China’s secret internment camps

October 10, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

These are satellite images from the deserts
of western China. Look closely, and you’ll see these huge complexes
being built. From the sky, they sort of look like factories
or even schools. But look even closer: this line is one facility’s
perimeter wall. And these shadows? They’re cast by the watchtowers along the
wall. This compound isn’t a school or a factory. It’s an internment camp. Inside these camps, the Chinese government
is detaining as many as 1 million Uighurs, China’s mostly Muslim minority. China doesn’t want the world to know any of
this. But the story of these camps is also the story
of how we know about them – and China’s efforts to cover them up. As soon as we began to document the re-education
centers, there was Chinese government officials deleting what
we were finding. Uighurs mainly live here, in the Xinjiang
province of northwestern China. That puts them closer to the capitals of Kyrgyzstan
and Uzbekistan than to Beijing. And Uighurs are also closer culturally to
those Turkic groups than they are to the Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority. The Uighurs speak a Turkic language. Their
culture is different. They have particular styles of music, a whole a whole rich history that is unique to them. This is Sigal Samuel, a reporter at Vox. I’ve been reporting on the Uighur crisis in
China for about a year now. China has been concerned for decades
about the possibility of Uighur separatism. Uighurs have actually had their own independent
nation, two separate times in the last century. In 1933, they established the Islamic Republic
of East Turkistan here in Kashgar. But it crumbled less than a year later when
it was taken over by Chinese forces. Then, in 1944, the Soviet Union backed the
creation of the East Turkestan Republic, based here. But when China became Communist in 1949, the
Soviet Union turned on East Turkestan, and helped China take it over again. Part of why the Xinjiang region is so important
to China is that it’s rich with energy resources. And as China’s economy grew, so did its
need for energy. Today Xinjiang accounts for nearly 40% of
China’s coal reserves. And over 20% of the country’s oil and gas. It also accounts for 20% of China’s potential
for wind energy. China needs resources, it needs
energy. It needs the geographical location, the area
on which Xinjiang sits. That’s where Uighurs are. That’s where they’re living. And so China really wants to have a solid
sense of control over that area. As far back as the 1950s, China saw an opportunity
to dilute the influence of the potentially rebellious Uighurs, and started encouraging
the migration of Han Chinese, into Xinjiang. And it worked. In 1945, Uighurs made up over 80% of the population, compared to just 6% Han Chinese. By 2008, Xinjiang was 46% Uighur compared
to 39% Han Chinese. But over the years, as Xinjiang developed
economically, Uighurs were left behind, working mostly low-wage jobs in agriculture
while the Han held higher-paying jobs. Finally, in 2009, a Uighur protest against
discrimination at the hands of the Han and the Chinese government erupted in violence. “Bloody riots broke out, pitting ethnic
Uighur Muslims against the dominant Han Chinese.” One of the worst riots took place in the provincial
capital of Urumqi. About 200 people were killed and hundreds
injured during the unrest. That was sort of an inflection point. After that, the Chinese really started to crack
down harder on the Uighurs. And by 2013, Xinjiang had become even more
important to China. The country launched the “Belt and Road”
initiative, a trillion-dollar investment in things like fiber optic cables, train lines,
and gas pipelines meant to boost the country’s economic and political influence around the
world by making it easier to trade with China. If you plot these projects on a map you’ll
see a lot of them pass through Xinjiang, making the province arguably the most important corridor
for the whole project. China would need to ensure that Xinjiang remained
securely in its hands. The Uighurs came to be perceived
and painted more as a threat, as a separatist threat, as an extremist threat. In 2016 and 2017, the country enacted a series
of “de-extremification” policies aimed at Muslims, like banning long beards. And Xinjiang was effectively turned into a
hi-tech police state. So this kind of thing is happening
all over the country, but in Xinjiang it’s been just increased by orders of magnitude. We’re talking about Uighurs
having to hand over their phones at checkpoints. We’re even talking about QR codes being
installed on the outside of their homes. But the most brutal part of this crackdown
was hidden to the world at first. In this image you see the opening of this
facility. The signage, it says “De-extremification reeducation center.” Around 2017, China started building
these internment camps, these large scale places to detain Uighurs.
China says that these camps are necessary because the Uighurs are a terrorist threat. A separatist threat. People who are infected with extremist thinking. But it wasn’t until Uighurs who had been
detained told their stories, that the picture from inside the camps came into clearer focus. They’re forced to memorize and
recite Communist Party propaganda every day. They’re often forced to criticize their own
Islamic beliefs and to criticize the beliefs of their fellow detainees. “We had to sing songs hailing the Communist
Party. We had to repeat in Chinese, ‘long live
[Chinese president] Xi Jinping! There have been reports of death,
of torture. “Three guards surrounded me and abused
me. “Each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake.” So there’s this atmosphere of
just trying to uproot what you believe in. At first, China denied the existence of
these camps… But activists and academics fought back. A lot of people around the world are scouring the Internet for evidence of China’s internment camps for Uighurs. In terms of the strategies and tools
that I’ve used and others have used to uncover evidence of these camps, it’s quite simply
a computer and knowledge of Chinese and thinking about what ways whats words, especially government
websites, would use. People have unearthed government
documents… “And then we had growing visual evidence. We’re looking at satellite images.” We could actually trace the creation and expansion of the reeducation camp. It was a matter of, I think luck or chance I uncovered this image. And until then, we didn’t have
that piece of visual evidence that said this is what it is. And this is what the Chinese government’s
calling it. Tim isn’t alone. There’s a whole network of “web sleuths”
around the world using basic internet tools to document what China doesn’t want the world to see. And they’ve gotten China to change their
story, at least a little. China was denying that these re education centers exist, until journalists and academics and others started to really
amass a body of evidence that was so convincing that China couldn’t just deny it anymore. China took a different approach and started
admitting that these facilities exist, but carefully painted them as training schools
for potential criminals or terrorists. In the meantime, the camps are still there
and growing. This camp, one of China’s largest, was as
big as the nearby city of Dabancheng in 2017. But by 2018, the camp had expanded to twice the
size. From China’s perspective they think it’s worth
it. They want to make sure Xinjiang is an area of the country that they have total control
over. And if that comes with a high human cost and
even a reputational blow on the international stage, China so far seems willing to do that