New data from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has identified and mapped over 380 alleged detention facilities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The satellite images indicate newly constructed detention centres as well as extensions to pre-existing facilities which happened during 2019-2020. These detention centres, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centres by the Chinese government, aim to ‘re-educate’ the minority mostly Muslim population, the Uighurs, who live in Xinjiang. The government claims Uighurs have been infected by extremism so have voluntarily entered the centres to have their thoughts transformed, as well learn the Chinese language and law to better their employability prospects.
Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor, said the Uighur “trainees who participated … have completed their studies, found stable employment with the help of the government and have improved their quality of life and live a happy life,” and were “returned to society.”
However, as Nathan Ruser, the researcher at the ASPI who spent two years examining satellite images to compile the database, has written in the Guardian, that the results “are shocking, and a direct contradiction to official claims.” Marise Payne, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, has criticized the Chinese government for using “repressive measures” against the Uighur minority.
The governor’s comments that Uighur “trainees” had been released are not encouraging as he offered no evidence to support his claim. Instead, the satellite evidence denotes, alongside victim statements, that tens of thousands of Uighur detainees were forcibly being transferred to higher security detention centres, the construction of which had dramatically expanded during 2019. Additionally, the governor’s assertion does not align with the satellite evidence of over a dozen detention centres being under construction and being expanded before and after Zakir’s comment. If the Uighur trainees had been released, there would have been no need for constructing detention centres.
China claims that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is home to the threat of separatist Islamist groups and that its detention centres are a response to “ethnic separatism and violent terrorist criminal activities.” Therefore, from 2017, the Chinese government increased its restrictions in the Xinjiang region with the aim of targeting its Turkic Muslim population of whom the Uighurs are the largest. The government has sought to change all aspects of their society by altering their thoughts and behaviours. The government has sanctioned the destruction of Uighur’s places of worship and monitored their behaviour and movements. At the most extreme, over a million Uighurs and other minorities have been apprehended in the detention centres.
As satellite evidence suggests, at minimum 60 detention centres have been newly constructed and expanded in the year between July 2019 and 2020. Half of these are higher security centres which conveys a shift from lower security ‘re-education centres’ towards higher-security prison-like facilities.
Although China may claim it is protecting itself from extremist Muslim Uighurs, human rights groups assert that violence in the Xinjiang region has stemmed from China’s oppression of the population there. This means there would be greater peace and security for China if it did not mistreat its citizens. Furthermore, China’s claim that the centres are re-educating the Uighurs does not hold up to scrutiny due to the increasing number of prison-style centres. The world can no longer ignore both the escalating creation of detention centres and the purpose for their creation.