The Chinese Communist Party maintains the “re-education centres” for the Uighur Muslim minority are needed to stamp out terrorism and provide vocational education in the region.
But the new findings revealing the extent of its internment policy come after a separate report was released this week revealing Beijing had begun forcing more than 500,000 Tibetans into labour camps – mirroring its Xinjiang program.
The revelations will place further pressure on China over its human rights record, amid a global push for the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of the Winter Olympics in 2022.
ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser said Xinjiang’s carceral system was “the coercive backbone” underpinning all other aspects of the government’s crackdown against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.
“The ever-present threat of arbitrary detention eliminates all avenues of resistance that were once available to Uighurs and other nationalities,” he said.
The facilities range from tier-one re-education centres, which can include ping-pong tables and basketball courts, to tier-three forced labour factory camps, to tier four, maximum security prisons in remote areas of Xinjiang.
One facility, the Konasheher260, was built in 2019 and opened in January 2020, next door to a vocational and technical school that was, until April 2020, funded by the World Bank.
The prison has 14-metre-high walls and 10-metre-tall watchtowers and capacity to detain up to 10,000 people.
The evidence of new detention centres, and the expansion of existing facilities, undermines government claims that all re-education camp detainees graduated by late 2019 and were now free.
The Chinese government has repeatedly attacked ASPI’s work, accusing it of groundless smears and manipulation. The Xinjiang research was funded by the US State Department, but the bulk of ASPI’s overall funding comes from the Australian government, universities and the private sector.
The Communist Party has also faced accusations that it had begun forced sterilisation and a cultural and linguistic genocide of the ethnic minority.
“The claim that China is persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is a false proposition,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on September 9.
“This is a sensational headline concocted by some anti-China forces, another farce designed to smear and discredit China.”
The party sent 579 cadres from central and state agencies into the region this week to bolster its education groups and drive employment. The “employment security policy” was backed by Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey, according to Chinese state media.
A Chinese government white paper accompanying the policy confirmed 1.29 million workers had gone through vocational education training centres in Xinjiang every year between 2014 and 2019. The numbers align with previously reported estimates of the detention scheme.
President Xi Jinping told the United Nations 75th General Assembly on Tuesday that developing countries should “not be lorded over by those who wave a strong fist at others”.
“The UN should aim at problem-solving and move toward tangible outcomes as it advances security, development and human rights in parallel,” he said.
The treatment of Uighurs has been condemned by governments in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, who used a Human Rights Council statement in July to reiterate “concern about arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.
The countries have called for independent UN observers to be allowed access to the region. In July, Hua invited US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to view the facilities.
The satellite data also shows about 70 camps have been “desecuritised” with the removal of internal fencing or perimeter walls, including eight that show signs of being decommissioned. About 90 per cent of the sites which have had their security relaxed were classed as lower security facilities.
One of the new lower-security facilities includes the Toutunhe188 centre in Urumqi built between 2018-2020, according to the satellite imagery.
At least 61 of the detention centres have seen new construction and expansion between July 2019 and July 2020, including 14 facilities still under construction.
Of these, about half are “higher security” facilities.
“This suggests there may be a shift in usage from lower-security re-education centres toward “higher-security prison-style” facilities,” Ruser said.
The researchers combined official construction tender bidding records, media reports and day and night time satellite imagery since 2016. The night-time satellite imagery compared dark unused areas in the first few months of 2017 – before most of those camps had been constructed – with recently illuminated areas.
“We discovered that the vast majority of newly illuminated areas in Xinjiang were either newly constructed detention facilities or significant new highway checkpoints used to monitor the movement of people across Xinjiang,” said Ruser.
Ruser said the detention facilities were distinguished from schools and other large public buildings by the lack of cars inside the compounds, the absence of people acting normally and an extensive network of barbed wire fencing that cages individual buildings, restricting the access detainees have to outside areas and channelling people through wire “tunnels” between buildings.
The founder of a global alliance of MPs, Sir Iain Duncan Smith this week urged the IOC to reconsider Beijing as the host of the Olympic Winter Games in 2022, as governments look for ways to use their diplomatic leverage over human rights concerns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Duncan Smith’s stance followed 160 human rights advocacy groups delivering a joint letter to the chief of the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC on Wednesday said it would remain politically neutral but awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee did not mean that the IOC agreed with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.