China Can Lock Up A Million Muslims In Xinjiang At OnceJuly 21, 2021
For the first time, BuzzFeed News can reveal the full capacity of China’s previously secret network of prisons and detention camps in Xinjiang: enough space to detain more than 1 million people.
BuzzFeed News calculated the floor areas of 347 compounds bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in the region and compared them to China’s own prison and detention construction standards, which lay out how much space is needed for each person detained or imprisoned.
Earlier estimates, including one extrapolated from three-year-old leaked government data, have suggested that a total of more than a million Muslims have been detained or imprisoned over the last five years, with an unknown number released during that time. Our unprecedented analysis goes further, showing that China has built space to lock up at least 1.01 million people in Xinjiang at the same time.
That’s enough space to detain or incarcerate more than 1 in every 25 residents of Xinjiang simultaneously — a figure seven times higher than the criminal detention capacity of the United States, the country with the highest official incarceration rate in the world.
Even this extraordinary capacity is very likely an underestimate, for a simple reason: It does not take into account the suffocating overcrowding that many former Xinjiang detainees have described in interviews.
The campaign to lock up Muslims in Xinjiang started in 2016 as a scramble, with schools and other public buildings turned into makeshift detention centers. But it quickly evolved into a sophisticated network of newly constructed prisons and camps that blankets almost every corner of the sparsely populated but vast Xinjiang region, which is about the same size as Alaska.
The course of camp and prison construction suggests that the government carefully orchestrated the campaign. The pattern of new detention compounds neatly fits the geography of counties and prefectures across Xinjiang, with a camp and detention center in most counties and a prison or two per prefecture. As the new, high-security detention centers were being built — a process that takes about a year from idea to completion — the Chinese government commandeered schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings and quickly converted them into makeshift camps. This twin process allowed Beijing to immediately detain hundreds of thousands of Muslims until its vast new detention infrastructure was complete.
BuzzFeed News examined only compounds that were newly built or saw significant construction work since 2016. Using satellite images, documents, and testimony, we first identified 268 facilities bearing the hallmarks of camps and prisons last August; this new analysis includes those as well as 79 more that have since been discovered by BuzzFeed News and other organizations.
By April 2021, the facilities examined by BuzzFeed News had a combined area of more than 206 million square feet, or about 19.2 million square meters, which would cover a third of the island of Manhattan. Most of that growth came in 2017 and 2018.
BuzzFeed News obtained public documents that set forth construction standards and show how the government plans its prisons in meticulous detail, from the size of the bars on the windows to the spacing of the lights along the perimeter to the height of the watchtowers. Cells are designed to hold between eight and 16 people, with between 5 and 7 square meters per person. Construction typically takes between four and six months.
The documents are a hard copy of prison regulations, edited by the Chinese Ministry of Justice and published by a Chinese state publisher in 2010, as well as a set of 2013 regulations for detention centers. It is not clear whether the government has revised them since then, but a number of the details in the documents match what can be seen in satellite images of the newly built facilities, including the layers of fencing on either side of the prison perimeter walls and the open-air yards adjacent to each detention center cell. Images from the websites of Chinese companies that build and supply prisons corroborate additional details. One manufacturer’s website shows the prescribed anti-climb fencing, razor wire, beds, cell doors, prison entrance gates, and interrogation chairs.
The BuzzFeed News analysis found that by the standards outlined in the document, there is space to detain 1,014,883 people across Xinjiang. That figure does not include the more than 100 other prisons and detention centers that were built before 2016 and are likely still in operation.
In the early months of the campaign, Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang’s Uyghur heartland, like Hotan and Aksu, seemed to be the government’s focus. Satellite images show camp and prison construction began early there, and some of the first anecdotal evidence of the existence of camps came from these places, which lie in the south of the region. But soon China’s campaign extended to every corner of the region, including areas with large populations of Han Chinese people, where a crackdown might be less expected.
By summer 2017, satellite images show, a new detention center had been added to a steadily growing complex with multiple facilities on Korla’s eastern outskirts. A high-security prison — recognizable by the double layers of barbed wire fencing on both sides of its perimeter wall and with its status confirmed by tender documents — had, by the end of 2017, grown to the size of 39 American football fields. Altogether, the complex had space for 7,312 people.
The government still was not finished building in Korla.
Satellite imagery from March 2018 shows the site under construction, with eight identical dormitory buildings, offices, a canteen, and a “correction center,” as well as other support facilities. The plans scheduled just 69 days for the construction of the camp, and a budget of 453 million yuan (around $70 million), according to a state media report uncovered by the Canada-based researcher Shawn Zhang. By July, the camp was ready to begin detaining people.
A little more than a year later, the entire complex had grown even further, with a second detention center built and a series of new buildings added to both the medium- and high-security prisons. Altogether, the entire complex can now hold nearly 25,000 people without factoring in overcrowding — a ninefold increase compared to 2016.