Google Earth images show Uighur camps are not what China says they are
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Since I last wrote about the 1 million Uighurs sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has changed its official story from denying the camps’ existence to justifying the so-called “vocational training centers” to now even recommending the United States to follow in its footsteps.
It’s difficult to continue denying the camps’ existence when Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz families outside China speak out about their relatives’ disappearance into the camps. Several former detainees have talked to reporters about the brainwashing and torture they experienced behind the razor-wired walls of the re-education camps.
In a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, a Uighur man living in Australia said 17 members of his and his wife’s immediate family are in camps, and five are in prison serving 5 to 10 years simply for being Muslim Uighur. When he was still able to call his mother back in Xinjiang, she would tell him his siblings were in the hospital or on a trip, which was code for being sent to camps. Now his mother’s phone is disconnected as well.
Google Earth has also provided proof of the camps’ existence. Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia, amassed a list of 60 re-education camps through scouring government legal tenders and pinpointing their location using Google Earth. Shadows reveal watchtowers and razor-wire atop the wall, alerting him that these are places the government doesn’t want people to escape from.
BBC also sent reporters into Xinjiang to see these camps in person. Throughout their trip, local police officers trailed them, stopped them from filming, and even blocked off freeways to keep them from reaching the camps. Yet in Dabancheng, an hour’s drive from Urumqi, they found the government had expanded a camp they had pinpointed on Google Earth.
As Google Earth’s photos are likely months or even years old, the reporters looked at European Space Agency’s Sentinel database, which is updated more frequently. The camp had more than doubled in size. Australian-based Guymer Bailey Architects, which designs prisons, told BBC the Dabancheng camp could hold up to 130,000 people.
Increased media attention meant the Chinese government needed to change tactics: On Oct. 10, the Xinjiang government revised its law to allow “anti-extremist ideological education.” State broadcaster CCTV released a special on the re-education camps, showing images of smiling detainees learning Mandarin and trade skills such as carving wood or sewing. The Uighurs interviewed all thanked the government for how much their lives had improved.
In response, Zhang posted on Twitter Google Earth images of the camp where the special was shot, marking the buildings and fences that show up in the video. The filmmakers were careful to keep evidence of the watchtowers and razor-wire fence out of frame.
Hu Xijin, the head of English-language Global Times, also used Twitter to defend the camps against international media (Twitter is banned in China). On Oct. 24, he posted a two-minute video showing Uighurs playing ping-pong, dancing to traditional music, and playing basketball at a camp in Kashgar. Yet a look at Zhang’s Google Earth photo of the camp shows that the area where the film is set is fenced off from the rest of the camp while fenced corridors connect the dorms to the teaching building. Likely the detainees aren’t typically allowed in this area.
In an even more outrageous move, the Global Times printed an opinion piece on Oct. 28 after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11, urging the United States to start its own education centers for extremists. It points to its work in Xinjiang as a model: “China’s experience in anti-extremism education in Xinjiang provides a solution to the problem for certain countries.”
Unwanted houseguests: While much of the media coverage of Uighurs focus on the re-education camps, anthropologist Darren Byler looks into a government program that places Han volunteers into Uighur homes in order to indoctrinate and monitor them. These volunteers, who call themselves “relatives,” accompanied the Uighur family in singing patriotic songs, attending classes on Xi Jinping Thought, and speaking in Mandarin. They’d also take notes on whether the Uighurs prayed, followed Islamic dietary restrictions, or greeted each other with “Assalamu Alaykum.”
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