Home News Blanked-Out Spots On China’s Maps Helped Us Uncover Xinjiang’s Camps

Blanked-Out Spots On China’s Maps Helped Us Uncover Xinjiang’s Camps


Learn Half 1 of this investigation here. Learn Half 2 here.

This undertaking was supported by the Open Technology Fund, the Pulitzer Center, and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

In the summertime of 2018, because it grew to become even more durable for journalists to work successfully in Xinjiang, a far-western area of China, we began to take a look at how we may use satellite tv for pc imagery to analyze the camps the place Uighurs and different Muslim minorities have been being detained. On the time we started, it was believed that there have been round 1,200 camps in existence, whereas solely a number of dozen had been discovered. We wished to attempt to discover the remaining.

Our breakthrough got here once we seen that there was some form of situation with satellite tv for pc imagery tiles loading within the neighborhood of one of many recognized camps whereas utilizing the Chinese language mapping platform Baidu Maps. The satellite tv for pc imagery was previous, however in any other case superb when zoomed out — however at a sure level, plain mild grey tiles would seem over the camp location. They disappeared as you zoomed in additional, whereas the satellite tv for pc imagery was changed by the usual grey reference tiles, which confirmed options resembling constructing outlines and roads.

At the moment, Baidu solely had satellite tv for pc imagery at medium decision in most components of Xinjiang, which might get replaced by their normal reference map tiles while you zoomed in nearer. That wasn’t what was occurring right here — these mild grey tiles on the camp location have been a unique shade than the reference map tiles and lacked any drawn data, resembling roads. We additionally knew that this wasn’t a failure to load tiles, or data that was lacking from the map. Normally when a map platform can’t show a tile, it serves a normal clean tile, which is watermarked. These clean tiles are additionally a darker shade than the tiles we had seen over the camps.

As soon as we discovered that we may replicate the clean tile phenomenon reliably, we began to take a look at different camps whose areas have been already recognized to the general public to see if we may observe the identical factor occurring there. Spoiler: We may. Of the six camps that we utilized in our feasibility research, 5 had clean tiles at their location at zoom degree 18 in Baidu, showing solely at this zoom degree and disappearing as you zoomed in additional. One of many six camps didn’t have the clean tiles — an individual who had visited the positioning in 2019 mentioned it had closed, which may properly have defined it. Nevertheless, we later discovered that the clean tiles weren’t utilized in metropolis facilities, solely towards the sting of cities and in additional rural areas. (Baidu didn’t reply to repeated requests for remark.)

Having established that we may in all probability discover internment camps on this manner, we examined Baidu’s satellite tv for pc tiles for the entire of Xinjiang, together with the clean masking tiles, which shaped a separate layer on the map. We analyzed the masked areas by evaluating them to up-to-date imagery from Google Earth, the European Area Company’s Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs.

In complete there have been 5 million masked tiles throughout Xinjiang. They appeared to cowl any space of even the slightest strategic significance — army bases and coaching grounds, prisons, energy crops, but in addition mines and a few business and industrial services. There have been far too many areas for us to type by means of, so we narrowed it down by specializing in the areas round cities and cities and main roads.

Prisons and internment camps need to be near infrastructure — you’ll want to get giant quantities of constructing supplies and heavy equipment there to construct them, for starters. Chinese language authorities would have additionally wanted good roads and railways to convey newly detained individuals there by the thousand, as they did within the early months of the mass internment marketing campaign. Analyzing areas close to main infrastructure was due to this fact a great way to focus our preliminary search. This left us with round 50,000 areas to take a look at.

We started to type by means of the masks tile areas systematically utilizing a customized internet software that we constructed to help our investigation and assist handle the information. We analyzed the entire of Kashgar prefecture, the Uighur heartland, which is within the south of Xinjiang, in addition to components of the neighboring prefecture, Kizilsu, on this manner. After taking a look at 10,000 masks tile areas and figuring out plenty of services bearing the hallmarks of detention facilities, prisons, and camps, we had a good suggestion of the vary of designs of those services and likewise the kinds of areas wherein they have been prone to be discovered.

We shortly started to note how giant many of those locations are — and the way closely securitized they look like, in comparison with the sooner recognized camps. In web site structure, structure, and safety features, they bear higher resemblance to different prisons throughout China than to the transformed faculties and hospitals that shaped the sooner camps in Xinjiang. The newer compounds are additionally constructed to final, in a manner that the sooner conversions weren’t. The perimeter partitions are manufactured from thick concrete, for instance, which takes for much longer to construct and maybe later demolish, than the barbed wire fencing that characterizes the early camps.

