Critics of China’s human rights record have a new sanction in mind for Beijing: stripping the city of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Lawmakers in a number of major Olympic countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S., have recently said the 2022 Games should be taken away from China because of its repression of its Uighur Muslim minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The Dutch and Canadian parliaments have officially labeled that repression a “genocide,” as has the U.S. State Department.
In an interview, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch MP from the ruling coalition’s D66 party, pointed to “the largest detention of an ethnic minority since World War II” and highlighted stories of forced sterilization and rape as evidence that China should be stripped of the Olympics.
Sjoerdsma, whose social liberal party initiated the Dutch motion to call the treatment of the Uighur minority a genocide, said athletes should decide for themselves whether to go to Beijing, but he would prefer that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games, assigned the event to another country.
“The major sport organizations, whether it’s the Olympics or football, should consider much more thoroughly the human rights situation in a possible host country, and if it’s already allocated … see how the situation develops,” he said.
In early February, a group of seven Republican U.S. senators, including Rick Scott of Florida, all called for the Beijing Games to be moved. In mid-February, Canadian opposition Conservative leader Erin O’Toole made a similar demand.
This isn’t the first time the location of a looming Olympic Games has sparked debate. Ahead of the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany, teams from a number of countries, including the U.S., considered staying away. In 1980, the U.S. team boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
What effect the bubbling resistance has to Beijing as 2022 host remains to be seen. Protests also erupted ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 over China’s policies in Tibet, observers note, but the event went ahead as planned.
Ties Dams, a China researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, said the idea of pressuring the Chinese government to change its treatment of the Uighur minority by threatening to boycott the Olympics was unlikely to happen and “naive.”
However, he said that the motion in the Dutch parliament to label the treatment of the Uighur people a genocidemight at least force the new government, which will be elected on March 17, to pick sides and either support the hawkish stance on China taken by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration or the more cooperative approach taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Taking a European lead?
The Netherlands, a traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse thanks to its dominance in speed-skating events, has emerged recently as an advocate of using sporting events to hold host nations to account for their human rights policies.
Dutch lawmakers last month adopted a motion calling on the Dutch king and prime minister not to attend the football World Cup in Qatar if the Netherlands qualifies for next year’s tournament, citing the “appalling conditions” for migrant workers building the stadiums.
A similar motion for the Olympics was rejected, but lawmaker Sjoerdsma said he was hopeful it might still pass in the coming weeks, with some parties likely to change their position.
However, the Netherlands’ Olympic Committee sounded a note of caution about how far the country might be ready to go. In response to questions about a potential Dutch boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, a spokesman for the committee said: “In the Netherlands, we have the policy that a sports boycott is only talked about if the Netherlands as a country participates in a larger international boycott involving several sectors. That is not the case.”
Canadian Olympic bosses, prior to the national parliament’s genocide declaration, also said they will not support a boycott.
In an opinion piece from early February — which remains their position — the chiefs of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees wrote that sporting boycotts amounted to “little more than a convenient and politically inexpensive alternative to real and meaningful diplomacy.”
China, which was angered by the pro-Tibet protests ahead of the 2008 Games, has made clear it is taking any threats of a 2022 boycott very seriously.
“It is very irresponsible for anyone to attempt to interfere with, obstruct or disrupt the organization and operation of the [Winter] Olympics, out of political motives,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last month, responding to calls for an international boycott.
“We believe such moves would not be supported by the international community, and are doomed to failure,” Wang added.
Shortly afterwards, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that the two sides should “take the opportunity of the Beijing Winter Olympics of next year to enhance exchanges on winter sports” and “foster new highlights” in bilateral cooperation.
In the same call, Wang also said China “opposes fabrication and dissemination of lies and fake news” on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
For its part, the IOC has tried to remain on the political sidelines, telling POLITICO that it remains “neutral” on all global political issues.
“Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee (NOC) does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country,” it said.
It is a position that has attracted its own criticism. Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University who has written extensively on the Olympics, accused the IOC of “hypocrisy.”
“The IOC has shown an unfortunate propensity for turning away from human rights atrocities in order to make sure that the games go on,” Boykoff said.
“The Olympic Charter is full of powerful ideas about equality and anti-discrimination, but the IOC ignores its own Charter when it is convenient for them to do so,” he said.
But what effect does the geopolitical maneuvering have on the real stars of any Olympics?
The Olympic competitors have been put in a difficult position, said Rob Koehler from Global Athlete, an athlete-led sports movement.
“As governments call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, once again athletes are being used as pawns,” Koehler said. “The IOC and IPC first and foremost are to blame for putting athletes in this position.”
“It is the IOC and IPC who decided to award the games to a country with an abysmal human rights record,” he said.
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Emissions from China of a banned gas that harms Earth’s ozone layer have sharply declined after increasing for several years, two teams of scientists said Wednesday, a sign that the Beijing government had made good on vows to crack down on illegal production of the industrial chemical.
The findings ease concerns that increased emissions of the gas, CFC-11, would slow progress in the decades-long environmental struggle to repair the ozone layer, which filters ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin cancer and damage crops.
“We see a huge decline both in global emission rates and what’s coming from Eastern China,” said Stephen A. Montzka, a research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the lead author of one of the studies. Work by Dr. Montzka and others three years ago first revealed the illegal emissions.
“It looks like there’s been a substantial response, potentially as a result of us raising a flag and saying, ‘Hey, something’s not happening as it should,’” Dr. Montzka said.
Matthew Rigby, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Bristol in England and an author of the second study, said that if emissions had not declined, “we could be seeing a delay in ozone recovery of years.” As of now, full recovery is still expected by the middle of the century.
Chinese government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Chemical traders in Shandong, a heavily industrialized province in Eastern China where CFC-11 was widely used for making insulating foams, said trade in the banned gas had largely dried up. “It hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s much scarcer than before,” Gao Shang, a chemical merchant in Shandong, said in a telephone interview.
CFC-11 was outlawed a decade ago under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty established in the 1980s, when research revealed its effects on atmospheric ozone, along with the effects of similar widely used chemicals.
The revelation in a 2018 study of rogue emissions from China that began five years before was a shock to scientists, policymakers, environmentalists and others who monitor the protocol, which is largely regarded as the most effective environmental treaty in history.
Meg Seki, acting executive secretary of the Ozone Secretariat, the United Nations body that administers the treaty, said the organization was pleased to see that emissions had dropped and that the effect on the ozone layer was likely to be limited. “It is important, however, to prevent such unexpected emissions in the future through continued, high-standard monitoring by the scientific community,” she said in a statement.
The 2018 research did not pinpoint the source of most of the emissions beyond locating them as coming from East Asia. But investigations that year by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an independent advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., and by The New York Times found evidence that the gas was still being produced and used in Eastern China, particularly Shandong.
An atmospheric analysis led by Dr. Rigby in 2019 found that Shandong, as well as a neighboring province, Hebei, were major sources.
At the same time, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection vowed “zero tolerance” for businesses found illegally making or using CFC-11.
Policy announcements, industry reports and court judgments all indicate that the Chinese government cracked down on the illicit trade, even as it kept denying that there ever was a serious problem. Last year, the government publicized a conviction of a businessman, Qi Erming, as the first case in China of a criminal prosecution for illegally trading in ozone-damaging chemicals.
As well as prosecutions, the government tightened rules and monitoring of the chemical and foam production industries, and promised to create a comprehensive data system to trace the movement of chemicals that could be used to make CFC-11.
There are legal gases that can replace CFC-11 in foam production. Mr. Gao, the chemical merchant in Shandong, said his company specializes in one of them.
The availability of substitutes may have helped China’s efforts to reduce CFC-11 emissions. Zhu Xiuli, a sales manager at another company in Shandong that sells foaming agents, said that customers previously had asked whether they had CFC-11. But “in the past couple of years there have been fewer and fewer inquiries,” she said.
CFC-11 has also been used in refrigeration equipment. As the gear ages, and as foams containing CFC-11 degrade over time, the gas will slowly be released. Although the size of this “bank” of CFC-11 is not precisely known, it is accounted for by the protocol, and is one reason full ozone recovery will take decades.
The new papers, which were published in the journal Nature, also do not account for the entire global increase in CFC-11 emissions that had occurred since 2013. The gas may still be being produced or used in other countries or in other parts of China, but the researchers said there are not enough air-sampling stations worldwide to know for certain.
“This is a useful lesson that we really need to expand our monitoring capabilities,” Dr. Rigby said.
