Satellite images show expansion of ‘re-education’ centers in China’s Xinjiang region
Aug. 17, 2018
China has sharply expanded an internment program that initially targeted ethnic Uighur extremists but is now confining vast numbers of the largely Muslim minority group, including the secular, old and infirm, in camps across the country’s northwest.
Up to one million people, or about 7% of the Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang region, have now been incarcerated in an expanding network of “political re-education” camps, according to U.S. officials and United Nations experts.
As the camps have swelled in size, some Uighurs living outside China say that relatives—mainly, but not all, older people—have died in detention or shortly after their release.
Satellite images reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and a specialist in photo analysis show that camps have been growing. Construction work has been carried out on some within the past two weeks, including at one near the western city of Kashgar that has doubled in size since Journal reporters visited in November.
The full extent of the internment program was long obscured because many Uighurs feared speaking out. Now more are recounting experiences, including six former inmates interviewed by the Journal who described how they or other detainees had been bound to chairs and deprived of adequate food.
“They would also tell us about religion, saying there is no such thing as religion, why do you believe in religion, there is no God,” said Ablikim, a 22-year-old Uighur former inmate who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Satellite images show the rapid expansion of a re-education camp in Shule county, near Kashgar, China from April 17, 2017 to Aug. 15, 2018. The camp has doubled in size since Wall Street Journal reporters visited it in November.
Sources: Planet Labs (photos); Melissa Hanham, expert in analysis of satellite imagery at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (structures)
The Journal also spoke to three dozen relatives of detainees, five of whom reported that family members had died in camps or soon after their release. Many said they had struggled to determine where their relatives were being held and the state of their health.
A senior Chinese official, Hu Lianhe of the United Front Work Department, publicly acknowledged the existence of the camps for the first time this week but said they were “vocational training centers.”
China has struggled for decades to curb separatist sentiment among its Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who briefly achieved statehood twice, in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of Xinjiang’s 11 million Uighurs still seek an independent homeland they call East Turkestan in the oil-rich region.
Beijing blames Uighur separatists for dozens of attacks on government targets, and says they have links to jihadist groups. Some recent attacks have borne jihadist hallmarks and counterterrorism experts say dozens of Uighurs have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Even so, many experts on the region and Uighur activists say unrest there is driven more by China’s heavy-handed policing, strict limits on religious activity, and preferential policies for non-Uighur migrants to the region.
China stepped up many of those restrictions in the past two years, banning men from growing beards and women from wearing veils, and introducing what many experts regard as the world’s most extensive electronic surveillance program.
The widening scope of the internment program suggests Beijing is now seeking to erase a sense of Islamic identity among Uighurs, and other Muslim ethnic groups, in its biggest program of mass extrajudicial detentions since the 1950s, researchers say.
“Re-education is the next level,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture & Theology in Germany. Harsh policing was costly and created tension, he said, “so the long-term solution is to actually change people.”
Hopefully, stupid politicians of India and of the Western world will lean something from China.