On April 9, China’s Foreign Ministry hosted a conference on Xinjiang issues at its Foreign Correspondents Press Center in Beijing. The event focused on countering “international anti-China forces” and allegations of mass incarceration, forced labor and genocide of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in northwestern China.
Xu Guixiang, the regional government spokesperson, challenged the veracity of foreign databases and “so-called ‘witness testimonies’ ” used to document alleged crimes against humanity by the Chinese.
One of those databases is the "Xinjiang Data Project,” established by the Australian Institute of Strategic Policy (ASPI). Xu accused ASPI of spreading rumors to “demonize China … under the cloak of ‘academia’.” He attacked the institute’s use of satellite imagery to document Xinjiang’s multitiered detention network.
“[The] ‘map section’ of the project claims that through satellite imagery and night lighting technology research methods, it has identified and mastered the geographic information of 380 so-called ‘detention facilities’ in Xinjiang,” Xu said.
“However, after verification, among the so-called 380 ‘detention facilities’, 343 points (90%) are regular schools, government agencies and institutions, hospitals, residences, shops, etc. It can be seen that the project library is so fake that it has no [substance] and is hysterical.”
The assertion that ASPI’s database is fabricated is false.
Danielle Cave, deputy director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Center, told Polygraph.info: “The Chinese government does not have a strong track record in presenting facts, particularly on this issue.”
She added that ASPI assesses claims about its work when “credible feedback” is given. “We believe our multi-source evidence base and the quality of our research on this topic speaks for itself,” Cave said.
Regarding the camp network, Cave said ASPI’s database has now been updated to show 385 detention sites, with 11 being added and six being removed. Of the removed sites, four were duplicates (where a facility had inadvertently been marked twice) and two were no longer believed to be functioning as detention centers.
ASPI notes that its years-long process of identifying the network involved collating satellite imagery, construction tenders and other government documents, previous reports on facilities, and witness accounts from journalists and others.
The organization says it only counts “re-education camps, detention centers and prisons that were newly built or significantly expanded since 2017,” and that this represents “the majority of all detention facilities in Xinjiang.”
ASPI notes that several features help determine higher- or lower-security facilities. Telltale signs of the former include “a combination of walls, watchtowers and barbed‑wire fencing,” among other “identical distinguishing architectural features.”
According to ASPI, lesser-security facilities can look “similar to public facilities such as schools or hospitals,” although the detention facilities are still distinguishable through barbed-wire fencing “that cages individual buildings,” along with features like wire “tunnels” that restrict detainee access and movement.
ASPI says that external barbed-wire fencing has been removed from many camps since 2019, although “highly securitized infrastructure,” including internalized barbed-wire fences, external walls and watchtowers, remains.
Other giveaways include a lack of cars and the absence of people in satellite images.
While Xu claimed that 343 of the sites are schools and other facilities, ASPI documents the repurposing of schools and public buildings to form part of the camp network.
For example, ASPI notes that as China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims ramped up in 2017, a school in Kashgar city “was converted into a large scale re-education facility.” ASPI believes that facility may have been “decommissioned” after being “sanitized” and used in propaganda reports.
In 2018, The Wall Street Journal located one such camp just south of Kashgar, describing it as “having the look and scale of a full-size prison.”
A former detainee told the Journal the facility he was locked up in looked like “a school” covering a “vast area.”
He described intensive communist indoctrination sessions, in which detainees would watch films and sing propaganda songs for hours a day.
The “night lighting technology” Xu mentions refers to the examination of night‑time satellite imagery to determine the location of “newly illuminated areas.” Those “newly illuminated areas” are suggestive of newly-built detention facilities and corresponding highway checkpoints to monitor people’s movements across Xinjiang.
ASPI said those images “were cross‑referenced against high‑resolution daytime satellite imagery that showed much greater detail.”
China previously denied the facilities existed. However, in 2018, responding to a growing body of evidence and international condemnation, a senior regional official described the detention facilities as “people-oriented” vocational institutes and schools.
At that time, authorities had just legalized the use of such facilities to counter religious extremism in what China scholar James Leibold called a “retrospective justification” for the detention program, German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported, citing the Associated Press.
China claims the facilities were opened in response to years of separatist unrest, culminating in the May 2014 Urumqi suicide attacks, which reportedly left 43 people dead and dozens of others wounded.
Officials say the goal is to stamp out extremism and alleviate poverty by providing vocational training and jobs. Chinese state media have cited detainees who "cherished" the opportunity to attend the facilities.
Beijing has also lashed out at what it calls "slanderous" accusations of genocide in Xinjiang.
Amid continuing international scrutiny and criticism, China has increasingly gone on the offensive, attacking the credibility of scholars, witnesses, leaked Chinese documents and other reports. Beijing further shields Xinjiang from investigation by using a highly controlled media environment that complicates verification efforts.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Polygraph.info in 2018 that Chinese journalists knew to “steer clear” of Xinjiang, while foreign journalists were “heavily surveilled if they set foot in the region, making reporting very difficult.”
Recent examples of verification issues faced by journalists include a BBC report documenting the purported destruction of a mosque and a Bloomberg report attempting to verify allegations of coerced labor at solar industry facilities.
A Vice News report from Xinjiang documented repeated attempts by police to prevent simple street interviews and filming in non-sensitive locations.
Wang said Beijing could easily clear its name by allowing United Nations investigators, journalists and rights groups “unfettered access to the region” to see the facilities for themselves.