Avipsa Mahapatra, a climate campaign lead for the Environmental Investigation Agency, said of the new findings that it was “exciting to see atmospheric studies confirming that on-the-ground intelligence and subsequent enforcement have culminated in a spectacular climate win.” But she said her group had indications that enforcement may have been more successful in some parts of China than others. “This is not the time for complacency,” she said.
Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, said the work was “a real triumph for science.”
But the problem is not over, Dr. Solomon said, because in addition to CFC-11, there are other, similar chemicals being emitted. “There’s a whole zoo of molecules.” she said, and although the amounts are smaller, they add up.
They also are potent greenhouse gases, she said, although their contribution to warming is much less than the far more prevalent heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane. “The chemical industry worldwide is still not monitored closely enough for us to actually be confident in how much greenhouse gases they’re making and how much ozone-depleting gases they are making,” she said.
ALMATY — China has built more than 100 new facilities in Xinjiang where it can not only lock people up, but also force them to work in dedicated factory buildings right on site, BuzzFeed News can reveal based on government records, interviews, and hundreds of satellite images.
In August, BuzzFeed News uncovered hundreds of compounds in Xinjiang bearing the hallmarks of prisons or detention camps, many built during the last three years in a rapid escalation of China’s campaign against Muslim minorities including Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others. A new analysis shows that at least 135 of these compounds also hold factory buildings. Forced labor on a vast scale is almost certainly taking place inside facilities like these, according to researchers and interviews with former detainees.
Factories across Xinjiang — both inside and outside the camps — tend to share similar characteristics. They are typically long and rectangular, and their metal roofs are usually brightly colored — often blue, sometimes red. In contrast to the masonry and concrete of typical detention buildings, the factories have steel frames, which can be erected within as little as a month. The steel frame is sturdy enough to hold the roof without interior columns, leaving more space inside for large machinery or assembly lines. Some of the biggest factory buildings have strips of skylights to let light in.
Collectively, the factory facilities identified by BuzzFeed News cover more than 21 million square feet — nearly four times the size of the Mall of America. (Ford’s historic River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan, once the largest industrial complex in the world, is 16 million square feet.)
And they are growing in a way that mirrors the rapid expansion of the mass detention campaign, which has ensnared more than 1 million people since it began in 2016. Fourteen million square feet of new factories were built in 2018 alone.
Two former detainees told BuzzFeed News they had worked in factories while they were detained. One of them, Gulzira Auelhan, said she and other women traveled by bus to a factory where they would sew gloves. Asked if she was paid, she simply laughed.
“They created this evil place and they destroyed my life,” she said.
The former detainees said they were never given a choice about working, and that they earned a pittance or no pay at all. “I felt like I was in hell,” Dina Nurdybai, who was detained in 2017 and 2018, told BuzzFeed News. Before her confinement, Nurdybai ran a small garment business. At a factory inside the internment camp where she was held, she said she worked in a cubicle that was locked from the outside, sewing pockets onto school uniforms. “They created this evil place and they destroyed my life,” she said.
In response to questions about this article, the Chinese consulate in New York quoted a worker from Xinjiang’s Karakax County who called allegations of forced labor in the region “slander” while speaking at a government press conference, saying villagers in the region are earning higher salaries and learning new skills. “We hope everyone can distinguish right from wrong, respect the facts and do not be deceived by rumors,” the consulate added.
Xinjiang’s industry is booming, and the region has one of the fastest GDP growth rates in China. Xinjiang exports a range of products, from clothing to machinery, and the US is one of the region’s fastest-growing markets. Xinjiang’s factories produce many goods that eventually make their way to US consumers. Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola, among others, lobbied Congress this year to water down a bill that would ban the import of products made with forced labor there. (Apple has said it did not try to weaken the measure, and Nike has said it “did not lobby against” it.) The bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in September, but the Senate has yet to debate it.
“Corporations should stop producing in, and sourcing from, Xinjiang,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “There is no way to produce responsibly in the region until the forced labor and broader repression ends.”
Nova and other labor rights advocates, as well as experts who have examined the abuses in Xinjiang, argue that forced labor is so widespread in the region that no company that manufactures there could conclude that its supply chain is free from it. That would mean that US consumers have no real way of knowing whether the goods they purchase from Xinjiang are tainted.
The Chinese government in Xinjiang surveils people so thoroughly and monitors interviews so closely that it is nearly impossible to independently assess if any one factory relies on forced labor. This is especially true given that economic programs, designed to move people out of poverty by moving rural farmworkers into factory jobs, effectively give cover for the government to conceal why a person might be working far from their home. But when factories are located inside internment compounds — cut off from the world by high walls and barbed wire — it beggars belief to claim workers are there willingly.
Detention camp factories are woven deeply into Xinjiang’s economy. The Washington, DC–based nonprofit research institute C4ADS compared the locations of the factories identified by BuzzFeed News to a database that compiles address information from China’s government registry for businesses. C4ADS identified 1,500 Chinese companies located at or right by the factories. Of those, 92 listed “import/export” as part of the scope of their business. BuzzFeed News found further information about these companies in corporate documents, state media reports, and other public data. According to trade data dating back to 2016, some of these companies have exported goods all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Panama, and France. One company sent pants to California.
One of these firms is Xinjiang Jihua Seven-Five-Five-Five Occupational Wear, which makes military uniforms. It has counted the People’s Liberation Army, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, and China’s Public Security bureau among its customers, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing each year.
In its parent company’s 2019 annual report, the company is explicit about its participation in labor transfer programs. The company transferred at least 45 ethnic minorities “who do not speak Chinese” from southern Xinjiang to work, the report says. They stayed in shared rooms holding three or four people, according to the report, and they received a monthly food stipend of 360 yuan (about $55).
An article in the state-controlled China News Service said the company’s workers at its Hejing branch were laboring overtime to fulfill a clothing order for protective coveralls, having already skipped a vacation that the factory manager said was offered last year. The workers also attend “bilingual night school” to learn Chinese. Every Monday, they hold a flag-raising ceremony and sing the praises of the Communist Party’s policies as well as “socialist thought with Chinese characteristics in the Xi Jinping new era.”
The way these workers were treated tracks with China’s known behavior in the region. The government’s anti-poverty campaign moves impoverished ethnic minorities referred to as “surplus labor” to jobs ranging from picking cotton to sewing clothing. Local policy documents refer to these workers as having “lazy thinking” and praise the government for “creating an atmosphere that labor is glorious and laziness is shameful,” according to recent research on Xinjiang from the German scholar Adrian Zenz.
Zenz and other researchers say these “labor transfers” can be a front for forced labor, especially in an environment where Muslim minorities live in fear of being arbitrarily locked up. As part of its campaign targeting ethnic minorities in the region, the government has also crushed education in minority languages. Dozens of ex-detainees told BuzzFeed News they were forced to study Chinese in internment camps and regularly praise the ruling Communist Party.
One of Xinjiang Jihua’s registered addresses matches the location of a large complex of internment facilities, which together can hold 11,700 people. This sprawling installation lies just over 3.5 miles from the center of Hejing county, in an isolated area bounded by empty plots of land and an industrial estate to the north and farmland to the south. Six blue-roofed factory buildings sit in their own compound right in the middle of the complex. They appear to be linked directly to adjacent detention buildings via a gate in the wall.
Xinjiang Jihua did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Another company, Hetian Yudu Handicrafts, is registered inside a compound in Lop County in southern Xinjiang; satellite photos show it bears the telltale signs of an internment camp. A state media article about labor transfer programs in the area quotes a Uighur woman, who went to work there weaving carpets, promising to earn a “surplus” for the company. Hetian Yudu did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Labor transfer for Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Xinjiang’s other minority groups extend beyond the region to other parts of China. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that has published research documenting human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in March identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces using Uighur and Kazakh workers from Xinjiang under a government labor transfer program. Refusing these work assignments is “extremely difficult,” the institute found, because they “are enmeshed with the apparatus of detention and political indoctrination.”
In many cases, Chinese language state media articles show photos of migrant workers who appear to be ethnic minorities boarding buses or working on assembly lines. The articles say that they’re participating in a poverty alleviation program. But they’re subject to strict controls and constant surveillance, and live in fear of being sent to camps or otherwise punished if they don’t comply. After work, they must participate in “patriotic education,” according to former detainees and Chinese language news articles about the programs.
A white paper published by the Chinese government in September offers clues into the scale of the program, saying the average “relocation of surplus labor” per year topped 2.76 million people.
