Posts Tagged ‘Xinjiang’

Xinjiang versus Tibet

April 2, 2021

Below is a really great deconstruction, by the estimable Robbie Barnett, of the differences in Chinese policy towards Xinjiang versus Tibet. Sadly, the piece also reminds us just how much under-resourced, bad journalism exists in developed countries. And it highlights how Islamophobia is at the heart of what the Chinese state is doing to Xinjiang.

Tibetan Buddhists walk past a poster showing Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Jintao during a government-organized tour of Tibet on October 15, 2020. Thomas Peter/Reuters

China’s Policies in Its Far West: The Claim of Tibet-Xinjiang Equivalence

Blog Post by Guest Blogger for Asia Unbound

March 29, 2021
8:00 am (EST)

Robert Barnett is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; an Affiliate Researcher at King’s College, London; and former Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. Recent edited volumes include Conflicting Memories with Benno Weiner and Françoise Robin, and Forbidden Memory by Tsering Woeser. This piece was produced in collaboration with an ongoing group research project into policy developments on Tibet.

Since the wave of mass detentions in Xinjiang became known internationally, a secondary proposition has begun to circulate in the media and among a number of politicians: the claim that Tibetans are experiencing similar abuses to those faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, the other vast, colonized area in what China sees as its far western territory. That claim is incorrect. Although Chinese policies in Tibet are exceptionally restrictive and repressive, as far as is known they do not include the extreme abuses found in Xinjiang. Of course, we should encourage such questions to be raised and assessed, but scholars, the media, and opinion leaders need to discriminate more carefully between speculation and knowledge, and between advocacy and scholarly findings. The lines between these categories have been blurred increasingly, perhaps deliberately, and can damage everyone if not restored.

Policy Variations: A Bit of History

More on:



Human Rights

The central premise of the Tibet-Xinjiang equivalence claim is that China’s Tibet and Xinjiang programs are similar in terms of mass abuses. Proponents note correctly that mechanisms, terminology, aims, and underlying theories used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Tibet and Xinjiang are similar, and that the current Party Secretary of Xinjiang formerly served in Tibet. These continuities reflect the shared repertoire of Communist jargon and history from which all CCP officials draw, as well as their adherence to the CCP’s overall policy regarding nationalities, which has shown an increasingly assimilationist approach since 2014. However, despite their constant declarations of unity with the Party Center, regional officials are not expected to implement the Center’s policies in identical ways in each region.

In fact, Chinese policies in Tibet and Xinjiang have often differed widely in implementation. This divergence reflects topography, history, and logistics, but also continues the deep-seated debates among revolutionaries since at least the time of the Jacobins and Girondins about how rapid or gradual revolutionary reforms should be. Much the same debate took place within the CCP from even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It focused particularly on areas inhabited by peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongolians, or Uyghurs. In such areas, radicals in the CCP—notably leaders of the Northwest Military Region—insisted on rapid, often violent social transformation. Gradualists, such as those in the Southwest Military Region in the first half of the 1950s, argued that Tibetans, being more backward in their view, should be won over by allowing feudal practices to continue while slowly building initial alliances with local elites. The details of this debate have been carefully documented by Benno Weiner in his recent book on the factions that respectively opposed or promoted the gradualist strategy known as the United Front in Tibetan areas of Qinghai in the 1950s. Weiner shows that the gradualist approach lasted in those areas until 1958, when policy switched to immediate reforms of society, land ownership, and religious practice, which usually meant the use of force and culminated with the Cultural Revolution. The gradualist approach was reintroduced throughout China in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. Not coincidentally, Deng had been the Political Commissar of the Southwest Military Region in 1950; arguing that China was still in the “primary stage of socialism” and thus not yet ready for full communism was a return to the praxis advocated by his faction forty years before.

