China’s network of detention centers in Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities are allegedly being subjected to acts of repression, appears to be expanding — and a greater number of the facilities are resembling prisons, an Australian think tank says.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute made the declaration after reviewing satellite images and official construction tender documents to map more than 380 suspected facilities in the far northwestern region, highlighting internment camps and other structures that have been newly built or expanded since 2017.

“Available evidence suggests that many extrajudicial detainees in Xinjiang’s vast ‘re-education’ network are now being formally charged and locked up in higher security facilities, including newly built or expanded prisons, or sent to walled factory compounds for coerced labor assignments,” its researcher Nathan Ruser wrote in a report released Thursday.

In this 2018 photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region. An Australian think tank says China appears to be expanding its network of secret detention centers in Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities are targeted in a forced assimilation campaign. (AP)

In this 2018 photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. An Australian think tank says China appears to be expanding its network of secret detention centers in Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities are targeted in a forced assimilation campaign. (AP)

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Predominantly Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, like the Uighurs, have been locked in camps as part of a government assimilation campaign launched in response to decades of sometimes violent struggle against Chinese rule. Though Chinese officials have described the camps as “boarding school-like” facilities meant to provide free job training, former detainees say they were subjected to brutal conditions, political indoctrination, beatings, and sometimes psychological and physical torture.

Under the assimilation drive, the state also has forced Uighurs to undergo sterilizations and abortions, an Associated Press investigation found, and in recent months, has ordered them to drink traditional Chinese medicines to combat the coronavirus.

At least 61 of the suspected detention sites had undergone new construction and expansion work in a year leading up to July 2020, the report said. These included at least 14 facilities still under construction this year.

“Of these, about 50% are higher security facilities, which may suggest a shift in usage from the lower-security, ‘re-education centers’ toward higher-security prison-style facilities,” Ruser wrote.

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At least 70 facilities appeared to have lesser security by the removal of internal fencing or perimeter walls, the report said.

These included eight camps that showed signs of decommissioning and had possibly been closed. Of the camps stripped of security infrastructure, 90% were lower security facilities, the report said.

The think tank’s findings align with AP interviews with dozens of relatives and former detainees that indicate many in the camps have been sentenced in secret, extrajudicial trials, and transferred to high-security prisons for things like having contact with people abroad, having too many children, and studying Islam. Many others deemed less of a risk, like women or the elderly, have been transferred to a form of house arrest or forced labor in factories.

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Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday dismissed the report as “pure disinformation and slander,” saying the Australian institute had “no academic credibility.” China does not operate “so-called detention camps” in Xinjiang, Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.

Citing media reports and investigations by internet users, Wang said one of the sites in the report had been identified as an electronics manufacturing park and another as a five-star residential complex.

“So we also hope that all sectors can distinguish truth from falsehood and together resist such absurd assertions concocted by anti-China institutions,” Wang said.

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Regional government chairman Shohrat Zakir also has been quoted as saying that foreign media reports of 1 million or 2 million people attending these centers were fabricated, though he would not provide any figures.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported late last year that “trainees” attending “vocational education and training centers” meant to deradicalize them had “all graduated.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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