According to state media reports, efforts to alleviate poverty in Xinjiang comprise a wide range of industries ranging from textile factories and food processing to livestock slaughter and cotton farming. It’s unclear what portion of workers in these programs are being forced to work, underpaid, or otherwise mistreated. But experts say the number is large and growing.
“Research suggests that some of those transferred to work are not willing and are severely underpaid, raising concerns about forced labor, potentially at a significant scale,” the Washington, DC–based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies found. The US Department of Labor estimated that 100,000 Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are working in forced labor.
The Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes ethical standards for cotton producers, told the BBC this month that it had stopped auditing and certifying farms in Xinjiang in part because the poverty alleviation schemes cast the shadow of forced labor over the entire industry there.
The abuses in Xinjiang may affect the supply chains of some of the world’s most recognizable brands. In its March report, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute also identified 82 multinational companies with suppliers that used Uighur workers outside Xinjiang as part of a labor transfer program, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Dell, Apple, Amazon, H&M, Nike, Nintendo, General Motors, and others.
Some brands said they stopped working with those suppliers this year, according to the Institute’s report. Others said they had no contractual relationships with suppliers involved in labor transfer programs, “but no brands were able to rule out a link further down their supply chain,” the report says. Apple said in July that it had found no evidence of forced labor on its production lines.
Nurdybai turned 28 this year. She’s a busy woman, with a toddler she dotes on and a fledgling garment business she’s started in her new home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In person she is fresh-faced, with perfectly microbladed eyebrows and wisps of bright green shadow brushed across her eyelids.
Her ordeal started in 2017. At the time, she was running a tailoring shop and a second thriving business selling traditional Kazakh-made clothing in China, called Kunikai Clothing. The company employed about 30 people and specialized in the intricate embroidery found on traditional Kazakh clothing, even offering training and consulting on the complex designs, according to public records. A photo that year shows her posing at a trade expo in the regional capital of Ürümqi, wearing a sleek black sheath dress and big dark sunglasses. She was hands-on in her factory — another old photo shows her explaining to workers how to cut fabric, the cuts marked with a chalked-on dotted line.
One night in October 2017, she returned from work so burned out that she immediately turned her phone off and collapsed into bed. She later found out that the police were looking for her that night and had phoned several of her relatives to try and reach her. The next morning, they called again, and then came to her door.
She was taken to a camp not far from where she lived in the county of Nilka, located in northeast Xinjiang, near the border with Kazakhstan. Located in the Kashgar River Valley, Nilka is small and remote, and manual labor is embedded in its history — one of its few tourist sites are the ruins of an ancient copper mine.
The camp was growing quickly. It seemed to Nurdybai that dozens of people were coming in each day, often wearing hoods so they could not see. “You could hear the clinking of their shackles as they came in,” she said.
There was no heating, and she shivered all the time in her thin uniform. There were 16 women in her dorm room. Inside, she was given a book of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speeches. Instead of running her tailoring shop or fulfilling clothing orders, she would now spend three and a half hours each day studying Xi’s speeches. She couldn’t understand why. Soon enough her days would be filled with labor.
BuzzFeed News; Source: Alison Killing
Forced labor has a long history in Xinjiang that predates the detention campaign. Some lower-security prisons were linked to farms, while many high-security prisons contained heavy industrial facilities, such as a smelting plant for lead and zinc, fertilizer plants, and coal and uranium mines. A few contained buildings for light manufacturing.
Factories started appearing in the makeshift camps of the early detention campaign in spring 2017. Often they appeared as a single factory wedged onto the site wherever there was room, squashed between the existing buildings, or built on the sports field of a former school. At the same time, new and expanding high-security facilities also added factories, typically in larger numbers.
With the explosion of factory-building in 2018, new patterns emerged. The piecemeal addition of factory buildings on cramped existing sites continued. But the detention compounds on the edge of cities, which had more room, expanded to accommodate new factories that were typically arranged in a neat grid and often separated from the main compound — by a fence, or even a road with barbed wire walkways connecting the two. The factory area often had a separate entrance from the surrounding roads, allowing raw materials to be delivered and finished goods to be picked up without disturbing the wider camp.
While some of the new factories have been built in higher-security facilities, they are more often found in lower-security compounds, and they appear to be for light industry — manufacturing clothes rather than smelting zinc or mining. Much of the construction since 2017 has been concentrated in Xinjiang’s south and west: the regions with the highest numbers of Uighur and Kazakh people.
Hotan prefecture, for instance, contains nearly a third of the factories built between the start of 2017 and the end of 2020. Two counties within it — Hotan and Lop — saw 1.9 million square feet and 1.8 million square feet of factories built there respectively during that time period.
Forced labor in Xinjiang ramped up in 2018, according to researchers and news reports. One ethnic Kazakh factory owner from northern Xinjiang, who asked that her name and company be withheld out of fear of retaliation, described the government’s relentless efforts to round up workers that year. BuzzFeed News was able to verify details about her company’s registration. “I was an entrepreneur. I had a small garment factory,” she said. “I had to go through a lot of bureaucracy, but I did it.”
In 2018, police officers visited her factory five times, asking her to recommend workers to be “reeducated” in order to meet a quota. They told her to look for behavioral slights — using a ceramic bowl with Uyghur-language writing on the bottom, for instance, or repeatedly wearing a headscarf for women.
“We had heard that mass detention had occurred, that people were disappearing into these schools. We didn’t know much but we knew that it wasn’t a good place.”
All five times, she managed to fob them off, offering bribes and excuses.
The business owner had heard rumors that the internment camps were not for education, as the government claimed, but mass detention. “We had heard that mass detention had occurred, that people were disappearing into these schools. We didn’t know much but we knew that it wasn’t a good place,” she said. She was afraid of being sent to a camp herself, but she could not bear to hand over the names of her workers either. “I never sent a single person to the camp,” she said, a note of pride creeping into her voice.
Government officials also told the entrepreneur about poverty alleviation programs, saying that people could get jobs in other parts of the country, which ethnic Kazakhs sometimes call “inner China.” A group of people from her village departed for one of these programs, she said. They returned in six months and told her they had been paid much less than they were originally promised, she said.
By May 2018, Nurdybai was moved to another camp in Nilka County — one of several in which she’d been held. That summer, the camp contained two residential buildings and several blue-roofed factories, with two more under construction, satellite images show. The first buildings in the compound — two five-story residential buildings and 11 factories — had likely been built by late 2015. By the time Nurdybai arrived, an additional 15 factories had been added, covering the grassy field at the northern end of the site.
Much later, after she had moved to Kazakhstan, Nurdybai found the location of the camp herself on Google Earth. It looked strangely familiar. Yet, by then, it had grown even more.
In October 2019, construction started on four more factories, but the workers only finished building the steel frame before the first snow arrived in the second week of November and they had to stop work. They finished by May of this year, and three further factories were added this fall. There are now 33 factory buildings in the compound. Together, they cover 428,705 square feet, an area larger than seven football fields.
Nurdybai stayed at the camp for a couple of months before she was ordered to work in one of the factories in the camp. When officials realized she had worked in the garment industry in the past, she was told to teach other women how to sew clothes — school uniforms, she remembered. She taught them how to sew square pockets on the tops of the tunics and how to sew a collar straight.
“It was a huge place. There were so many women in there. They were all like me — prisoners,” she said.
She said she was paid a salary of 9 yuan — about $1.38 — in a month, far less than prevailing wages outside the walls of the detention camp.
It was a short walk to work — the distance from the residential buildings to the nearest factory was only 25 yards or so, while the farthest, on the opposite side of the site, was still just five minutes away. The women would work from 8 a.m. to noon, she said, and after lunch, again from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. After the nine-hour day, they were required to take classes back in the building where they stayed, memorizing and repeating Chinese Communist Party propaganda and studying Mandarin Chinese.
The factory was equipped with new sewing machines, Nurdybai remembered. In fact, all the equipment inside looked new. But there were clues that those who worked there were not doing it by choice. Pairs of scissors were chained to each work table to prevent the women from taking them to the dorms, where they could, in theory, use them to harm themselves or stab the camp’s guards. And there were cameras everywhere, Nurdybai said, even in the bathrooms.
Inside the factory building, the floor was divided up, grid style, Nurdybai said. It was not like the factories that she had seen while running her own business. “There were cubicles at about chin height so you couldn’t see or talk to others. Each had a door, which locked,” she said, from the outside. Each cubicle had between 25 and 30 people, she said.