There was nothing new or specifically communist about this debate over how to manage minorities. In the late Qing empire, Chinese reformers had argued over the same question: whether to incorporate non-Han Chinese peoples within the empire rapidly by force or gradually through education, industrialization, acculturation, or some longer process. In Xinjiang, the Qing had resorted to direct control by invading the region in 1877 and turning it into a Chinese province; Tibet had negligible Han Chinese or Manchu presence at that time. By 1910, the proponents of rapid, forced reform had persuaded the Qing court to allow a policy of direct rule and rapid assimilation of Tibetans, which the Qing representative in Sichuan, Zhao Erfeng, carried out until the fall of the dynasty a year later. Some scholars trace the differential ways of managing minorities in China to much earlier perceptions in Chinese political thought as to which minorities were more “raw” or “untamed” relative to those considered somewhat “civilized” and thus amenable to softer tactics. Today, arguments of this kind are diplomatically concealed behind milder-sounding arguments, such as the current view among CCP policymakers that there are two kinds of religion in China—so-called “non-indigenous religions,” which include Islam, and “indigenous religions” such as Buddhism (notwithstanding that in fact it originated in India, not China). We can easily imagine Chinese policymakers arguing that followers of an “indigenous” Chinese religion are more easily managed and so can be won over with less brutal policies than those who follow a monotheistic, “non-Chinese”—read, less civilized—religion.

Since 9/11, this diffracted version of global Islamophobia has been commonly expressed in China in terms of terrorism, which the current Xinjiang policies are supposed to forestall. By contrast, the spectre of terrorism is rarely invoked in Tibet. There, the threat consists primarily of an idea that Beijing seeks to eradicate: the insistence by “the Dalai” that Tibet was independent in the past. This effort by Beijing has led to extraordinarily extensive forms of repression, control, and social engineering in Tibet, which are increasing almost by the day. But in terms of violence, China has been cautious in Tibet, as demonstrated by the fact that there have been only two or three known judicial executions of Tibetans in politically related cases over the last 35 years, as opposed to scores of executions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Whatever the rationale, the Chinese state has often enacted policies in different ways in different areas, even if the policy names and objectives are similar. This is what was so significant about China’s decision to scale back Mongolian language instruction in Inner Mongolia last year: until then, China’s policy of assimilation and bilingual education in Inner Mongolia had followed a wholly different and more accommodating model of policy implementation from those in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, or any other area. The change announced for classroom teaching in Inner Mongolia’s primary schools was significant because it meant that, after several years of giving primacy to local culture, the region was switching from a gradual to a rapid, forced approach to implementing policy on a non-Han Chinese population.

Mass Detention in Tibet

The contention that Tibet and Xinjiang are coterminous in terms of mass abuses has been made by a number of commentatorsjournalists, and politicians, including Lobsang Sangay, the current head of the exile Tibetan administration. Sangay has said, among other things, that forced detention camps exist currently in Tibet. There have been some occasions in the last decade when camps were created to hold Tibetans detained without being accused of any crime. Two of those occasions involved serious abuses. These occurred in camps created in 2017 to house monks and nuns expelled from a number of monasteries in eastern Tibetan areas, notably Larung Gar, and then returned forcibly to their home areas within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where they were detained for “legal education.” One of these camps was created in the eastern Tibetan area of Nyingtri to reeducate a number of nuns, while the second was in Sog, Nagchu, in northern Tibet, where the detainees seem mainly to have been monks. The detained nuns, comprising at least 30 women, were forced to sing or dance in front of officials to the tune of patriotic Chinese songs, in at least one case while wearing military-type outfits. In the case of the center at Sog, there is one account by a monk who was held for four months in 2017, and it describes incidents of forced reeducation, humiliation, torture, and sexual harassment. These are instances of grave abuse, but they are not similar in scale or duration to the systematic, mass practices of detention and cultural eradication in Xinjiang, where detainees are held and abused for years, forced repeatedly to abjure religious belief entirely, and made to use a language not their own.

There have been at least three other recent occasions in Tibet—in March 2008January 2012, and May 2012—when camps were created temporarily in hotels, schools, or converted army bases to hold Tibetans for purposes such as “legal education.” The 2008 camp held several hundred monks from monasteries in Lhasa whose place of registration was outside the TAR, and the 2012 detentions were of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 lay Tibetans held for two months after attending religious teachings by the Dalai Lama in India. In addition, a Tibetan reported being held for two months in a detention center in Driru, Nagchu, in 2016, and I know of two individuals held for about two weeks each in 2019 in some office buildings in a Tibetan area of Sichuan for failing to implement supposedly voluntary “poverty alleviation” measures.

