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China builds new 'detention facilities' in Xinjiang: study

William Yang Taipei
September 30, 2020

A new study shows that Beijing is still building internment camps in Xinjiang, where the UN estimates that at least 1 million Muslim minorities are detained in so-called re-education camps or other facilities.

A guard watchtower rises along a perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018
Image: Reuters/T. Peter

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report last week in which it identified more than 380 suspected detention facilities in Xinjiang, including at least 61 sites that have seen new construction and expansion between July 2019 and July 2020. According to the report, at least 14 facilities were still under construction in 2020.

In December 2019, Chinese authorities claimed that all "trainees" in Xinjiang's re-education camps "have graduated." However, the new ASPI report refutes these claims.

"The evidence in this database shows that despite Chinese officials' claims about detainees graduating from the camps, significant investment in the construction of new detention facilities has continued throughout 2019 and 2020," Nathan Ruser, an ASPI researcher and author of the report, told DW.

Among all of the detention facilities mapped out by ASPI, 50% of them are high security facilities, suggesting that the Chinese government might be transferring some detainees from low-security camps to high-security facilities.

Read more: China convicts Uighurs in sham trials at Xinjiang camps

Additionally, data shows that at least 70 facilities appeared to have removed internal fencing or perimeter walls, including eight camps that show signs of decommissioning. Researchers at ASPI suspect those detention facilities may have been closed.

"What the data shows is that a large number of the former detainees in the re-education camps have now been redeployed in various ways. Some have been sent back home where they were put under an extensive Orwellian system of surveillance," James Leibold, an expert on Chinese history and society at Australia's La Trobe University and one of the ASPI researchers, told DW.

Experts say that Uighur Muslims, a Turkic-speaking minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, have long faced persecution by the country's authorities. They are a distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community, and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. However, Uighurs feel increasingly oppressed and view Beijing as a "colonizing power" attempting to undermine their cultural identity, political rights and religion and to exploit their region's natural resources.

Read more: China's Uighur — what you need to know

Uighurs: Imprisoned for their faith and culture

Mosques and cultural sites 'damaged' across Xinjiang

With the help of satellite images, ASPI researchers also found out that thousands of mosques and cultural sites are being damaged or destroyed by the provincial government in Xinjiang.

"We estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies," according to the report. "An estimated 8,500 mosques have been demolished outright and for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant."

The findings also show that around 30% of the cultural sites across Xinjiang have been demolished since 2017, while an additional 28% of them have been damaged or altered in some ways.

"Alongside other coercive efforts to re-engineer Uighur social and cultural life, the Chinese government's policies are actively erasing and altering key elements of their tangible cultural heritage," the report said.

China's Foreign Ministry denied ASPI's claims. On September 25, it said that there are more than 24,000 mosques in the region. "There is a mosque for every 530 Muslims in Xinjiang, which is more mosques per person than many Muslim countries," said Wang Wenbin, as spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Read more: Why is Germany silent on China's human rights abuses?

Need for further investigation

"I hope this database will also be used as further evidence that the Chinese Communist Party has engaged in the unprecedented human rights abuses in Xinjiang," Leibold told DW. "I think there is a lot more that needs to be done by digging into Chinese language documentation to paint a clearer picture of the system in Xinjiang."

Leibold said the online database will remain accessible to the general public as the team hopes to crowdsource additional research and analysis that can help them learn more about other detention facilities that haven't been identified yet.

"Our aim is to put the power back in the hands of the researchers," Leibold stressed. "We also hope that scholars focusing on Xinjiang and China will assist us with trying to identify how the detention facilities sit within the larger legal and political system in Xinjiang."

Read more: Imprisoned Uighur professor's release shows how Beijing forces loyalty

Chinese President Xi Jinping defended his government's policies for Xinjiang, calling them a "success."

"The sense of gain, happiness, and security among people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang has continued to increase," Xi said at a symposium on the region on Saturday.

Xi said that China needed to "fully and faithfully implement the policies on governing Xinjiang for the new era," adding that it was necessary to educate Xinjiang's population so that they can have an understanding of the Chinese nation.

Read more: Opinion: Xi Jinping is taking China down a dangerous path