by Megha Rajagopalan & Alison Killing
For the first time, BuzzFeed News can reveal the full capacity of China’s previously secret network of prisons and detention camps in Xinjiang: enough space to detain more than 1 million people.
BuzzFeed News calculated the floor areas of 347 compounds bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in the region and compared them to China’s own prison and detention construction standards, which lay out how much space is needed for each person detained or imprisoned.
Earlier estimates, including one extrapolated from three-year-old leaked government data, have suggested that a total of more than a million Muslims have been detained or imprisoned over the last five years, with an unknown number released during that time. Our unprecedented analysis goes further, showing that China has built space to lock up at least 1.01 million people in Xinjiang at the same time.
That’s enough space to detain or incarcerate more than 1 in every 25 residents of Xinjiang simultaneously — a figure seven times higher than the criminal detention capacity of the United States, the country with the highest official incarceration rate in the world.
Even this extraordinary capacity is very likely an underestimate, for a simple reason: It does not take into account the suffocating overcrowding that many former Xinjiang detainees have described in interviews.
Since last year, BuzzFeed News has exposed how China feverishly constructed a permanent mass detention infrastructure in Xinjiang to help carry out its draconian campaign of detention, surveillance, forced labor, and repression targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities. This new analysis is the most clear and complete picture to date of the system’s scale and capacity.
The findings reflect what researchers, UN officials, and Western governments have long held: that China’s detention campaign in Xinjiang is the largest targeting a religious minority since the Nazi camps during World War II.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story sent to the Chinese Consulate-General in New York. It has previously called estimates of a million Muslims detained in Xinjiang a “groundless lie,” and has said that its facilities in Xinjiang are “vocational education and training centers” designed to “root out extreme thoughts.” These centers, a top Xinjiang government official said in 2018, are meant to “to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening.”
The campaign to lock up Muslims in Xinjiang started in 2016 as a scramble, with schools and other public buildings turned into makeshift detention centers. But it quickly evolved into a sophisticated network of newly constructed prisons and camps that blankets almost every corner of the sparsely populated but vast Xinjiang region, which is about the same size as Alaska.
The course of camp and prison construction suggests that the government carefully orchestrated the campaign. The pattern of new detention compounds neatly fits the geography of counties and prefectures across Xinjiang, with a camp and detention center in most counties and a prison or two per prefecture. As the new, high-security detention centers were being built — a process that takes about a year from idea to completion — the Chinese government commandeered schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings and quickly converted them into makeshift camps. This twin process allowed Beijing to immediately detain hundreds of thousands of Muslims until its vast new detention infrastructure was complete.
BuzzFeed News examined only compounds that were newly built or saw significant construction work since 2016. Using satellite images, documents, and testimony, we first identified 268 facilities bearing the hallmarks of camps and prisons last August; this new analysis includes those as well as 79 more that have since been discovered by BuzzFeed News and other organizations.
By April 2021, the facilities examined by BuzzFeed News had a combined area of more than 206 million square feet, or about 19.2 million square meters, which would cover a third of the island of Manhattan. Most of that growth came in 2017 and 2018.
BuzzFeed News obtained public documents that set forth construction standards and show how the government plans its prisons in meticulous detail, from the size of the bars on the windows to the spacing of the lights along the perimeter to the height of the watchtowers. Cells are designed to hold between eight and 16 people, with between 5 and 7 square meters per person. Construction typically takes between four and six months.
The documents are a hard copy of prison regulations, edited by the Chinese Ministry of Justice and published by a Chinese state publisher in 2010, as well as a set of 2013 regulations for detention centers. It is not clear whether the government has revised them since then, but a number of the details in the documents match what can be seen in satellite images of the newly built facilities, including the layers of fencing on either side of the prison perimeter walls and the open-air yards adjacent to each detention center cell. Images from the websites of Chinese companies that build and supply prisons corroborate additional details. One manufacturer’s website shows the prescribed anti-climb fencing, razor wire, beds, cell doors, prison entrance gates, and interrogation chairs.
The BuzzFeed News analysis found that by the standards outlined in the document, there is space to detain 1,014,883 people across Xinjiang. That figure does not include the more than 100 other prisons and detention centers that were built before 2016 and are likely still in operation.
Dozens of former detainees have described gross overcrowding in Xinjiang’s prisons and camps, raising the specter that the Chinese government could cram far more people into its sprawling detention system. Last year, a BuzzFeed News investigation of an internment camp in the mountain town of Mongolküre found cells that by Chinese prison standards should only hold up to four people actually held as many as 10. Some remembered being forced to sleep in shifts because of a lack of beds, or even to sleep side by side on single cots. Whether overcrowding continues to occur is less clear, because most of the former detainees who have been able to escape China and describe their experiences were locked up and released early on in the anti-Muslim crackdown.