Further details of these cases have not yet emerged, and others may well come to light. However, these cases again differ markedly from the Xinjiang camps in terms of scale or degree, involving an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people over a decade or more—around 1.4% of the lowest estimate for detainees in Xinjiang during the last four years. In addition, as far as one can tell from interviews with former inmates or those close to them, the Tibetan camps appear to have lasted for at most six months, but usually much less; included limited amounts of re-education, if any; and, apart from the two camps in 2017, are not reported to have involved cultural denigration, physical abuse, or cruelty.

Labor Programs and the Coercion Claim

In September 2020, a report appeared by a scholar that appeared to show evidence of forced labor camps in Tibet and other Xinjiang-style policies in the TAR. That scholar, Adrian Zenz, has done well-regarded work on Tibet and Xinjiang in the past. His more recent work has been attacked and abused by Chinese state media and others, including smears about his religious beliefs by a pro-Chinese denialist called Max Blumenthal, demonstrating a particularly ugly form of hypocrisy. He is also being sued by Chinese companies in Xinjiang and has been sanctioned by the PRC government.

Nevertheless, there are some technical problems with Dr. Zenz’s article on Tibet. Although scholarly in nature, the article was not peer-reviewed, involved no field verification, and did not refer to work by other researchers with expertise on labor, employment, and statistics in Tibet. In addition, the article was coordinated with a prominent media campaign, including simultaneous release of an op-ed in the New York Times, a lengthy article by Reuters, an editorial by the Wall Street Journal, and a report by a political lobby group, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).

Dr. Zenz and like-minded writers described a mass program initiated by Chinese authorities to provide labor training for Tibetans, and in some cases to arrange for them to be transferred to other locations for work. These writers are entirely correct that training programs claiming to involve huge numbers of people have been set up in Tibet, alongside a program arranging for people to move to different areas for work. They are also correct that in Xinjiang a program with a similar name appears to have involved abuses on a vast scale. But details of the Tibet scheme are unclear and—so far—do not yet indicate Xinjiang-style implementation: so far at least, around 94 percent of what are described in these reports as labor transfers in Tibet are apparently local, at least some of the small number of intra-provincial ones claim to be short-term, and there is no evidence yet that either of these programs in Tibet has involved force or abuse.

As for actual cases of coercion, there are none in the reports by Dr. Zenz, Reuters, or any other outlets. When I asked a Tibetan colleague about his own research, he described a Tibetan family of seven, all of whom had registered for labor training programs. Only one, however, had in fact attended a course, and the family had not reported any threat of force or pressure to comply. This seemed to suggest that, at least in that case, local officials were aiming primarily to put names on registration forms in order to inflate the number of apparent participants in the program.

This case does not prove anything, but it does raise doubts. If we go back to the article by Dr. Zenz, we will see that it consists of two entirely different statements: one that correctly summarizes Chinese official documents giving numbers for registration or inclusion in labor training schemes and work placements, and one that is purely inference about a possibility of labor camps (as opposed to voluntary training camps) and of the use of force. Those inferences are based on references in official documents to such things as “military-style” training and to photographs of trainees in military clothes. Such an inference is possible. It is not, however, reliable: every school and university student in China has military-style training for a week or so each year and many department stores have military-style training every morning. These trainings involve drills, but not necessarily the use of force, and many people in Tibet and China wear military garb because it is tough and cheap.

Dr. Zenz himself noted in his original report that he had found no evidence for any Xinjiang-style labor camps in Tibet: “There is so far no evidence of accompanying cadres or security personnel, of cadres stationed in factories, or of workers being kept in closed, securitized environments at their final work destination.” He added that “there is also currently no evidence of TAR labor training and transfer schemes being linked to extrajudicial internment.” He later stated categorically that he had never mentioned labor camps.

The Reuters report also had two types of findings: one confirmed the existence of the labor programs, citing two or three official documents not used by Dr. Zenz, while the other repeated the evidence about coercion offered by Dr. Zenz without new evidence. Therefore, the question of force was not part of its “investigation.” The article even said that “Reuters was unable to ascertain the conditions of the transferred Tibetan workers”and that “Researchers and rights groups say…without access they can’t assess whether the practice [of labor transfer] constitutes forced labor.” Nevertheless, it still repeated the same allegations of abuse and force, attributing them to “rights groups.” It added a fact that appeared to be corroborative, stating that “small-scale versions of similar military-style training initiatives have existed in the region for over a decade,” but gave no details of such cases, apart from that of the 30 nuns in 2017, noted above.

