Network of Chinese Concentration Camps for Uighurs Uncovered

Open source project finds 124 camps where Uighurs forcibly 'reeducated'

Uyghur men gather to pray in the far western Xinjiang province / Getty Images

China's crackdown on ethnic Uighurs in the western part of the country includes a vast network of at least 124 concentration camps along with scores of labor camps and prisons, according to a dissident Uighur group.

U.S. officials say there are also indications that China is expanding the use of the concentration camps in Xinjiang Province where at least 1 million people are being held, and as many as 3 million are part of a forced "reeducation" program by the Chinese government.

Researchers with the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, a relatively new Uighur independence group, discovered the new camps during a nine-month open source intelligence gathering project that utilized commercial satellite images and reports people in the region.

The camps are part of a Chinese Communist Party program to snuff out independence movements and any opposition to Beijing rule using mass incarceration and forced ideological indoctrination.

On Wednesday, representatives of 22 nations issued a statement to the United Nations human rights body demanding China end the mass repression in western China. The letter was the first major international challenge to Beijing's mass incarceration program.

"We, the co-signatories to this letter, are concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, China," the letter said. Nations that signed the letter include Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Britain, Austria, and Spain.

The East Turkistan National Awakening Movement advocates a free, democratic and independent state and has produced a map of what it calls occupied East Turkistan—their name for China's western Xinjiang Province— pinpointing the locations of three types of mass detention facilities.

According to the group, a total of 124 concentration camps have been located in Xinjiang stretching from the northern part of the region near the provincial capital of Urumqi southwest to Kashgar, one-time capital of what was once known as the East Turkistan Republic.

The disclosures by the group expand on similar research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and online researcher Shawn Zhang that identified more than two dozen concentration camps for Uighurs.

The resulting detention system appears to be a communist Chinese version of the notorious prison-labor camp system created under the Soviet Union and dubbed the Gulag Archipelago.

Trump administration officials said the camp system being used by the Chinese against Uighurs and other minorities is modeled on similar camps used by Nazi Germany in World War II and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The objective of such concentration camp incarceration is the imposition of the will of the state on individuals deemed enemies of the system. In the case of China, such regime opponents are labeled "unhealthy" for the Chinese communist system and thus are locked up in ways meant to dehumanize them.

Officials said the danger of the camps in China is that any perceived opposition to the incarceration and reeducation could result in mass exterminations. "If they show any sign of rebellion, then you may be looking at another Auschwitz," one official said, referring to the notorious mass murder camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Salih Hudayar, founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, said he is concerned about just such an extermination campaign.

Hudayar said the program to map the camps also identified 37 Chinese military facilities as part of the research amid concerns Beijing is preparing for more violent mass repression.

"The reason we mapped the military bases is because there have been reports from within the East Turkistan diaspora that people are being detained on military bases and that they may be building crematoria on military bases," Hudayar said in an interview.

"We want the world to know about these concentration camps," he said. "We fear China is preparing for a 21st Century Holocaust."

A second administration official familiar with reports of the camps said that after long-term detention some Uighurs have been released on a type of parole and remain under close surveillance.

"Some are now detained 24 hours but spend their days in the centers for political reeducation and occasionally are required to stay for longer periods," this official said. "So the 3 million would account for all those who have suffered some form of detention as well as non-Uighur Muslims who are also caught up in this. Our information also suggests more and more camps are still being constructed."

According to the East Turkistan dissident group's research, in addition to the concentration camps that China's government euphemistically calls reeducation and vocational training centers, a total of 193 prisons were identified along with 66 prison labor camps run by "bingtuan," short for a Chinese paramilitary organization known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. These camps are used predominantly for Chinese prisoners imported from other parts of the country and forced to do manual prison labor.

Details of what is happening inside the camps are sketchy. However, reports from Xinjiang indicate camp detainees are subjected to harsh conditions and are forced to pledge loyalty to the Communist Party of China and renounce Islam.

Chinese security police also are employing mass electronic surveillance techniques to keep tabs on detainees.

According to Lindsay Maizland, a writer for the Council on Foreign Relations, there have been reports of detainees being tortured and subjected to sleep deprivation during interrogations. Suicides of distraught inmates also have been reported along with separation of families.

Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, told a Senate hearing in December that between 800,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been put in the internment camps since April 2017 when the crackdown apparently began.

"This is the U.S. government assessment, backed by our intelligence community and open source reporting," Busby said. "Reports suggest that most of those detained are not being charged with crimes, and their families lack information about their whereabouts, their well-being, and for how long they will be held."

Uighurs are a minority group of about 10 million people. They are predominantly Muslim.

Trump administration officials said estimates that as many as 1 million Uighurs have been detained in the reeducation camps has been authenticated. The number could be as high as 3 million.

A Lengthy History of Repression

The Xinjiang region was once known as the East Turkistan Republic until 1949 when it was overrun by Chinese military forces and annexed under Beijing rule.

The Chinese government campaign of mass repression in the region is aimed at eliminating what Chinese authorities call separatism, terrorism, and religious fundamentalism.

As part of a campaign to impose Chinese Communist culture on the region, Beijing shifted its strategy from one of seeking to assimilate Uighurs into the system to the overt repression and mass incarceration and indoctrination. The policy shift is part of the hardline rule of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Randy Schriver, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said during a press conference in May that China's People's Armed Police are behind the repression in Xinjiang. "The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps," he said.

