The Xinjiang Data Project

Explainers

Exploring Xinjiang's detention system

The world's most comprehensive database: 380+ facilities

Nathan Ruser

ASPI researchers have identified and mapped over 380 sites in the detention network across Xinjiang, counting only re-education camps, detention centres and prisons that were newly built or significantly expanded since 2017. Using satellite imagery analysis, we have reconstructed 3D models of an example of each tier of detention facilities from lowest security (tier 1) to highest security (tier 4), showing the key structural features.
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Based on
 
Original Report
 
by
 
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
September 2020
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Since 2017, a government crackdown in the far-western region of China known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has seen hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim minorities detained in a vast network of purpose-built detention facilities.

ASPI researchers have identified and mapped over 380 sites in this network across Xinjiang, counting only re-education camps, detention centres and prisons that were newly built or significantly expanded since 2017.

This represents the largest database of camps in existence, and we estimate it covers the majority of all detention facilities in Xinjiang.

Aral Facility #3, 40.56496789 81.23598559
Maxar/Google Earth
SOURCE

This research presents satellite imagery evidence that shows newly built detention facilities, along with construction activity in several existing facilities, which has occurred across 2019 and 2020.

Available evidence suggests that many extrajudicial detainees in Xinjiang’s vast “re-education” network are now being formally charged and locked up in higher security facilities, including newly built or expanded prisons, or sent to walled factory compounds for forced labour assignments.

Explaining the Tiers of Detention 

We have categorised our database of 380 detention facilities into four distinct tiers–from lowest security (Tier 1) to highest security (Tier 4)–based on security features (including high perimeter walls, watchtowers, internal fencing, and other features and usage patterns) visible from satellite imagery analysis.

This re-education center in Kashgar city, Kashgar was initially constructed as a school. In 2017 as the crackdown began, it was converted into a large scale re-education facility. It has been heavily featured in propaganda efforts after it was sanitised in late 2018/early 2019. Recently, it has been completely desecuritised and satellite imagery suggests that it may have been decommissioned. This model shows the facility during 2018. Its coordinates are 39.45432, 76.10957. The model was created by Orion_Int

Tier 1 sites: 108 in dataset

Suspected low-security re-education facilities: these are detention facilities that were created by adding fencing and other security features to existing buildings such as schools and hospitals when the crackdown began in 2017. Whilst many likely still house detainees, they are often directly connected to large factory facilities, suggesting an element of coerced labour. State media reports suggest that detainees in this tier of facilities have been allowed to visit their homes on weekends. Some have had walls lowered or murals painted, and recreational facilities such as ping-pong tables or basketball courts added. Camps toured by diplomats and journalists are typically within this tier.

This tier 2 re-education camp in Kashgar’s Yenhisheher (Shule) county was constructed following the 2017 crackdown. It was regularly expanded throughout 2017 and 2018. It has been slightly desecuritised throughout 2019, and no longer has as extensive internal barriers to movement. It is co-located with another re-education camp and a prison. Its coordinates are 39.35793, 76.05178. The model was created by Orion_Int

Tier 2 – 94 in dataset 

Suspected re-education facilities: These facilities have significantly more security than tier 1 including high barbed-wire fencing, a perimeter wall and watchtowers. However, they still have classrooms and external yards for detainees; and their purpose appears to be the eventual ‘rehabilitation’ of detainees rather than indefinite imprisonment. Many of these facilities also have large factory warehouses within them or adjacent to them.

This is a high security detention centre in Onsu (Wensu) county, Aksu prefecture, in Xinjiang. It was constructed mostly during 2018, with two newly-constructed five storey residential buildings visible in imagery from August 2019. This highlights the way in which the camp has shown continued expansion in recent years. The detention centre is co-located with a separate detention centre and a maximum security prison. Its coordinates are 41.08507, 80.3997. The model was created by Orion_Int. It shows the centre as it appeared in January 2019. 

Tier 3 – 72 in dataset 

Suspected detention facilities: The only access to these high-security sites is typically through a well-guarded main gate and often a single bridge leading up to the perimeter wall and watchtowers. Many of these facilities have up to six layers of barbed wire fencing and perimeter walls. Administrative buildings are completely separate from detainee areas, in contrast with lower security facilities that have administrative buildings scattered between the dormitory and classroom buildings. This facility shown has a fenced entrance tunnel through which detainees are brought into the site.

This prison facility in Mekit county, Kashgar was newly constructed following the crackdown in 2017. It has been constructed next to two lower security camps. This model is based satellite imagery taken in March 2020, which showed it to be active months after announcements by Xinjiang officials that all detainees had been released. Its coordinates are 38.83673, 77.70563. The model was created by Orion_Int

Tier 4 – 107 in dataset 

Suspected maximum-security prisons: Many of Xinjiang’s prisons are decades old and have long housed inmates from across China, however we have only included in our database those which have significantly expanded or been newly built since 2017. Visually they all look very similar with a distinct architecture: high walls, multiple layers of perimeter barriers, watchtowers, dozens of cell blocks, no apparent outside exercise yards for detainees, single bridge entry for guards to the perimeter wall. These facilities are often co-located with other (lower security) detention facilities and likely still house convicted criminals from not only Xinjiang but other parts of China as well.

Expansion and renovation to at least 61 facilities

At least 61 detention sites have seen construction and expansion between July 2019 and July 2020. This includes at least 14 facilities still under construction in 2020, according to the latest satellite imagery available.

Of these new and expanded sites, about 50% are higher security facilities, which may suggest a shift in usage from the lower-security, ‘re-education centres’ toward higher-security prison-style facilities.

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

New buildings added in 2019 to Xinjiang’s largest camp, in Dabancheng near Urumqi, stretch over one kilometre, with new construction finishing in November 2019.

At the same time, according to satellite data we have examined, approximately 70 detention facilities appear to have been desecuritised through the removal of internal fencing or sometimes watchtowers and perimeter walls. This includes 8 camps that show signs of decommissioning, and it’s possible they have been closed.

Over 90% of these desecuritised sites were lower security facilities (Tier 1 or 2 in our database).

Detention facilities in our database showing signs of desecuritisation (yellow) or expansion (blue) since mid-2019, by tier.
ASPI ICPC
SOURCE

How does this database compare with other studies into Xinjiang’s detention system?

This dataset adds further analysis and more than 120 new locations to the current open-source research on China’s vast network of detention facilities in Xinjiang. It includes new facilities we have located, all camps located in earlier datasets by ASPI researchers, as well as those found independently using different research methodologies, including Shawn Zhang, Buzzfeed and other researchers and journalists. One of the most effective methods in compiling our database was the examination of night-time satellite imagery from Xinjiang, allowing us to see new detention facilities with bright nighttime lights that have been constructed out of the desert since 2017..

Please contact us if you have information about further detention sites not yet located in the database.

Download full report
ASPI Report
Documenting Xinjiang’s detention system
by Nathan Ruser
Sep 24, 2020
DetentionRe-educationForced Labour+1