Satellite imagery captured over a remote and highly volatile region of western China lifts the lid on the size and spread of internment camps used to indoctrinate vast numbers of the region’s Muslim population.
An investigation by ABC News using new research collated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank, identifies and documents the expansion of 28 detention camps that are part of a massive program of subjugation in the region of Xinjiang.
Analysis of the data shows that since the start of 2017, the 28 facilities have expanded their footprint by more than 2 million square metres. In the past three months alone, they’ve grown by 700,000 square metres – that’s about the size of 35 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
The nominally autonomous province is home to about 14 million Chinese citizens belonging to mainly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Turkic-speaking Uighur (pronounced WEE-ger) people.
Xinjiang, which means “new frontier”, has long been the epicentre of ethnic unrest. At the heart of the conflict is a separatist movement which seeks to establish an independent Uighur homeland called East Turkestan.
Beijing, which views the region as an incubator of terrorism, has responded by reinforcing local security forces, expanding the network of police stations and checkpoints, and supercharging its electronic surveillance network.
“What we’re seeing here is a breach of human rights that is of such a scale that we haven’t seen since the post Tiananmen Square crackdown in China,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst and China expert at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
An estimated two million Uighurs and other Muslims have been rounded up and detained in these camps where they are forced to undergo patriotic training and “de-extremification”, according to witnesses and human rights groups.
China at first denied the existence of the camps. But under intense international scrutiny ahead of a UN review into its human rights record next week, officials have changed tack. After retrospectively legalising the dragnet, Beijing launched a propaganda campaign portraying the camps as humane job training centres.
But the growing weight of testimony of victims, witnesses, and now the availability of high resolution satellite imagery, reveals the fast-tracked expansion of a re-education camp network that appears set to become a permanent feature of life in Xinjiang.
“By detaining such a huge amount of people for no legal reason China is really running the risk of radicalising these people and creating the perfect conditions for violent extremism to happen in the future,” warns Mr Ryan.
Adelaide student Adam Turan’s 80-year-old father, Abdulkerim Turan, lived in village near Kashgar and spent a year in one of those camps. He passed away a few weeks ago, shortly after being released from detention.
Mr Turan, who is also general secretary of the East Turkestan Australian Association, said he believes his father was rounded up because he was a Muslim who had a beard and a relative who lived overseas.
He has chosen to speak out because his mother is also missing and presumed to be incarcerated. “They killed my dad, so it’s no point to be quiet,” he told ABC News.
Mr Turan showed two photographs of his father, taken a year apart. The second one, was taken after his release from detention and his father with his long beard trimmed, dressed in pyjamas and looking frail.
“He was deprived from food, deprived from sleeping… he was so weak,” he said. “I can’t imagine how he spent over a year under that condition.”
That bleak picture of camp life is also shared by Dr Erkin Emet, the secretary of the World Uighur Congress. He says life in the camps has become unbearable.
“It’s actually a genocide, a hidden genocide,” he said from his home in the Turkish capital where he is a language professor at Ankara University.
“China’s way of assimilating [the Uighurs] is to make them forget their original culture and then replace it with Chinese culture… [so it becomes] one culture, one nation,” said Dr Emet, who says 13 members of his family are among those interned.
Under constant watch
The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has a population of about 24 million and covers an area that is about one-fifth the size of Australia – one that is dominated by rugged mountain ranges, vast plains and desert basins.
Its ancient oasis towns like Kashgar, Turpan and Aksu gave respite to the merchants and their camel trains that once crisscrossed this territory along the old central Asian trading routes known as the Silk Road.
Today, Xinjiang is once more poised to play a key logistical role in international trade. The region, which shares its border with seven countries, has been designated as a key gateway in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative.
But there is a cost in bringing stability and what China calls “civilisation” to Xinjiang.
Many accounts of life in the province describe a repressive environment that appears to be designed to eradicate Islamic and local cultural practices deemed to challenge the Communist Party’s orthodoxy.
According to a published list of “75 behavioural indicators of religious extremism”, even acts such as refusing to play volleyball, owning a tent and suddenly giving up drinking and smoking have been identified as signs of radicalisation.
