and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, in what is already the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.
Initially, the re-educations of Muslim minorities in the region took place at repurposed schools but since 2018, China has built hundreds of new structures which look almost identical to prisons:
Unlike early sites, the new facilities appear more permanent and prisonlike, similar in construction to high-security prisons in other parts of China. The most highly fortified compounds offer little space between buildings, tiny concrete-walled yards, heavy masonry construction, and long networks of corridors with cells down either side. Their layouts are cavernous, allowing little natural light to the interior of the buildings. BuzzFeed News could see how rooms were laid out at some high-security facilities by examining historical satellite photos taken as they were being constructed, including photos of buildings without roofs.
The scale of some of these compounds can be deduced by carefully measuring and counting windows to see how many stories a given building has. At least one camp is now large enough to hold 40,000 people.
In early 2019, workers started clearing land to expand a camp south of Ürümqi, in a town called Dabancheng, that had become infamous after reporters from BBC and Reuters visited the year before. The camp at Dabancheng was already one of the largest internment facilities in the region, capable in October 2018 of housing up to 32,500 people, according to an architectural analysis by BuzzFeed News. Since the expansion, it is now capable of housing some 10,000 more people. By November of last year another, separate compound had been completed, this one capable of holding a further 10,000 people — for a total capacity of more than 40,000, comparable to the size of the town of Niagara Falls.
The official line from China is that these are “vocational centers” for people with extreme and violent ideas. In reality, people can be sent to the camp for any reason and held indefinitely until they confess their crimes. As for what those crimes are, several people who have been released from the camps described being told to pick a crime from a list of about 70 options. After they selected one, a sham trial was held and they were always found guilty. People who refused to confess to a crime of their choice were told they would never leave until they did.
All of the above comes from part 1 of the Buzzfeed report. Part 2 contains information based on interviews with 28 people who were released from the re-education camps. Those people universally describe being indoctrinated with communist propaganda.
The government has said that “students” in the camps receive vocational training, learn the Chinese language, and become “deradicalized.” Former detainees say this means they were brainwashed with Communist Party propaganda and forced to labor for free in factories.
State media reports have emphasized the classroom education that takes place in the camps, claiming that detainees are actually benefiting from their time there. But several former detainees told BuzzFeed News that there were too many people to fit inside the classroom, so instead they were forced to study textbooks while sitting on their plastic stools in their dorm rooms.
Those who did sit through lessons in classrooms described them all similarly. The teacher, at the front of the room, was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars, and he or she taught them Mandarin or about Communist Party dogma. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.
We’ve known for several years that hundreds of thousands of people were being detained without cause and forced into these re-education camps. What’s new and worrisome in this report is the fact that in the past two years China seems to be expanding these camps and making them more prison-like and more permanent. The escalation described in the story made me wonder where this will go next. How many steps exist between forced labor camps for ethnic and religious minorities and a Nazi-esque final solution?
Finally, earlier this week a Chinese state media outlet published this video of a man praising his time in the reeducation camps, saying it saved him from a life of terrorism against Han Chinese people. This is the kind of propaganda I assume most people inside China are hearing about these camps.