The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New evidence of China’s concentration camps shows its hardening resolve to wipe out the Uighurs

A guard tower and barbed wire fences around a facility in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region in December 2018.
A guard tower and barbed wire fences around a facility in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region in December 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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LAST WEEK, Chinese officials were asked at a news conference about the continuing reports that China has locked in concentration camps more than 1 million ethnic Muslim Uighurs, Kazakhs and others in Xinjiang province. A spokesman for the regional government responded that it was “outright nonsense” and that the facilities — which China has called vocational education schools — prevent extremism and are “no different in nature” from those in the United States, Britain or France. Asked about reports of large-scale forced labor imposed on the Uighur minority, another Xinjiang official said it was “outright nonsense fabricated out of thin air.”

If so much is “outright nonsense,” then how to explain the barbed wire, guard towers and cement that have been rising around Xinjiang, in far western China? If nonsense, then why do so many eyewitnesses describe an archipelago of prisons and camps aimed at exterminating Uighur culture, language and traditions? Further evidence of this grotesque project was published Aug. 27 by BuzzFeed News in an investigation that identified scores of purpose-built, high-security camps and detention facilities. Previously, eyewitness accounts, government documents and satellite imagery published by scholars and journalists had shown that, since late 2016, China was forcing the Uighurs into a system of incarceration and cultural annihilation. The BuzzFeed probe indicates a new wave of determination and permanency. China’s resolve to wipe out the Uighur culture is hardening.

The BuzzFeed investigation identified facilities “with far greater security measures” than earlier, and “more permanent architectural features, such as heavy concrete walls and guard towers.” The report said the “government has also added more factories within camp and prison compounds,” suggesting “the expansion of forced labor within the region. Construction was still ongoing as of this month.” BuzzFeed identified 268 structures built since 2017 and bearing the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds. Ninety-two of them have been previously identified by other sources, including 19 by journalists’ visits. An additional 176 facility locations “have been established by satellite imagery alone,” BuzzFeed said. The pictures show thick walls; barbed-wire fencing that produces corridors and pens in the courtyards; and guard towers at 121 compounds.

BuzzFeed reporters examined satellite images from Baidu, an online maps tool widely used in China. They noticed that gray tiles were evident over certain locations. On closer inspection, these “masked” areas helped locate the prison facilities, which BuzzFeed then cross-checked with interviews and other data. BuzzFeed interviewed eyewitnesses who described the purpose of the camps and prisons: to wipe out Uighur culture, language and traditions, and to indoctrinate the detainees with Chinese Communist Party dogma.

The new investigation suggests that protests and sanctions from the United States and others have not slowed China’s repression. More must be done. The United States should block the import of goods tainted by forced labor in Xinjiang, as several human rights and labor organizations recently suggested. And the world must ask whether China, slowly strangling an entire people, has the moral standing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. We think not.

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