On one occasion, one of the camp staff justified the locked cubicles by saying, “These people are criminals, they can seriously harm you.” Police patrolled the floor of the factory.
Nurdybai ate with the other workers and slept in the same quarters as them. But, she said, her position as a trainer gave her one special privilege: She had a key fob with which she could open the doors to the bathroom. Others had to ask for permission to go.
Near the end of Nurdybai’s time in internment camps in September 2018, police officers finally told her what she was said to have done wrong: She had downloaded an illegal app called WhatsApp. She was later released and told her “education” was over. Her boyfriend at the time brought her a bouquet of flowers, as if she had just come home from a long trip.
But in the time she spent in the camps, her life had fallen apart. She owed a bank 70,000 yuan, or about $10,700, in business loans, on which she had been unable to make payments while she was detained.
Her clothing orders, too, had sat unfulfilled. “They took everything from my factory — expensive materials — they took it,” she said. “My customers, I had to pay them back.” She began selling off her possessions, even her car, to try and pay down the loan.
“I’ve learned to cherish my freedom.”
Eventually, she saved up enough money to leave China and immigrate to Kazakhstan. She is still paying back her loans in China, though she managed to negotiate them down with the bank. Mostly she tries to take things one day at a time. “I’ve learned to cherish my freedom,” she said. “Before all this, I was successful. I had money. But now I understand that money is nothing without freedom.”
She started a small garment business again. She had a baby. And she began speaking out about what had happened to her, telling the story of how she lost everything she had worked for.
She went to the offices of Atajurt, a small human rights NGO located in a worn-down building in central Almaty. It didn’t have much in the way of resources — on a visit this year, a conference room door was broken and had to be held shut by a strip of red ribbon. But it had quickly become a hub for ex-detainees from Xinjiang’s camps, who often came to record their stories for YouTube, and to speak to journalists and university professors visiting the city.
Nurdybai’s workshop is in a small two-floor building tucked away in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Almaty, lined with houses and a neighborhood school. Inside, there’s just one window, with a narrow staircase whose railing is painted white. On the first floor, her workshop was strewn with scraps of fabric in purple and red, with two sewing machines set on tables.
She was a healthy woman before her internment. But after she was detained she developed a hernia, which still causes stabbing pains in her abdomen — she suspected she got it from being forced to sit for long hours while studying Chinese. Worse, she began to get migraines, which started with searing pain that moved up the back of her neck. She wondered if the ice-cold showers she had been forced to take could be to blame.
“I worked hard for 10 years to succeed,” she said. “I lost everything, including my health.” ●
The International Criminal Court has decided not to pursue an investigation into China’s mass detention of Muslims, a setback for activists eager to hold Beijing accountable for persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.
Prosecutors in The Hague said on Monday that they would not investigate allegations that China had committed genocide and crimes against humanity regarding the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, because the alleged crimes took place in China, which is not a party to the court.
For months, Uighurs in exile had urged the court to investigate China’s repressive policies against Muslim minorities, the first attempt by activists to use the force of international law to hold Chinese officials accountable for the crackdown. They accused the Chinese government of carrying out a campaign of torture, forced sterilization and mass surveillance against Muslims, among other abuses.
China has faced growing international condemnation for its harsh treatment of Muslims, including the construction of vast indoctrination camps in the western region of Xinjiang. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign described China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide, a position also taken by other Western leaders.
China has denied that the camps are abusive, describing them instead as job training centers aimed at countering religious extremism and terrorism, despite a preponderance of contradictory evidence.
Many Uighurs said on Tuesday that they were disappointed in the court’s decision not to investigate. They vowed to continue to lobby global leaders to punish China for the abuses.
“The I.C.C. was formed for one and only one reason: to confront the most horrific international crimes,” said Fatimah Abdulghafur, a Uighur poet and activist who lives in Australia. “The atrocities of the Chinese regime toward Uighurs are countless.”
The complaint against China was filed by two Uighur exile groups, the East Turkistan Government in Exile and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement.
In addition to abuses against Muslims inside China’s borders, the groups had also lobbied the court to investigate Beijing for pursuing the repatriation of thousands of Uighurs through unlawful arrests in or deportation from other countries, including Cambodia and Tajikistan.
In its report on Monday, the court said there was “no basis to proceed at this time” because there did not appear to be enough evidence to show that Chinese officials had committed a crime.
“Not all conduct which involves the forcible removal of persons from a location necessarily constitutes the crime of forcible transfer or deportation,” the court said.
Rights activists said they would continue to fight to hold China account for its actions in Xinjiang. Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said the decision was not a judgment on whether abuses were taking place.
“The facts remain: The Chinese government is committing grave violations on a massive scale in Xinjiang, and those responsible should be held to account,” she said.
In one Beijing artist’s recent depiction of the world in 2098, China is a high-tech superpower and the United States is humbled. Americans have embraced communism and Manhattan, draped with the hammer-and-sickle flags of the “People’s Union of America,” has become a quaint tourist precinct.
This triumphant vision has resonated among Chinese.
The sci-fi digital illustrations by the artist, Fan Wennan, caught fire on Chinese social media in recent months, reflecting a resurgent nationalism. China’s authoritarian system, proponents say, is not just different from the West’s democracies, it is also proving itself superior. It is a long-running theme, but China’s success against the pandemic has given it a sharp boost.
“America isn’t that heavenly kingdom depicted since decades ago,” said Mr. Fan, who is in his early twenties. “There’s nothing special about it. If you have to say there’s anything special about it now, it’s how messed up it can be at times.”
China’s Communist Party, under its leader, Xi Jinping, has promoted the idea that the country is on a trajectory to power past Western rivals.
China stamped out the coronavirus, the messaging goes, with a resolve beyond the reach of flailing Western democracies. Beijing has rolled out homegrown vaccines to more than a million people, despite the safety concerns of scientists. China’s economy has revived, defying fears of a deep slump from the pandemic.
“In this fight against the pandemic, there will be victorious powers and defeated ones,” Wang Xiangsui, a retired Chinese senior colonel who teaches at a university in Beijing, averred this month. “We’re a victor power, while the United States is still mired and, I think, may well become a defeated power.”
The firm leadership of Mr. Xi and the party has earned China its recent success, say newspapers, television programs and social media.
“Time to wake up from blind faith in the Western system,” said a commentary in the state-run China Education News last week. “Vicious partisan fighting has worsened in certain Western countries, social fissures have deepened, and a severe social crisis is brewing.”
“To take in the changes of history and feel the afterglow of the imperialist era,” the guide says, “head to North America.”
China’s current swaggering mood could add to the challenges facing Joseph R. Biden Jr. when he takes office as president. President Trump’s defeat in the election has done little to ease Chinese suspicion of the United States, said Liu Jianqiu, a businessman and online commentator, in a telephone interview.
“I think China has gained the psychological edge,” said Mr. Liu, in his 40s, who described the pandemic as a turning point in his attitudes. “The performance of the West was completely out of my expectations and shifted my thinking even more — the facts prove that the American system really has no superiority.”
Combative national pride surged in China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and after the United States bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Now there is a sharper sense that the Western powers are in perhaps irreversible decline, and that the pandemic has confirmed China’s ascent.
“Most ordinary Chinese people previously were more admiring of the United States, but in recent years, the advantages of the Chinese system have become clearer to them,” said Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing who has become a popular commentator under the nickname “Commissar Jin.” “There’s greater self-confidence.”
China’s diplomats and its state-run media have responded to criticism from Western governments with scornful disdain. Chinese supporters of a more muscular foreign policy call for hitting back against Western critics, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Le Yucheng, a Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a speech last week that China was not spoiling for fights, but he also warned other governments not to underestimate its resolve to push back against criticism.
“Faced with this suppression and containment without scruples,” Mr. Le said, “we’ll never swallow our pride or stoop to compromise.”
Critics worry that hubris could lead China to overestimate its strengths and misjudge how far it can push the United States and other Western countries.
“Their triumphalism is shaping both popular nationalism and official diplomacy,” he wrote in an email. “It is fueling ever-sharper demands for deference to China’s wishes.”
Online, Chinese commentators have plumbed the depths of history to capture the current moment. Some likened the United States to the crumbling British Empire of the last century, overstretched and exhausted.