The US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says authorities in Xinjiang have forced the locals to submit to the collection of biometric data, including voice, blood, DNA samples and iris scans.
In what appears to be an even more intrusive version of its “social credit” system rolling out across the whole of China, the data collection and electronic eavesdropping allows authorities identify, monitor and restrict the activities of potential troublemakers among the populace.
Under a new, hardline provincial party boss Chen Quanguo, who took over in 2016, the security crackdown was augmented with a program to ramp up indoctrination efforts.
Loyal party cadres were despatched to live in smaller towns and villages and later even embedded in the homes of Muslim Chinese under a compulsory homestay program called the “becoming family” campaign.
Then authorities began converting schools and other public buildings into makeshift facilities before this latest phase that saw the expansion of a purpose-built network of so-called “transformation through education” camps.
“They’ve slipped from talking about a few bad apples spoiling things for everyone else to this mass approach to re-education and indoctrination.” said Dr David Brophy, a senior lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Sydney, and a frequent visitor to Xinjiang. “Now it’s turned into this really vicious campaign.”
From secrecy to media blitz
The Chinese government last month launched what it calls a “vocational education and training program” to assist residents with a poor command of the national language and limited educational opportunities.
“Its purpose is to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening,” said Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang government, in an interview with China’s official news agency Xinhua.
The program, he said, targeted petty criminals who were given free food and board over the duration of their training.
The Chinese government’s publicity blitz also included a 15-minute report on state television which showed Uighur detainees in the Hotan City Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre attending legal classes, participating in games and social activities and undertaking training in garment manufacturing and woodwork.
“It’s a crass propaganda video that anyone who knows Xinjiang would not find credible,” said Dr James Leibold, an associate professor in politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University.
After years of frustration in winning the hearts and minds of disaffected ethnic groups, Dr Leibold believes Beijing has ditched its multicultural approach in favour of cultural “mingling”, or assimilation.
The prevailing party ideology dictates that social harmony can only be achieved with the “standardisation of human behaviour”.
“This [the camp network] is the latest example of the party’s belief that it can really kind of re-engineer people through these coercive techniques of brainwashing,” he said.
Ablet Tusuntohti, 29, was a car dealer living and working in the Hotan area of Xinjiang. He has first hand experience of life inside one of the camps, having been incarcerated in one in October 2015.
Speaking from Turkey where he been living since he left China in 2016, Mr Tusuntohti said he was locked up for a month in a village school that had been transformed into a “concentration camp”.
He described the conditions as harsh and regimented with inmates forced to do manual labour as well as attend re-education classes where they were forced to praise the government’s policies and express their gratitude for the re-training.
Mr Tusuntohti said the facility included a punishment room where guards “abused us badly, randomly”. “They took everyone there to beat them.”
Muhammad Attawulla, comes from Hotan county in southern Xinjiang and has been studying in Turkey since 2016.
He told ABC News that he has five relatives in detention in Xinjiang, including his mother, two brothers and a brother-in-law.
“The detentions have destroyed my family,” he said. “We can say it [has also] destroyed Uighur society.”
Mr Attawulla said his mother has been held in custody since March. She was accused of attending a funeral at a private home in 2013 with “20 or 30 old women” who said prayers and recited verses from the Koran.
“I cannot bear keeping silent [any more] because I think there’s a genocide taking place in East Turkestan,” he said, using the name many Uighurs use to refer to their homeland.
Echoing the view of many of his fellow Uighurs, Mr Attawulla believes Beijing is eradicating their traditional way of life. “They want to erase, erase, erase your identity and our culture and to melt them into Han Chinese.”
Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canberra referred ABC News to a recent article published in the state-owned English-language publication The Global Times. The story was titled: “Xinjiang’s education programs improve life chances for trainees, families”.
Methodology: ASPI has amalgamated work done by other researchers in this field including German academic Adrian Zenz, ANU student Nathan Ruser and Shawn Zhang, a law student studying in Canada. The investigation has also cross-referenced the discoveries with hundreds of contracts sourced from government websites for the building and outfitting of these facilities. Further corroboration about these camps was found in photographs and videos taken by activists and the media. This project zeroed in on just 28 facilities where there were strong signals indicating they were part of this network of camps.