The qualifications that the authors of these reports provided were correct and appropriate, but they were too little and too late. The reports included multiple references to coercion, albeit speculative, and more categorical assertions were made in accompanying op-eds and oral presentations. Such speculation is often justifiable and necessary, not least because evidence of major abuses might yet come to light. Tibetan exiles and others are not wrong to be concerned. But the initial reports by Dr. Zenz and Reuters led to a wave of secondary reporting that, regardless of intention, blurred the solid data about the existence of labor training and work placement schemes with speculation about coercion.

Those secondary reports acknowledged Dr. Zenz’s article as the source of their information, but claimed incorrectly that he had reported the existence of labor camps and alleged use of force, about which he had only speculated. The Times of London said China was “accused of imprisoning 500k Tibetans in labor camps” and “as many as half a million Tibetans have been forcibly moved into labor camps this year,” making it a single-source report, with no corroboration, claiming incorrectly that Zenz had alleged imprisonment and labor camps. The BBC declared that the Zenz report had found China to be “‘coercing’ thousands of Tibetans into mass labor camps” and said this had been corroborated by Reuters, although Zenz had not said this, while Reuters had confirmed only the existence of labor programs, not the existence of labor camps or coercion. The BBC added that “the scale of the programme as detailed in this study indicates it is much larger than previously thought,” although in fact this was the first mention of the program outside China. The Guardian was more cautious and only referred to coercion in quoted remarks from Zenz, but, like the BBC, said the Zenz report had been corroborated by Reuters, implying this applied to camps and coercion as well as labor programs. The New York Times did not report the news, but carried an op-ed by Zenz which made stronger assertions about the use of compulsion than his original article had, this time without any caveat. Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported without qualification and without any second source that “China is pushing hundreds of thousands of Tibetans into forced labor camps,” none of which is known to be true.

Not surprisingly, this apparent unanimity in the mainstream media implying an equation between the labour training scheme and coercive detention was quickly taken up in the political arena. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China referred to “an apparent widespread system of forced labor” and “a large-scale mandatory ‘vocational training’ program” in Tibet, again relying on one source, and again fusing the substantive issue of labor programs with speculation about it being “forced” and “mandatory.” The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, based in Washington, D.C., held a hearing partly based on the reports of “forced labor” in Tibet; the British House of Commons organized a debate on the issue at which a senior British politician, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, asserted categorically that the Tibet labor programs were “mandatory,” “forcible,” and involved “people … being taken from one place and put into camps;” and the Democracy Forum in the UK held a discussion in part about the fact that, according to its chair, China “has sent over half a million Tibetans to labor transfer camps under strict military supervision.”

I have found just one media report that correctly reported on the Zenz report: a tiny media outfit called TLDR. TLDR published a video summary of the Zenz report which is accurate as well as succinct, yet manages to detail the factual claims about the labor training schemes separately from Zenz’s speculation about the possible use of force, which it bracketed as an as yet unverified but potentially important addendum.

Since then, the rhetoric has escalated. The most striking case is that of a scholar and a former journalist affiliated to universities in Australia who hosted a podcast originally called “Tibet-The Final Solution?” The title was taken from a statement by a Tibetan activist that China plans the total annihilation of Tibet or its culture, which was used as the trailer for the program. The actual podcast, the title of which was later changed amid complaints, did not discuss or debate this claim—it was added after the discussion had been recorded and was designed, apparently, only as click-bait to attract an audience. What is going on when a serious journalist, let alone an academic, proposes that China is a Nazi state trying to annihilate Tibetan people or Tibetan culture? China is indeed minimizing the role of the Tibetan language in schools, insulting the Dalai Lama, denying Tibetan history, persecuting dissidents, relocating nomads, and trying to adapt popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhism so that the religion emphasizes or mimics (“Sinicizes,” as the state puts it) neo-Confucian values, amid numerous other repressive policies. But to equate this with the Wannsee Conference is deeply offensive and unethical.

Apart from insulting the memory of those who died, for one thing, there is no evidence of any attempt, at least in the post-Mao era, to annihilate the Tibetan people. As for culture since the death of Mao, as Dr. Zenz himself documented in his earlier work on Tibet, certain aspects of Tibetan modern culture have thrived, particularly prose fiction, poetry, film, fine art, popular music, and to some extent the Gesar epic, horse racing, and certain local festivals. Publications of traditional religious texts run into the thousands. Lay religious events still involve thousands of people. There is an enormous amount of repression, which should be widely studied and publicized, and there are understandable reasons why many Tibetans fear for their culture, alarmed as many are by, for example, the prioritization of Chinese as the language of instruction in many or most schools. But this is not the same as genocide or annihilation: Tibet is not Xinjiang.