Others are reaching back further, comparing America to China’s own Ming dynasty, which crumbled in the 1600s under the weight of corruption, insurrections and invasions. In this view that spread online this year, China should take the role of the “barbarian” Manchu armies who — in the commentators’ vivid, not-always-accurate retelling — swept over the Asian steppes, breached the Great Wall, and crushed the Ming rulers.
Modern-day China must act like the Manchu forces, advocates of the analogy say, and prepare to “break through” a ring of geopolitical hostility by dominating vital seas around China.
Geremie R. Barmé, a Sinologist in New Zealand who has followed the rise of “break-through studies” — rùguānxué in Chinese — says the historical comparisons reflect anxiety “about China’s great nation status and its place in the world.”
“The underpinning is that China is morally superior — we the Chinese people under the Communist Party — because we have none of the failings of America,” he said.
China’s leader, Mr. Xi, has not commented on the recent pronouncements of American decline. But he sees China and the United States as locked in ideological rivalry. Since coming to power in 2012, he has called for Chinese schools, textbooks and websites to inoculate youth against Western values that could erode party rule and the country’s “cultural self-confidence.”
“Our schooling must never nurture wreckers or gravediggers of socialism,” Mr. Xi said in a speech in 2018 that was recently published in a book of his comments on ideology.
Some warn that China risks underestimating the strengths of the United States. In recent months, Chinese scholars have debated how Beijing should handle the post-Covid world, with a good number urging restraint as the best way to win lasting influence.
“China’s high-volume nationalism at home is making the United States feel that China is getting aggressive,” Xiao Gongqin, a historian in Shanghai wrote in an essay that was published last month, prompting wide discussion.
The United States is far from the only country feeling the lash of official and public anger from China. Australia has drawn China’s ire for criticizing Beijing, initiating laws aimed at reducing Chinese government influence-building efforts in Australia, and urging an investigation into the origin of the pandemic — a touchy subject in Beijing.
Last month, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman tweeted a Chinese artist’s fabricated image of an Australian soldier poised to slit the throat of an Afghan child. Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, demanded an apology from China over the image, which was a reference to an inquiry by the Australian military that found that its troops had unlawfully killed more than three dozen Afghan civilians.
The Chinese foreign ministry scoffed at Mr. Morrison’s demand, and the artist who created the image, Fu Yu, created another one mocking the Australian leader. Mr. Fu, who works under the name Wuhe Qilin, had made a reputation with his scathing images of the United States as a blood-soaked, irrational medieval realm.
“Chinese values and American values are totally at odds,” Mr. Fu said late last month on a Chinese online talk show broadcast last week. “These values are in fundamental conflict.”
As China has grown increasingly commercial, the plans have grown less important to some parts of the economy. Still, they help set priorities, especially in areas like energy policy and big infrastructure projects where the state dominates investments.
Mr. Xi has shown how important these plans are to him by taking over the drafting process, a job traditionally left to the premier. Earlier this month, the party released rules that tighten Mr. Xi’s power to set the policy agenda. The rules appeared designed to prevent dissension over issues like the direction of the economy, said Holly Snape, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow who studies Chinese politics.
“This goes right to the heart of how the next five years will pan out,” she said by email.
The Central Committee meeting also discussed China’s goals for modernization by 2035. Some analysts have interpreted that date as a sign of how long Mr. Xi intends to remain in power, having removed the limits on his terms as top leader.
Ms. Snape noted, however, that such long-term goals are not unprecedented: party officials approved a long-term plan in 1995, when Jiang Zemin was in charge, setting goals up to 2010. Mr. Jiang stepped down from his last formal post in 2004.
The International outlook
Meetings like the ones this week are not a time when leaders typically issue detailed pronouncements on international affairs. So it was no surprise that the leaders did not comment on the United States election or other topics beyond China’s borders.
Still, the plans depend on their assessment of the international outlook, which they summed up in opaque phrases. The latest emphasized the risks from rising uncertainty, echoing Mr. Xi’s recent warnings that “the world has entered a period of turbulence and transformation.”
“Currently the world is experiencing a major transformation of the kind not seen for a century,” the Central Committee said. “The balance of international forces is undergoing profound adjustment.”
It warned: “Instability and uncertainty have clearly increased.”
ALMATY — Maybe the police officers call you first. Or maybe they show up at your workplace and ask your boss if they can talk to you. In all likelihood they will come for you at night, after you’ve gone to bed.
In Nursaule’s case, they turned up at her home just as she was fixing her husband a lunch of fresh noodles and lamb.
For the Uighurs and Kazakhs in China’s far west who have found themselves detained in a sprawling system of internment camps, what happens next is more or less the same. Handcuffed, often with a hood over their heads, they are brought by the hundreds to the tall iron gates.
Thrown into the camps for offenses that range from wearing a beard to having downloaded a banned app, upward of a million people have disappeared into the secretive facilities, according to independent estimates. The government has previously said the camps are meant to provide educational or vocational training to Muslim minorities. Satellite images, such as those revealed in a BuzzFeed News investigation on Thursday, offer bird’s eye hints: guard towers, thick walls, and barbed wire. Yet little is still known about day-to-day life inside.
BuzzFeed News interviewed 28 former detainees from the camps in Xinjiang about their experiences. Most spoke through an interpreter. They are, in many ways, the lucky ones — they escaped the country to tell their tale. All of them said that when they were released, they were made to sign a written agreement not to disclose what happens inside. (None kept copies — most said they were afraid they would be searched at the border when they tried to leave China.) Many declined to use their names because, despite living abroad, they feared reprisals on their families. But they said they wanted to make the world aware of how they were treated.
The stories about what detention is like in Xinjiang are remarkably consistent — from the point of arrest, where people are swept away in police cars, to the days, weeks, and months of abuse, deprivation, and routine humiliation inside the camps, to the moment of release for the very few who get out. They also offer insight into the structure of life inside, from the surveillance tools installed — even in restrooms — to the hierarchy of prisoners, who said they were divided into color-coded uniforms based on their assumed threat to the state. BuzzFeed News could not corroborate all details of their accounts because it is not possible to independently visit camps and prisons in Xinjiang.
“They treated us like livestock. I wanted to cry. I was ashamed, you know, to take off my clothes in front of others.”
Their accounts also give clues into how China’s mass internment policy targeting its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has evolved, partly in response to international pressure. Those who were detained earlier, particularly in 2017 and early 2018, were more likely to find themselves forced into repurposed government buildings like schoolhouses and retirement homes. Those who were detained later, from late 2018, were more likely to have seen factories being built, or even been forced to labor in them, for no pay but less oppressive detention.
In response to a list of questions for this article, the Chinese Consulate in New York said that “the basic principle of respecting and protecting human rights in accordance with China’s Constitution and law is strictly observed in these centers to guarantee that the personal dignity of trainees is inviolable.”
“The centers are run as boarding facilities and trainees can go home and ask for leave to tend to personal business. Trainees’ right to use their own spoken and written languages is fully protected … the customs and habits of different ethnic groups are fully respected and protected,” the consulate added, saying that “trainees” are given halal food for free and that they can decide whether to “attend legitimate religious activities” when they go home.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to several requests for comment.
Nursaule’s husband was watching TV the day she was detained in late 2017 near Tacheng city, she said. She was in the kitchen when there was a sharp knock at the front door. She opened it to find a woman wearing ordinary clothing flanked by two uniformed male police officers, she said. The woman told her she was to be taken for a medical checkup.
At first, Nursaule, a sixtysomething Kazakh woman whose presence is both no-nonsense and grandmotherly, was glad. Her legs had been swollen for a few days, and she had been meaning to go to the doctor to have them looked at.
Nursaule’s stomach began to rumble. The woman seemed kind, so Nursaule asked if she could return to pick her up after she’d eaten lunch. The woman agreed. But then she said something strange.
“She told me to take off my earrings and necklace before going with them, that I shouldn’t take my jewelry where I was going,” Nursaule said. “It was only then that I started to feel afraid.”
After the police left, Nursaule called her grown-up daughter to tell her what happened, hoping she’d have some insight. Her daughter told her not to worry — but something in her tone told Nursaule there was something wrong. She began to cry. She couldn’t eat a bite of her noodles. Many hours later, after the police had interrogated her for hours, she realized that she was starving. But the next meal she would eat would be within the walls of an internment camp.
Like Nursaule, those detained all reported being given a full medical checkup before being taken to the camps. At the clinic, samples of their blood and urine were collected, they said. They also said they sat for interviews with police officers, answering questions on their foreign travel, personal beliefs, and religious practices.
