Uncovering China’s Muslim gulag
28 Sep 2020| and

Researchers at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre are documenting and analysing the Chinese government’s repressive policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest corner of China.

Over the past two years, the team has pored over satellite imagery, Uyghur and Chinese-language documents and other open-source material to uncover China’s Orwellian architecture of intrusive surveillance in Xinjiang, the systematic erasure of indigenous culture, the incarceration of broad swathes of its Muslim and Turkic-speaking population, and the chilling efforts to re-engineer local society and forcefully fuse it into the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of a Han-centric Chinese nation.

Last week, we released two new pieces of research detailing the Chinese government’s deliberate erasure of mosques and Uyghur sacred sites in Xinjiang and the region’s vast carceral system. The research team also launched the Xinjiang Data Project website, a repository for rigorously vetted and empirically driven research on the Chinese government’s activities in Xinjiang.

Both projects can be explored on the website’s interactive map, as well as through two standalone reports—Cultural erasure: Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang and Documenting Xinjiang’s detention system—that explain the context and implications behind these datasets in more depth.

Mapping cultural erasure

This research quantifies, for the first time, the extent of the damage to and destruction of mosques and other Islamic and Uyghur sacred sites in Xinjiang since 2017. Despite repeated Chinese government claims that it respects and protects religious culture in the region, we estimate that one in three mosques have been completely razed and another third have been damaged through the removal of Islamic-style architecture and symbols.

Take, for example, the 16th century Grand Mosque of Kargilik in Kashgar Prefecture. With its grand gatehouse, towering minarets and delicate artwork and Islamic calligraphy, it was an excellent example of Uyghur-style Islamic architecture.

In 2007, the Xinjiang government afforded the mosque formal state protection, yet over the ensuing decade it fell into disrepair and was finally demolished in late 2018 to make way for a new shopping mall. All that remains is a poorly reconstructed and miniaturised version of the gatehouse, highlighting the commodification and co-option of the last remaining elements of tangible and intangible Uyghur cultural heritage.

Similarly, we estimate that 30% of sacred shrines (mazar), cemeteries and pilgrimage routes in southern Xinjiang have been destroyed since 2017.

Across Xinjiang, for example, traditional Uyghur cemeteries are being bulldozed and desecrated, with their human remains exhumed and placed in row upon row of unmarked, mass-produced clay tombs, part of the effort to ‘abandon closed, backward, conservative and ignorant customs’ in the words of one Chinese government official.

Mapping mass internment

Our second new dataset provides the most comprehensive mapping to date of Xinjiang’s vast detention system. Using satellite imagery, we managed to locate and analyse a network of more than 380 suspected detention camps.

Our data identifies the precise GPS coordinates of these facilities, tracks their expansion and alteration over time, and then categories them into four tiers based on their visible security features.

One of the most effective methods for locating these facilities was examining night-time satellite imagery across Xinjiang, but we have also drawn on the work of other researchers and journalists.

Our database shows that, despite Chinese officials’ claims about detainees ‘graduating’ from the so-called vocational training centres in December 2019, significant investment in the construction of new facilities, especially maximum-security prisons, continued throughout 2019 and 2020.

At least 60 facilities have seen new construction in the months leading up to and since that claim, and 14 facilities remain under construction, according to the latest satellite imagery available.

For example, a new 60-acre detention camp was completed in January 2020 in Kashgar with 13 five-storey residential buildings (approximately 100,000 square metres of floor space) that are surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall and set of watchtowers.

A one-kilometre stretch of new buildings was added last year to Xinjiang’s largest camp, the sprawling Dabancheng camp southeast of the regional capital of Urumqi, which is now more than two kilometres in length.

ASPI has also used satellite imagery to construct 3D models of four Xinjiang detention facilities. These models and the interactive map can be explored on the new website, and other resources will be added and updated on a regular basis.

The Xinjiang Data Project website

The website will continue to develop as a key source of accurate information and analysis on the human rights abuses facing Uyghurs and other non-Han nationalities in Xinjiang. The site was produced in partnership with a range of global experts who conduct data-driven, policy-relevant research.

It showcases ASPI’s own research, translations of official documents, and in-depth media and academic investigations related to Xinjiang’s internment camps, current and emerging technologies of surveillance, forced labour and supply chains, the ‘re-education’ campaign and deliberate cultural destruction.

It is a gathering point for a growing community of practice aimed at chronicling and dissecting the Chinese government’s potentially genocidal set of actions in Xinjiang, and countering its increasingly sophisticated campaign of propaganda and misinformation.

The website is accessible in 10 different languages, opening a new window for researchers, policymakers and informed publics in non-English-speaking countries to learn more about the region, its indigenous communities and the Chinese government’s colonial policies.

We hope these new resources will help to raise public awareness and increase international pressure on the Chinese government to alter its course in Xinjiang and uphold the rights and protections contained in the Chinese constitution. At the very least, they will bear witness to China’s systematic oppression of Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples in Xinjiang.