China’s Disappeared Uyghurs: What Satellite Images Reveal
April 29, 2021
One million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, maybe more, have vanished into a sprawling network of camps and prisons in China’s far west. Chinese officials at first denied the camps even existed. Then they claimed they were for training workers, or for re-educating potential radicals. Then they said it didn’t matter—everyone had graduated and was free to go.
Satellite data reviewed by RAND tell a different story. They show bright-lit compounds in the desert dark, wall after wall of barbed wire, and a sudden rush to build what appear to be fortified preschools.
“This gives us clear evidence of what’s happening on the ground in western China,” said Katherine Pfrommer, a quantitative analyst at RAND who helped review the images. “In such a denied area, it’s hard to know how conditions are changing and evolving. Satellite images gave us a way to get that information.”
The United States has described what is happening to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs as a genocide. Starting in 2016, China launched a campaign of repression, banning Muslim names, forbidding long beards. It transformed the vast Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang into one of the most sophisticated surveillance states in the world, bristling with police checkpoints and facial-recognition cameras. Then people began to disappear.
Students coming home on break found empty houses. Officials told them their parents had been “infected” by the virus of Islamic radicalism and needed to be quarantined and cured, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. Occasional stories began to emerge from the camps: high-pressure indoctrination classes; forced labor; physical and sexual abuse; a grinding out of Uyghur language, culture, and identity.
The Growth of Detention Facilities
Researchers at RAND had used satellite observations to get inside the Islamic State, to see how it governed and how cities fared when it took over. Now they turned their attention to Xinjiang. Working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), they began looking at detention camps that Chinese officials insisted were empty.
“It’s breathtaking how much satellite imagery is publicly available,” said Edmund Burke, the former senior China officer at the NGA, now a senior international defense researcher at RAND. “You see stories about one particular camp, or hear one harrowing account from someone who got out of Xinjiang. We realized we could advance those stories and help provide a broader account of what is happening there.”
Australian researchers had already mapped 380 suspected detention facilities scattered across Xinjiang, based on media reports, government documents, and their own review of satellite data. RAND’s team started there and then focused in on how the nighttime lighting at those locations changed over time, an indication of activity there. They saw the same pattern, again and again, starting in earnest in 2016: the glaring lights of construction work, followed by the steady glow of a new prison or detention center.
In fact, lighting kept increasing at nearly half of the facilities through at least mid-2020, an indication that they were not just active, but growing. At most other facilities, lighting levels stayed steady, or declined some, but never dimmed to where they had been before. That suggested to the researchers that those facilities were still operating, but possibly at reduced capacity.
The facilities that slowed down seemed to be mostly lower-security re-education sites. Those that grew looked more like prisons, with high walls spiked with barbed wire. That may indicate that China’s approach shifted in 2019 and 2020, from the short-term detention and re-education of Uyghur people to long-term incarceration.
Only 51 of the facilities showed the kind of significant lighting decline that could indicate a closure. But when researchers looked at satellite photos of those sites, they found evidence that most were still active. There were cars in the parking lots, people standing outside, walkways plowed of snow. Despite Chinese assurances that the camps had closed, the researchers concluded that only 11 of them—3 percent of the total they examined—showed any real signs of closure by mid-2020.
“The data is so granular that you can see, down to a city block, how bright the lights are, and how that changes, every month,” said Sean Mann, a policy analyst at RAND who specializes in data science. “Even in urban areas, we could identify these lighting signatures that showed us where they were establishing camps, where they were expanding them, and when they really decommissioned them.”
RAND published its findings in a series of reports in the NGA’s public online journal, Tearline. Taken together, they provide new and visual evidence of the furious pace with which China carried out its detention campaign against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. The satellite data “allowed us to capture and really understand the extent to which the broader detention network just kind of turned on overnight,” said Eric Robinson, a research programmer and analyst at RAND.