“They asked me, ‘Are you a practicing Muslim?’ ‘Do you pray?’” said Kadyrbek Tampek, a livestock farmer from the Tacheng region, which lies in the north of Xinjiang. “I told them that I have faith, but I don’t pray.” Afterward, the police officers took his phone. Tampek, a soft-spoken 51-year-old man who belongs to Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, was first sent to a camp in December 2017 and said he was later forced to work as a security guard.
After a series of blood tests, Nursaule was taken to a separate room at the clinic, where she was asked to sign some documents she couldn’t understand and press all 10 of her fingers on a pad of ink to make fingerprints. Police interrogated her about her past, and afterward, she waited for hours. Finally, past midnight, a Chinese police officer told her she would be taken to “get some education.” Nursaule tried to appeal to the Kazakh officer translating for him — she does not speak Chinese — but he assured her she would only be gone 10 days.
After the medical exam and interview, detainees were taken to camps. Those who had been detained in 2017 and early in 2018 described a chaotic atmosphere when they arrived — often in tandem with dozens or even hundreds of other people, who were lined up for security screenings inside camps protected by huge iron gates. Many said they could not recognize where they were because they had arrived in darkness, or because police placed hoods over their heads. But others said they recognized the buildings, often former schools or retirement homes repurposed into detention centers. When Nursaule arrived, the first thing she saw were the heavy iron doors of the compound, flanked by armed police.
“I recognized those dogs. They looked like the ones the Germans had.”
Once inside, they were told to discard their belongings as well as shoelaces and belts — as is done in prisons to prevent suicide. After a security screening, detainees said they were brought to a separate room to put on camp uniforms, often walking through a passageway covered with netting and flanked by armed guards and their dogs. “I recognized those dogs,” said one former detainee who declined to share his name. He used to watch TV documentaries about World War II, he said. “They looked like the ones the Germans had.”
“We lined up and took off our clothes to put on blue uniforms. There were men and women together in the same room,” said 48-year-old Parida, a Kazakh pharmacist who was detained in February 2018. “They treated us like livestock. I wanted to cry. I was ashamed, you know, to take off my clothes in front of others.”
More than a dozen former detainees confirmed to BuzzFeed News that prisoners were divided into three categories, differentiated by uniform colors. Those in blue, like Parida and the majority of the people interviewed for this article, were considered the least threatening. Often, they were accused of minor transgressions, like downloading banned apps to their phones or having traveled abroad. Imams, religious people, and others considered subversive to the state were placed in the strictest group — and were usually shackled even inside the camp. There was also a mid-level group.
The blue-clad detainees had no interaction with people in the more “dangerous” groups, who were often housed in different sections or floors of buildings, or stayed in separate buildings altogether. But they could sometimes see them through the window, being marched outside the building, often with their hands cuffed. In Chinese, the groups were referred to as “ordinary regulation,” “strong regulation,” and “strict regulation” detainees.
For several women detainees, a deeply traumatic humiliation was having their long hair cut to chin length. Women were also barred from wearing traditional head coverings, as they are in all of Xinjiang.
“I wanted to keep my hair,” said Nursaule. “Keeping long hair, for a Kazakh woman, is very important. I had grown it since I was a little girl, I had never cut it in my life. Hair is the beauty of a woman.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “They wanted to hack it off.”
After the haircut, putting her hand to the ends of her hair, she cried.
From the moment they stepped inside the compounds, privacy was gone. Aside from the overwhelming presence of guards, each room was fitted with two video cameras, all the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News confirmed. Cameras could also be seen in bathrooms, and throughout the building. In some camps, according to more than a dozen former detainees, dorms were outfitted with internal and external doors, one of which required an iris or thumbprint scan for guards to enter. The internal doors sometimes had small windows through which bowls of food could be passed.
Periodically, the detainees were subject to interrogations, where they’d have to repeat again and again the stories of their supposed transgressions — religious practices, foreign travel, and online activities. These sessions were carefully documented by interrogators, they said. And they often resulted in detainees writing “self-criticism.” Those who could not read and write were given a document to sign.
None of the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News said they contemplated escaping — this was not a possibility.
Camp officials would observe the detainees’ behavior during the day using cameras, and communicate with detainees over intercom.
Camps were made up of multiple buildings, including dorms, canteens, shower facilities, administrative buildings, and, in some cases, a building where visitors were hosted. But most detainees said they saw little outside their own dorm room buildings. Detainees who arrived early in the government’s campaign — particularly in 2017 — reported desperately crowded facilities, where people sometimes slept two to a twin bed, and said new arrivals would come all the time.
Dorm rooms were stacked with bunk beds, and each detainee was given a small plastic stool. Several former detainees said that they were forced to study Chinese textbooks while sitting rigidly on the stools. If they moved their hands from their knees or slouched, they’d be yelled at through the intercom.
Detainees said there was a shared bathroom. Showers were infrequent, and always cold.
Some former detainees said there were small clinics within the camps. Nursaule remembered being taken by bus to two local hospitals in 2018. The detainees were chained together, she said.
People were coming and going all the time from the camp where she stayed, she said.
“She told me to take off my earrings and necklace before going with them, that I shouldn’t take my jewelry where I was going. It was only then that I started to feel afraid.”
Surveillance was not limited to cameras and guards. At night, the detainees themselves were forced to stand watch in shifts over other inmates in their own rooms. If anyone in the room acted up — getting into arguments with each other, for example, or speaking Uighur or Kazakh instead of Chinese — those on watch could be punished as well. Usually they were beaten, or, as happened more often to women, put into solitary confinement. Several former detainees said that older men and women could not handle standing for many hours and struggled to keep watch. The atmosphere was so crowded and tense that arguments sometimes broke out among detainees — but these were punished severely.
“They took me down there and beat me,” said one former detainee. “I couldn’t tell you where the room was because they put a hood over my head.”
Nursaule was never beaten, but one day, she got into a squabble with a Uighur woman who was living in the same dorm room. Guards put a sack over her head and took her to the solitary room.
There, it was dark, with only a metal chair and a bucket. Her ankles were shackled together. The room was small, about 10 feet by 10 feet, she said, with a cement floor. There was no window. The lights were kept off, so guards used a flashlight to find her, she said.
After three days had passed by, she was taken back up to the cell.
The government has said that “students” in the camps receive vocational training, learn the Chinese language, and become “deradicalized.” Former detainees say this means they were brainwashed with Communist Party propaganda and forced to labor for free in factories.
State media reports have emphasized the classroom education that takes place in the camps, claiming that detainees are actually benefiting from their time there. But several former detainees told BuzzFeed News that there were too many people to fit inside the classroom, so instead they were forced to study textbooks while sitting on their plastic stools in their dorm rooms.
Those who did sit through lessons in classrooms described them all similarly. The teacher, at the front of the room, was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars, and he or she taught them Mandarin or about Communist Party dogma. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.
Nearly every former detainee who spoke to BuzzFeed News described being moved from camp to camp, and noted that people always seemed to be coming and going from the buildings where they were being held. Officials did not appear to give reasons for these moves, but several former detainees chalked it up to overcrowding.
Among them was Dina Nurdybai, a 27-year-old Kazakh woman who ran a successful clothing manufacturing business. After being first detained on October 14, 2017, Nurdybai was moved between five different camps — ranging from a compound in a village where horses were raised to a high-security prison.
In the first camp, “it seemed like 50 new people were coming in every night. You could hear the shackles on their legs,” she said.
Nursaule never expected to be released.
“It was dinner time and we were lining up at the door,” she said. “They called my name and another Kazakh woman’s name.” It was December 23, 2018.
She was terrified — she had heard that some detainees were being given prison sentences, and she wondered if she might be among them. China does not consider internment camps like the ones she was sent to be part of the criminal justice system — no one who is sent to a camp is formally arrested or charged with a crime.
Nursaule had heard that prisons — which disproportionately house Uighurs and Kazakhs — could be even worse than internment camps. She whispered to the other woman, “Are we getting prison terms?” The two were taken in handcuffs to a larger room and told to sit on plastic stools. Then an officer undid the handcuffs.
He asked if Nursaule wanted to go to Kazakhstan. She said yes. He then gave her a set of papers to sign, promising never to tell anyone what she had experienced. She signed it, and they allowed her to leave — to live under house arrest until she left for Kazakhstan for good. The day after, her daughter arrived with her clothes.
Nearly all of the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News told a similar story about being asked to sign documents that said they’d never discuss what happened to them. Those who didn’t speak Chinese said they couldn’t even read what they were asked to sign.
