China expands Xinjiang network of detention camps, report says

Emily Feng in Beijing

Chinese authorities are drastically expanding the country’s network of detention facilities in Xinjiang, according to a new report, signalling an acceleration in the detention of Uighur Muslims in the western region despite increasing international criticism.

Using satellite images, intelligence analysts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a security think-tank affiliated with Australia’s military, found a 465 per cent growth in total floor area of 28 confirmed “re-education centres” in Xinjiang from early 2016 to September 2018.

In total, the 28 detention centres were equivalent in floor space to nearly 10 of London’s King’s Cross railway stations, with the greatest spurt in construction — more than a quarter — happening in July to September 2018, the last three months analysed.

One facility in Hotan, a city in southern Xinjiang especially targeted in the detention campaign, expanded by almost 25 times in size, from 7,000 sq m in early 2016 to 172,850 sq m by September 2018.

“The speed with which China has built its sprawling network of indoctrination centres in Xinjiang is reminiscent of Beijing’s efforts in the South China Sea,” the report’s analysts wrote.

“Similar to the pace with which it has created new ‘islands’ where none existed before, the Chinese state has changed the facts on the ground in Xinjiang so dramatically that it has allowed little time for other countries to meaningfully react.”

Beginning in March 2017, China began en masse detentions of the region’s Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people native to Xinjiang. Since then, Uighurs overseas have lost touch with relatives, while children have been forced into orphanages as their parents have been detained, the Financial Times has reported.

In August, a UN panel heard that as many as 3m Uighurs have been detained in the camps over the past two years.

On Tuesday, Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the UK parliament that reports on detentions within Xinjiang are “broadly accurate” after British diplomats visited the region in August.

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Faced with a growing international backlash, China has broken its silence on its detention camps. In October, it gave legal backing to the detention camps by reclassifying them as vocational education centres.

In recent months, China’s state media has also been aggressively vocal in recasting the detention centres as comfortably appointed facilities where detainees can play ping pong and exercise freely.

However, the ubiquity of security features in detention centres captured by satellite images, including watchtowers and dormitories surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, and barricaded facilities, “corroborate claims that the listed facilities are punitive in nature and more akin to prison camps”, the ASPI report concluded

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