Schriver added that "at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens out of a population of about 10 million" have been detained. Asked if the use of the term "concentration camps" was accurate, Schriver said the fact that a significant portion of the Uighur population is being targeted makes use of the term an appropriate description.

Asia expert Anders Corr said the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement program performed a valuable service in mapping and quantifying the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims being detained.

"The project is the most detailed mapping work of which I am aware, and includes not only reeducation camps, but also labor and prison camps," said Corr, head of Corr Analytics Inc., an international political risk analysis group.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that as many as 180 camps have been found and that the total number across the region could be as high as 1,200 facilities. Most of the 28 confirmed or suspected camps are located near Urumqi and Kashgar, the institute said.

Information on the camps has been limited and most comes from Uighur detainees and relatives who managed to send information out of China.

Chinese propaganda organs have sought to counter the growing negative backlash against the human rights abuses by claiming the camps are offering free vocational training and are not punitive.

A report produced in 2012 by the CIA-based Open Source Center stated that Uighurs are being repressed systematically despite making up less than 1 percent of China's 1.4 billion population.

"The area of Xinjiang was historically an independent Uighur territory, but the Chinese incorporated the region into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and sent the People’s Liberation Army to enforce Han sovereignty," the report said. The Chinese have treated the Uighurs as "unequal subjects," the report noted.

"The PRC tested nuclear weapons in Xinjiang, subjecting the Uighur people to horrific birth defects and other problems," the report said. "Chinese migration has resulted in Uighurs becoming a minority in their own land. The Han have been the primary beneficiaries of economic development in Xinjiang, enhancing Han wealth and control, while plundering Uighur land of its resources."

Under Chinese rule, Uighurs were forced to speak Mandarin, and the Communist Party took control over mosques and the training of mullahs. The policies have kept Uighurs ignorant of their own religion and "poses a grave danger to Uighur culture," the report said.

The repression has prompted widespread resentment of Han Chinese control including the exploitation of oil and gas resources.

Beijing in the late 2000s conducted a systematic destruction of the old city of Kashgar, the traditional center of Uighur culture and politics, and produced what the CIA report said was "the greatest symbolic blow to Uighur cultural sensibilities."

Riots broke out in Urumqi in July 2009 that included violent clashes between Uighurs and Chinese that were put down by People's Armed Police troops. Since the riots, Chinese control over information, including cutting off access to the Internet, has been tightened.

"The PRC severely represses expressions of any Uighur nationalism that suggests Xinjiang is not or should not be part of the PRC or that otherwise strays from the official PRC line on Uyghurs or Xinjiang, labeling it ‘separatism,'" the report said.

The report said Chinese efforts to destroy Uighur culture are likely to increase demands for creation of separate Uighur state.

China's Communist Party asserts that minorities like the Uighurs are not conquered but peacefully "liberated" and organized under the Soviet model of international socialism that "republics" or "autonomous regions" replace nations under the communist political order.

China asserts that it is a multinational state that has unified minorities like Uighurs and Tibetans under socialism.

Xinjiang was created as an administrative division by the Qing dynasty and is divided by the Tianshan Mountains into northern and southern sections.

Waging War on Religion

Nathan Sales, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism on Thursday rejected China’s assertion that the network of concentration camps is designed as training to counter those influenced by religious extremism.

"In addition to the people who are in custody and these forced labor camps there are millions more who are subjected to political re-indoctrination in daytime facilities," Sales told Radio Free Asia.

"The scope of this campaign is so vast and so untargeted that it simply has nothing to do with terrorism. Instead, what's going on is the Chinese Communist Party is waging war on religion. It is trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious identities of the people that it's been targeting."

Sales urged Beijing to reverse the policies and observe fundamental rights and freedoms for Uighurs and others.

"Stop. Close the camps. Release the prisoners. Dismantle the surveillance state that keeps track of people outside the camps," Sales said. "Return the children to their families so that they can be brought into the culture and religious traditions that they hold dear."

Uighur terrorism was a concern after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. The United States captured nearly two dozen Uighur terrorists in Afghanistan and sent them to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Uighurs were tied to al Qaeda and the Taliban and were part of a terrorist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Several were later released and resettled in third countries.

Sales said China is misusing counterterrorism in its repression of Uighurs.

"What I can tell you is that today the United States is deeply concerned about the misuse of counter-terrorism by the Communist Party of China to initiate and sustain a years-long campaign against the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities," he said.

Chinese military involvement in Uighur repression was mentioned in the Pentagon's latest annual report on the Chinese military. "In 2018, the PLA focused on regional counterterrorism cooperation in the midst of China’s mass detention in Xinjiang of more than one million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in government camps, where their daily activities are restricted and heavily monitored," the report said.

Chinese intelligence agents also are using coercion or blackmail against overseas Chinese as part of influence operations such as threatening Uighurs in the United States with imprisonment of family members, the report said.

A Chinese embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.

The 22-member letter to the United Nations was denounced by China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. "In this letter, certain countries wantonly criticized and smeared China in total disregard of the truth," he said at a press briefing in Beijing last week. "By blatantly politicizing the issue of human rights, they have grossly interfered in China's internal affairs. We deplore and resolutely oppose that."

Geng said China is facing "severe threats of terrorism and extremism" and has taken a series of counterterrorism and "de-radicalization measures" including "the establishment of vocational education and training centers."

"The region now enjoys social stability and unity among all ethnic groups," he said. "People there are living a happy life with a stronger sense of fulfillment and security. They endorse the government's policies and measures wholeheartedly."