Some of them were told the reasons they had been detained, and others said they never got an answer.
“In the end they told me I was detained because I had used ‘illegal software,’” Nurdybai said — WhatsApp.
Nursaule’s daughter, who is in her late twenties, is a nurse who usually works the night shift at a local hospital in Xinjiang, starting at 6 p.m. Nursaule worries all the time about her — about how hard she works, and whether she might be detained someday too. After Nursaule was eventually released from detention, it was her daughter who cared for her, because her husband had been detained too.
Like for other Muslim minorities, government authorities have taken her daughter’s passport, Nursaule said, so she cannot come to Kazakhstan.
Snow fell softly outside the window as Nursaule spoke about what had happened to her from an acquaintance’s apartment in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, where a cheery plastic tablecloth printed with cartoon plates of pasta covered the coffee table. Nursaule spoke slowly and carefully in her native Kazakh, with the occasional bitter note creeping into her voice, long after the milky tea on the table had grown cold.
But when she asked that her full name not be used in this article, she began to weep — big, heaving sobs pent up from the pain she carried with her, from talking about things she could hardly bear to remember or relate, even to her husband.
She was thinking about her daughter, she said, and about what could happen if Chinese officials discovered she spoke about her time in the camps. It is the reason that she, like so many former detainees and prisoners, has never spoken publicly about what was done to her.
“I am still afraid of talking about this,” she said. “I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t bear it.”
In the summer of 2018, as it became even harder for journalists to work effectively in Xinjiang, a far-western region of China, we started to look at how we could use satellite imagery to investigate the camps where Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were being detained. At the time we began, it was believed that there were around 1,200 camps in existence, while only several dozen had been found. We wanted to try to find the rest.
Our breakthrough came when we noticed that there was some sort of issue with satellite imagery tiles loading in the vicinity of one of the known camps while using the Chinese mapping platform Baidu Maps. The satellite imagery was old, but otherwise fine when zoomed out — but at a certain point, plain light gray tiles would appear over the camp location. They disappeared as you zoomed in further, while the satellite imagery was replaced by the standard gray reference tiles, which showed features such as building outlines and roads.
At that time, Baidu only had satellite imagery at medium resolution in most parts of Xinjiang, which would be replaced by their general reference map tiles when you zoomed in closer. That wasn’t what was happening here — these light gray tiles at the camp location were a different color than the reference map tiles and lacked any drawn information, such as roads. We also knew that this wasn’t a failure to load tiles, or information that was missing from the map. Usually when a map platform can’t display a tile, it serves a standard blank tile, which is watermarked. These blank tiles are also a darker color than the tiles we had noticed over the camps.
Once we found that we could replicate the blank tile phenomenon reliably, we started to look at other camps whose locations were already known to the public to see if we could observe the same thing happening there. Spoiler: We could. Of the six camps that we used in our feasibility study, five had blank tiles at their location at zoom level 18 in Baidu, appearing only at this zoom level and disappearing as you zoomed in further. One of the six camps didn’t have the blank tiles — a person who had visited the site in 2019 said it had closed, which could well have explained it. However, we later found that the blank tiles weren’t used in city centers, only toward the edge of cities and in more rural areas. (Baidu did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Having established that we could probably find internment camps in this way, we examined Baidu’s satellite tiles for the whole of Xinjiang, including the blank masking tiles, which formed a separate layer on the map. We analyzed the masked locations by comparing them to up-to-date imagery from Google Earth, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs.
In total there were 5 million masked tiles across Xinjiang. They seemed to cover any area of even the slightest strategic importance — military bases and training grounds, prisons, power plants, but also mines and some commercial and industrial facilities. There were far too many locations for us to sort through, so we narrowed it down by focusing on the areas around cities and towns and major roads.
Prisons and internment camps need to be near infrastructure — you need to get large amounts of building materials and heavy machinery there to build them, for starters. Chinese authorities would have also needed good roads and railways to bring newly detained people there by the thousand, as they did in the early months of the mass internment campaign. Analyzing locations near major infrastructure was therefore a good way to focus our initial search. This left us with around 50,000 locations to look at.
We began to sort through the mask tile locations systematically using a custom web tool that we built to support our investigation and help manage the data. We analyzed the whole of Kashgar prefecture, the Uighur heartland, which is in the south of Xinjiang, as well as parts of the neighboring prefecture, Kizilsu, in this way. After looking at 10,000 mask tile locations and identifying a number of facilities bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, prisons, and camps, we had a good idea of the range of designs of these facilities and also the sorts of locations in which they were likely to be found.
We quickly began to notice how large many of these places are — and how heavily securitized they appear to be, compared to the earlier known camps. In site layout, architecture, and security features, they bear greater resemblance to other prisons across China than to the converted schools and hospitals that formed the earlier camps in Xinjiang. The newer compounds are also built to last, in a way that the earlier conversions weren’t. The perimeter walls are made of thick concrete, for example, which takes much longer to build and perhaps later demolish, than the barbed wire fencing that characterizes the early camps.
In almost every county, we found buildings bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, plus new facilities with the characteristics of large, high-security camps and/or prisons. Typically, there would be an older detention center in the middle of the town, while on the outskirts there would be a new camp and prison, often in recently developed industrial areas. Where we hadn’t yet found these facilities in a given county, this pattern pushed us to keep on looking, especially in areas where there was no recent satellite imagery. Where there was no public high-resolution imagery, we used medium-resolution imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel to locate likely sites. Planet was then kind enough to give us access to high-resolution imagery for these locations and to task a satellite to capture new imagery of some areas that hadn’t been photographed in high resolution since 2006. In one county, this allowed us to see that the detention center that had previously been identified by other researchers had been demolished and to find the new prison just out of town.
Prison requirements — why prisons are built where they are
There’s good reason why these places are developed close to towns. There’s the occasional camp in a more remote location, such as the sprawling internment camp in Dabancheng, but even there it’s next to a major road, with a small town nearby. Having the prison or camp close to an existing town minimizes, in principle, the distance that detainees must be transported (although there are also examples of prisoners and detainees being taken right across Xinjiang, from Kashgar to Korla, as in the drone video that reemerged recently, according to analysts). It is easier for families to visit loved ones who are in custody. Being near a town means that a prison or camp can be staffed more easily. Guards have families, their children need to go to school, their partners have jobs, they need access to healthcare, etc. Construction workers are needed to build the prison in the first place. It is also useful for amenities. Prisons and camps need electricity, water, telephone lines. It is way cheaper and easier to connect to an existing nearby network than to run new pipes and cables tens of kilometers to a more remote location.
Finally, you need a large plot of land for a prison, preferably with space to expand in the future, and this is what the recently developed industrial estates offer: large, serviced plots, close to existing towns and cities. Building in industrial estates also places the camps close to factories for forced labor. While many camps have factories within their compounds, in several cases that we know of detainees are bused to other factory sites to work.
Our list of sites
In total we identified 428 locations in Xinjiang bearing the hallmarks of prisons and detention centers. Many of these locations contain two to three detention facilities — a camp, pretrial administrative detention center, or prison. We intend to analyze these locations further and make our database more granular over the next few months.
Of these locations, we believe 315 are in use as part of the current internment program — 268 new camp or prison complexes, plus 47 pretrial administrative detention centers that have not been expanded over the past four years. We have witness testimony showing that these detention centers have frequently been used to detain people, who are often then moved on to other camps, and so we feel it is important to include them. Excluded from this 315 are 39 camps that we believe are probably closed and 11 that have closed — either they’ve been demolished or we have witness testimony that they are no longer in use. There are a further 14 locations identified by other researchers, but where our team has only been able to check the satellite evidence, which in these cases is weak. These 14 are not included in our list.
We have also located 63 prisons that we believe belong to earlier, pre-2016 programs. These facilities were typically built several years — in some cases, several decades — before the current internment program and have not been significantly extended since 2016. They are also different in style from the detention centers, known in Chinese as “kanshousuo,” and also from the newer camps. These facilities are not part of the 315 we believe to be in use as part of the current internment program and are included separately in our database.
Many of the earlier camps, which were converted from other uses, had their courtyard fencing, watchtowers, and other security features removed, often in late 2018 or early 2019. In some cases, the removal of most barricading, plus the fact that there are often cars parked in several places across the compounds, suggests that they’re no longer camps and are classified as probably closed in our database. The removal of the security features, in several cases, coincided with the opening of a larger, higher-security facility being completed nearby, suggesting that detainees may have been moved to the newer location.