In virtually each county, we discovered buildings bearing the hallmarks of detention facilities, plus new services with the traits of huge, high-security camps and/or prisons. Sometimes, there could be an older detention heart in the midst of the city, whereas on the outskirts there could be a brand new camp and jail, usually in just lately developed industrial areas. The place we hadn’t but discovered these services in a given county, this sample pushed us to maintain on trying, particularly in areas the place there was no current satellite tv for pc imagery. The place there was no public high-resolution imagery, we used medium-resolution imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel to find seemingly websites. Planet was then type sufficient to offer us entry to high-resolution imagery for these areas and to process a satellite tv for pc to seize new imagery of some areas that hadn’t been photographed in excessive decision since 2006. In a single county, this allowed us to see that the detention heart that had beforehand been recognized by different researchers had been demolished and to search out the brand new jail simply out of city.

Jail necessities — why prisons are constructed the place they’re

There’s good motive why these locations are developed close to towns. There’s the occasional camp in a extra distant location, such because the sprawling internment camp in Dabancheng, however even there it’s subsequent to a serious street, with a small city close by. Having the jail or camp near an present city minimizes, in precept, the gap that detainees should be transported (though there are additionally examples of prisoners and detainees being taken proper throughout Xinjiang, from Kashgar to Korla, as within the drone video that reemerged just lately, according to analysts). It’s simpler for households to go to family members who’re in custody. Being close to a city signifies that a jail or camp could be staffed extra simply. Guards have households, their youngsters have to go to high school, their companions have jobs, they want entry to healthcare, and so forth. Building staff are wanted to construct the jail within the first place. Additionally it is helpful for facilities. Prisons and camps want electrical energy, water, phone traces. It’s manner cheaper and simpler to connect with an present close by community than to run new pipes and cables tens of kilometers to a extra distant location.

Lastly, you want a big plot of land for a jail, ideally with house to develop sooner or later, and that is what the just lately developed industrial estates supply: giant, serviced plots, near present cities and cities. Constructing in industrial estates additionally locations the camps near factories for pressured labor. Whereas many camps have factories inside their compounds, in a number of circumstances that we all know of detainees are bused to different manufacturing facility websites to work.

Our record of websites

In complete we recognized 428 areas in Xinjiang bearing the hallmarks of prisons and detention facilities. Many of those areas include two to 3 detention services — a camp, pretrial administrative detention heart, or jail. We intend to investigate these areas additional and make our database extra granular over the following few months.

Of those areas, we consider 315 are in use as half of the present internment program — 268 new camp or jail complexes, plus 47 pretrial administrative detention facilities that haven’t been expanded over the previous 4 years. Now we have witness testimony displaying that these detention facilities have regularly been used to detain individuals, who are sometimes then moved on to different camps, and so we really feel you will need to embody them. Excluded from this 315 are 39 camps that we consider are in all probability closed and 11 which have closed — both they’ve been demolished or now we have witness testimony that they’re now not in use. There are an additional 14 areas recognized by different researchers, however the place our crew has solely been capable of verify the satellite tv for pc proof, which in these circumstances is weak. These 14 are usually not included in our record.

Now we have additionally situated 63 prisons that we consider belong to earlier, pre-2016 applications. These services have been sometimes constructed a number of years — in some circumstances, a number of many years — earlier than the present internment program and haven’t been considerably prolonged since 2016. They’re additionally totally different in type from the detention facilities, recognized in Chinese language as “kanshousuo,” and likewise from the newer camps. These services are usually not a part of the 315 we consider to be in use as half of the present internment program and are included individually in our database.

Lots of the earlier camps, which have been transformed from different makes use of, had their courtyard fencing, watchtowers, and different safety features eliminated, usually in late 2018 or early 2019. In some circumstances, the elimination of most barricading, plus the truth that there are sometimes vehicles parked in a number of locations throughout the compounds, means that they’re now not camps and are labeled as in all probability closed in our database. The elimination of the safety features, in a number of circumstances, coincided with the opening of a bigger, higher-security facility being accomplished close by, suggesting that detainees might have been moved to the newer location.

The place services have been purpose-built as camps and have had courtyard fencing eliminated however in any other case don’t present any change of use (like vehicles within the compound), we expect they’re prone to nonetheless be camps — albeit with decrease ranges of safety.


Our work has additionally constructed on the work of others, Shawn Zhang, Adrian Zenz, Bitter Winter, Gene Bunin, ETNAM, Open Road Map contributors, and the Laogai Handbook — now we have sought to confirm all the areas in these databases (and tried to find the camps within the case of the Laogai Handbook), added them to our database the place related, and labeled them. The work of the Australian Strategic Coverage Institute (ASPI), particularly Nathan Ruser and his recommendation at an early stage of this undertaking, was additionally invaluable. We’d additionally like to notice the contribution of the interpreters who labored with us. For safety causes, we aren’t sharing names or different figuring out particulars, however would really like however to publicly prolong our thanks — you understand who you’re.

Alison Killing performed this reporting with a grant and additional help from the Open Technology Fund.