Activists and others should of course be encouraged to argue their perspectives and present whatever evidence they have. But for a mainstream media outfit, let alone a university, to use such a proposition as click-bait is disturbing. In the long run, this kind of ideologically-inflamed, anti-Chinese rhetoric will damage Tibetan people and their situation in Tibet, since they and others will have to waste time on debates about what is exaggerated and what is fact. The underlying issue here is not that scholars should not speculate, nor that activists and community members should not raise deeply held concerns: they should do both. But serious writers, publications, and media need to maintain sharp distinctions between what is speculation and what is reliable, confirmed information. The quality of discourse, and even the possibility of developing effective responses to mass abuse, suffers on all sides if exacting standards of evidence and discussion are discarded.

Busting Baidu

August 31, 2020

BuzzFeed, which I must confess I have not previously paid attention to, has produced a couple of fantastic reports on Chinese repression in Xinjiang. The two reports are here and here.

What is even more interesting than these reports if you are concerned about research methodologies is the nuts and bolts of how BuzzFeed used the efforts of China’s leading search engine, Baidu, to hide what is going on to instead expose what is going on.

That fascinating story is here. It is to do with how the airbrushing of satellite maps by Baidu actually led researchers to the location of hundreds of new internment and forced labour camps.

Baidu is often described as the Google of China. This is a near-literal comparison because most of what Baidu does it ripped off straight from Google, even down to ‘moonshot’ investments like self-driving cars. Baidu has never, to my knowledge, produced meaningful innovation, unlike firms such as Tencent and Bytedance, the Tik Tok creator.

If you own Baidu stock (BIDU), I would get rid of it. The rising Economic Social and Governance (ESG) movement that seeks to promote more ethical investing is presented with a very juicy target here. Plus, Baidu doesn’t seem to be able to innovate anyway, so you won’t even get rich from supporting the concealment of genocide.

And so we locked up a million people…

January 15, 2019

An excellent review of evidence that China has indeed locked up one million or more Uighurs in Xinjiang ‘Autonomous’ Region in an effort to have them toe Beijing’s line. This is the sort of uncompromising approach to dissent that in all too many countries has become a victim of political correctness.





As journalists and scholars have reported in recent months on the campaign of religious and cultural repression and incarceration taking place in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, a central question has emerged: How many people has China’s government detained as part of the campaign? In the absence of officially reported numbers or other hard evidence, researchers of various stripes have converged on the figure of one million as a common estimate of the people the Chinese government is detaining in Xinjiang’s camps.

But where does this figure come from, and how is it formulated?

An August 2018 United Nations session appears to have first popularized the number. At the session, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it had received “many credible reports” that one million ethnic Uighurs in China were being held in internment camps, though it did not specify the sources of these reports. In the following days, the figure was repeated in stories in The Wall Street JournalAl Jazeera, and HuffPost, all citing the U.N. session. A week later, the U.S. State Department issued a public statement raising its previous estimate of hundreds of thousands of detainees to a number “possibly . . . in the millions.” News coverage in the months since has often referred to the “one million” estimate; other reports cite lower numbers of detainees, though still in the hundreds of thousands. Chinese representatives stated at the August U.N. session that “there is no such thing as re-education centers”; by October, the local Xinjiang government had passed legislation enshrining them as a formal method to “transform” people influenced by “extremism.” But even after admitting to their existence, Chinese officials have chafed at Western reports of the numbers held there, with a spokesperson callingthe estimates “defamatory” and the results of “ulterior motives.”

Given the Chinese government has not released its own official numbers, and given the extreme obstacles that prevent independent on-the-ground accounting of camp inmates, how do outside observers arrive at the one million estimate?

No precise count of the number of people currently detained in camps in Xinjiang has made its way out of China. So investigators must rely on estimates that use small samples to extrapolate the camps’ overall population of inmates.

Two key studies independently arrived around the one million mark, by using limited data samples to estimate what percentage of the ethnic minority Muslim population is detained. Both studies arrive at a detention rate of 10 percent —at least in some areas of Xinjiang—suggesting that just over one million of the region’s 11 million ethnic Uighur population could be in the camps.

