China watchChina’s Disappeared Uyghurs: What Satellite Images Reveal

By Doug Irvin

Published 3 May 2021

One million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, maybe more, have vanished into a sprawling network of camps and prisons in China’s far west. Chinese officials at first denied the camps even existed. Then they claimed they were for training workers, or for re-educating potential radicals. Then they said it didn’t matter—everyone had graduated and was free to go. Satellite data reviewed by RAND tell a different story.

One million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, maybe more, have vanished into a sprawling network of camps and prisons in China’s far west. Chinese officials at first denied the camps even existed. Then they claimed they were for training workers, or for re-educating potential radicals. Then they said it didn’t matter—everyone had graduated and was free to go.

Satellite data reviewed by RAND tell a different story. They show bright-lit compounds in the desert dark, wall after wall of barbed wire, and a sudden rush to build what appear to be fortified preschools.

“This gives us clear evidence of what’s happening on the ground in western China,” said Katherine Pfrommer, a quantitative analyst at RAND who helped review the images. “In such a denied area, it’s hard to know how conditions are changing and evolving. Satellite images gave us a way to get that information.”

The United States has described what is happening to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs as a genocide. Starting in 2016, China launched a campaign of repression, banning Muslim names, forbidding long beards. It transformed the vast Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang into one of the most sophisticated surveillance states in the world, bristling with police checkpoints and facial-recognition cameras. Then people began to disappear.

Students coming home on break found empty houses. Officials told them their parents had been “infected” by the virus of Islamic radicalism and needed to be quarantined and cured, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. Occasional stories began to emerge from the camps: high-pressure indoctrination classes; forced labor; physical and sexual abuse; a grinding out of Uyghur language, culture, and identity.

The Growth of Detention Facilities
Researchers at RAND had used satellite observations to get inside the Islamic State, to see how it governed and how cities fared when it took over. Now they turned their attention to Xinjiang. Working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), they began looking at detention camps that Chinese officials insisted were empty.

“It’s breathtaking how much satellite imagery is publicly available,” said Edmund Burke, the former senior China officer at the NGA, now a senior international defense researcher at RAND. “You see stories about one particular camp, or hear one harrowing account from someone who got out of Xinjiang. We realized we could advance those stories and help provide a broader account of what is happening there.”

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