Where facilities were purpose-built as camps and have had courtyard fencing removed but otherwise don’t show any change of use (like cars in the compound), we think they’re likely to still be camps — albeit with lower levels of security.
Our work has also built on the work of others, Shawn Zhang, Adrian Zenz, Bitter Winter, Gene Bunin, ETNAM, Open Street Map contributors, and the Laogai Handbook — we have sought to verify all of the locations in these databases (and attempted to locate the camps in the case of the Laogai Handbook), added them to our database where relevant, and classified them. The work of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), especially Nathan Ruser and his advice at an early stage of this project, was also invaluable. We would also like to note the contribution of the interpreters who worked with us. For security reasons, we aren’t sharing names or other identifying details, but would like nevertheless to publicly extend our thanks — you know who you are.
Alison Killing conducted this reporting with a grant and further assistance from theOpen Technology Fund.
The Chinese government dispatched fighter jets Monday into the Taiwan Strait to show its displeasure with the U.S. visit.
Azar said his three-day visit was a recognition of Taiwan’s success battling the coronavirus. The island of 23 million has reported fewer than 480 cases, and U.S. and Taiwanese officials signed an accord Monday pledging further cooperation on disease control and drug development. Azar also met with several top Taiwanese officials, including the island’s president and health minister, and visited a face mask machine factory Wednesday.
Azar vehemently criticized China’s response to the outbreak during the call with reporters Wednesday morning. He said China, where the coronavirus originated, should have disclosed more information about the outbreak and been more transparent in reporting the virus could spread person-to-person and asymptomatically.
He also hammered China for taking a month and a half to allow outside experts in to the country to learn more about the disease, and for pressing the World Health Organization to discourage other nations from imposing travel restrictions against China. Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the virus in January and February.
“If a novel virus like this one had emerged in the United States, Taiwan or another open society, it would have gone very differently,” Azar said. “It would have been reported to public health authorities … even more important, it would have been reported in a timely, accurate manner.”
Azar’s trip raised questions among current and former senior administration officials and outside experts, who wondered why the health secretary would take an international trip as the U.S. outbreak rages. More than 60,000 people a day are receiving positive test results; altogether, more than 5 million people have been infected and more than 161,000 have died.
The Trump administration’s response to the crisis stands in stark contrast to Taiwan’s approach, as the White House has resisted developing a national strategy to fight the pandemic, which has led to chronic shortages in testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment for health-care workers and other front-line personnel.
There have been discussions previously about dispatching Azar as part of a U.S. delegation to Taiwan, but they never materialized, according to a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Some administration officials, however, had previously argued against sending the health secretary to Taiwan because it would politicize global health efforts, an area that requires tremendous cooperation on issues including influenza, childhood vaccinations and efforts to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control. Officials argued that priority should be given to maintaining an open line of communication with China on matters of health.
“The idea is that health supersedes any individual country’s interest and there are interdependencies. We’re all in this together, so we’d like to have constructive relationships even with countries that are normally seen as our adversaries,” the former official said.
An HHS spokesman defended Azar’s trip, arguing that countries throughout the world could learn from Taiwan’s experience.
“President Trump is committed to strengthening our nation’s global health alliances, especially during this pandemic. During his travel, Secretary Azar stayed close to the COVID response and we watched key metrics drop — testing result turnaround times, positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths — as the President’s all-of-America strategy got traction,” HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said in a statement.
“Taiwan is a world leader in contact tracing and has utilized technology, without infringing on the rights of its citizens, to assist in these efforts. The world has much to learn from Taiwan’s deep expertise in contact tracing.”
Some experts said that given the low point of the U.S.-China relationship, Azar’s trip was unlikely to exacerbate tensions. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday in Beijing that Taiwan was “the most important and most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations” and warned Washington against elevating relations with Taipei.
Azar, in remarks Monday, said his visit remained consistent with the “one China” principle and largely refrained from commenting on diplomatic relations.
“This is as much a stick-it-to-the-Chinese motion as it is a gesture. We’ve attempted to avoid pointless provocation of the Chinese on these matters, but it implies that we don’t have a whole lot to lose in our relationship with the Chinese on health matters,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“In the past, we had extensive cooperation in our scientific [research and development], public health regulatory harmonization — any number of things, we had very active ongoing cooperation. That has collapsed, so Azar goes there but there’s not much to lose. It just further aggravates the situation and confirms that from a U.S. standpoint, the strategic confrontation with China is what matters most to us at this moment in time,” Morrison said.
Azar said his trip also was designed to emphasize support for Taiwan as an observer at the WHO’s regular assembly. He said the global health body had denied Taiwan such a role at China’s behest. Trump recently ordered the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO, which he has claimed is beholden to the Chinese government.
“It’s an unorthodox move for a Cabinet secretary to go overseas amid a national health crisis,” said Jack Chow, a U.S. ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush administration and a former World Health Organization assistant director general. “The U.S. has always backed Taiwan’s bid for observership at WHO, against China’s perpetual opposition. Azar, like past HHS secretaries, carried the U.S. message at WHO. Ironically, now that we left WHO, our backing of Taiwan’s campaigns no longer has much standing or substance.”
China is facing major issues on many fronts and now may soon be facing a food shortage. With recent torrential rains and flooding, dams are being blasted and other dams, like the Three Gorges Dam, are at the brink.
The Beijing Government is facing a crisis on many fronts. Not only has it been caught out with the Wuhan SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19) virus, but its efforts to expand influence in the South China Sea (what the Vietnamese call the East Sea) have outraged its neighbors in ASEAN and forged the so-called “Quad” alliance of the USA, India, Japan, and Australia. Domestically the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to emulate Nazis by herding Uighur prisoners onto trains, a drone video that has shocked even a hardened journalist like Andrew Marr at the BBC. The list of egregious offenses is a long one including bans on Australian beef, the security law in Hong Kong, and long-term attitudes to Taiwan.
As if this was not enough, torrential monsoon rains have caused severe flooding in Central and Southern China. So far, the cost has been around USD 2 to 3 billion with perhaps half a million people displaced. Of course, China has a long experience with floods, the worst being in 1998 that caused USD 48 billion of damage and was the worst in recorded history (except, I suppose, the one that floated Noah’s Ark). Even so, the floods are not over and worse may follow.
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We have reported over the past month on the raging rains and floods in China and concerns with the massive Three Gorges Dam (TGP) breaking and causing a world food shortage. Last week China finally admitted that its TGP has ‘deformed slightly’ but claims it happened over last weekend, ignoring reports of this happened long ago.
In a rare revelation, Beijing has admitted that its 2.4-kilometer Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei province “deformed slightly” after record flooding.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted the operator of the the world’s largest hydroelectric gravity dam as saying that some nonstructural, peripheral parts of the dam had buckled.
The dam was a pet project of the late Premier Li Peng and a monumental pride of the nation when it blocked and diverted Asia’s largest river in 1997.
The deformation occurred last Saturday when the flood from western provinces including Sichuan and Chongqing along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River peaked at a record-setting 61,000 cubic meters per second, according to China Three Gorges Corporation, a state-owned enterprise that manages the dam and the sprawling power plant underneath it.
The company noted that parts of the dam had “deformed slightly,” displacing some external structures, and seepage into the main outlet walls had also been reported throughout the 18 hours on Saturday and Sunday when water was discharged though its outlets.
Two weeks ago we reported that a TGD break would put 400 million people at risk. The problem is that China once claimed the dam would withstand a 10,000 year flood, then a 1,000 year flood and now only a 100 year flood. Then in 2018 it was reported online that pictures show that the Three Gorges Dam has moved:
China has already blasted one dam and opened up flood gates in other dams to reduce the pressure and flooding in the country:
Within 76 hrs 30 mins, the Wangjia Dam on Huai River in Fuyang opened 13 gates to discharge 375mln m³ of flood on July 20-23, affecting 195000 villagers in the Mengwa flood storage area. Farmers rushed to save crops&evacuate before the flood arrived. https://t.co/9jiS6B0B5xpic.twitter.com/aJGSDu7VBz
Bastin notes that China is the world’s largest food producer however the land that can be cultivated for food production is only about 12% of China’s total land mass. In spite of its production, China is a net food importer. The floods are impacting the 12 of China’s land mass where food is produced.
Each day floods damage and reduce China’s agriculture production capabilities and therefore impact the world’s food supply. A major dam break would be devastating on China and the world.