The first estimate, from Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture & Theology, is based on an accounting of the detention camp populations totalling some 892,000 individuals in 68 Xinjiang counties as of the Spring of 2018. These numbers are from a document leaked by Chinese public security authorities to Istiqlal, a Uighur exile media organization based in Turkey, and also later appeared in Newsweek Japan.

As Zenz points out, these numbers are not complete. Several major population centers are missing from the leaked data. One approach to determine how many additional people are detained in these additional population centers would be to simply assume the same rate of detention across all of Xinjiang and use local population figures to calculate an estimate for the missing areas. However, as Zenz explained to ChinaFile, based on his own research and on Radio Free Asia reporting (discussed further below), he presumes that detention rates vary locally depending on the share of ethnic minority population in a given area. Specifically, this means that areas with Han-majority populations see a smaller percentage of their ethnic minority populations detained.

To account for these differences in population and likely differences in detention rates, Zenz zoomed in on just a subset of the leaked data: 27 counties where the vast majority of the population is ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz. The leaked data showed that 693,273 individuals were detained in these counties, out of a total of 4.45 million Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz adults aged 20-79—a detention rate of 12.3 percent. Zenz conservatively rounded down to reach an average detention rate of ten percent in minority-majority areas. To estimate a detention rate for Han-majority areas, he then halved the 10 percent estimate—again, seeking to offer a conservative estimate.

Applying these approximated detention rates to cities and counties throughout the entire region, Zenz writes that “Xinjiang’s total re-education internment figure may be estimated at just over one million.” (It is worth stating that this is Zenz’s high-end estimate; elsewhere in the article he writes that estimates “anywhere between several hundred thousand and just over one million” are reasonable. This estimate is also from spring 2018, and it is possible that more people have been detained since then.)

The second estimate comes from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). Between mid-2017 and mid-2018, CHRD interviewed eight ethnic Uighurs located in eight different villages in southern Xinjiang. Each person gave their own estimate of the number of people detained in their village, which CHRD used to surmise a detention rate for each village. These village detention rates ranged from 8 to 20 percent, averaging out to 12.8 percent across all eight villages. Just as Zenz did, CHRD “conservatively” rounded down to reach a 10 percent estimated detention rate. CHRD then applied this rate to all of southern Xinjiang, assessing that “approximately 240,000 rural residents may be detained in ‘re-education’ centers in Kashgar Prefecture, and 660,000 in the larger Southern Xinjiang [area].”

Extrapolating further, CHRD assumed a 10 percent detention rate across all of Xinjiang, estimating that 1.1 million people are being held, or have been held, in the camps. (CHRD’s figure does not include individuals forced to attend mandatory day or evening “re-education” sessions, which could add another estimated 1.3 million people across southern Xinjiang.)

These two estimates are not the only sources that suggest a 10 percent detention rate. The U.S.-based outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA), which regularly cold-calls government offices throughout Xinjiang, has reported that some local officials must meet detention quotas. Since the latter half of 2017, at least four different local officials in both southern and northern Xinjiang have told RFAthat they were given detention targets to meet, including 10 percent of the population in one village and 40 percent in another. These quotas generally accord with other RFA sources’ accounts of detention figures in their own villagesand townships. RFA itself has not offered a region-wide detention estimate, but its coverage over time and across different localities does buttress the theory that 10 percent of Xinjiang’s Uighur population could be detained. Indeed, Zenz writes in his analysis that RFA’s reporting suggests a “one million” estimate is not far-fetched.

Other reporters and researchers have compiled additional information about the camps that suggest the “one million” figure is credible. This information does not rely on personal testimony or data leaked from official sources; rather, it is based on satellite imagery or on the Chinese government’s own publicly-available documents:

  • Using a list of sites drawn from media reports and other research, a team of analysts from a multinational aerospace company reviewed satellite images for the BBC and judged that 44 of them had a high or very high likelihood of being a “security facility.” Looking specifically at a site called Dabancheng, located about an hour’s drive from Urumqi, a separate team of architects with experience in prison design, and an architect focused on social responsibility in design and planning, estimated it could hold anywhere from 11,000 detainees—on par with the largest prisons on earth—to 130,000 detainees. The lower figure, which one expert said was “likely a significant underestimate,” assumes that each detainee has his or her own private sleeping quarters; the higher estimate assumes that detainees are housed in dormitories.
    • None of the experts consulted in the BBC report address this question, but if there were only 44 camps in all of Xinjiang, they would need to each house an average 22,730 individuals to accommodate one million detainees—twice the low-end estimate for Dabancheng, but still well below the high-end estimate. If facilities such as Dabancheng can indeed hold as many as 100,000 people, only 10 similarly-sized facilities would be needed across all of Xinjiang to hold one million people.
  • The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyzed just 28 camp facilities (noting that there may be more than 1,000 facilities across Xinjiang), estimating that in total these camps contain 2,700,000 square meters of floor space.
    • Although the ASPI report does not include this calculation, taking a very conservative estimate that only 10 percent of this floor space is used for dormitories, and combining it with an estimated occupancy density of 1.5-2 detainees per square meter (as used by Zenz in his analysis of such facilities), the number of detainees in these 28 camps alone could easily approach half a million.
  • In its examination of more than 1,500 publicly-available government documents, Agence France-Presse (AFP) found procurement documents that hint at huge numbers of detainees. Hotan county’s vocational education bureau, which oversees at least one camp, ordered 194,000 Chinese language practice books and 11,310 pairs of shoes in just one month this year.
  • Another CHRD analysis of Chinese government data estimated that criminal arrests in Xinjiang increased by more than 700 percent between 2016 and 2017, reaching nearly 228,000 arrests in 2017. RFA and CHRD reporting indicates that at least some of these cases represent individuals who were initially detained in camps and then transferred to the criminal system for formal prosecution.
    • Even if only 10 percent of these arrests represent transfers from camps, that would still account for more than 20,000 camp detainees. If individuals initially detained in camps were, instead, mostly responsible for this 700 percent year-on-year jump, these figures could easily account for between 100,000 and 200,000 camp detainees.

The Chinese government’s own budget and spending reports show expenditures that, while not directly corroborating the numbers of individuals detained, certainly suggest that very large numbers of detentions are plausible. AFP estimates that Xinjiang’s local justice bureaus, the organs responsible for operating the camps, may have spent 577 percent more in 2017 than they had originally budgeted. Budget documents showed that counties in southern Xinjiang, where the share of the ethnic minority Muslim population is higher, used funds especially earmarked for the camps to fund the additional outlays. Additional research by Adrian Zenz, comparing government data of year-on-year spending in counties throughout Xinjiang, shows similarly outsized spending increases on “social stability management,” “detention center management,” and other domestic security expenditures, particularly in areas with higher proportions of ethnic minority Muslim residents. This spending coincides with a February 2017 directive from the regional Justice Department to use “concentrated educational transformation centers” to manage “key groups” in society. It also corresponds with a more than 10-fold jump in the number of new security facilities the BBC was able to detect via satellite imagery between 2016 and 2017, and with spikes in new and retrofitted camp construction ASPI identified in 2017.

Taken together, these reports offer compelling support for the credibility of the “one million” estimates, even as the estimates themselves remain unavoidably imprecise. But what does “credible” mean?

Much reporting on the estimates of those detained in Xinjiang stresses that the “one million” number is “credible.” Yet it is important to distinguish between credibility and precision. Much of the information that international observers have used to make detention estimates is credible in that it comes from local sources, many of whom are in official positions that allow them access to such information through the course of their work, and who take great personal risk to communicate this information to the international community. Yet it is observers’ inability to conduct any sort of independent verification that prevents these credible estimates from being more precise. This is mainly due to China’s stringent information controls and its restrictions on foreigners’ access to the region—let alone to the camps themselves.

As a result, international observers cannot know with certainty, for example, how detentions are carried out in southern Xinjiang, where about four-fifths of the population is Uighur, versus northern Xinjiang, where only one-quarter is Uighur. Observers also cannot be sure if other ethnic minority Muslim individuals, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, are detained at the same rates as Uighurs; most available reporting describes conditions only for Uighurs, the largest minority population in Xinjiang. It’s also often unclear whether estimates include the total number of people detained over time, or the number detained only at the time of the estimate.

This much, then, is clear by now: estimates of one million people detained in Xinjiang “re-education” camps are quite credible. Does that mean they are correct? Only Beijing likely knows for sure. And it’s not telling.