‘Worse Than Hell’: A Look Inside The Expansion Of China’s Mass Internment Camps

(Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

Varun Hukeri General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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China has constructed a vast network of internment camps to hold mainly Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the northwestern Xinjiang region, and a new investigation indicates authorities are planning a major expansion of such facilities.

In an Associated Press (AP) investigation published Thursday, reporters were granted access to Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in the Dabancheng district during a state-led tour of Xinjiang. The detention center is the largest in the country, and possibly the world, spanning more than 220 acres.

Chinese officials declined to say how many people were being held at the Dabancheng center though The AP estimated it could hold around 10,000 people. But recent activity suggests China plans to hold many more prisoners as satellite imagery shows new facilities were added to the detention center in 2019, AP reported.

AP reporters noted that the Dabancheng center is surrounded by concrete walls and patrolled by armed guards in military camouflage. Zhu Hongbin, the center’s director, bragged that prison cells’ windows are “totally unbreakable” during the tour.

A control room included around two dozen screens streaming live footage from each cell while another screen played video from state-run broadcaster CCTV. Hongbin said authorities “control what they watch” and can see if detainees are “breaking regulations, or if they might hurt or kill themselves.”

Initial estimates indicated that China in recent years has detained up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in re-education camps, according to Axios. China initially denied the existence of re-education camps, but has since framed its detention as part of a “war on terror” in response to what they claim was Uyghur separatism and Islamist terrorism.

Multiple reports and testimonies indicate the communist regime is specifically targeting the Muslim-majority population with actions like banning public prayer and surveilling mosques. A separate AP investigation in June 2020 also concluded that China was committing “demographic genocide” through forced abortions and sterilization.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration declared the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide, a designation that President Joe Biden’s administration has continued to use.

Although earlier estimates indicated between one to two million people have been detained or imprisoned over the last five years, a BuzzFeed News investigation published Wednesday found the full capacity of China’s secret network of prisons and internment camps goes even further, and is capable of holding more than one million people at the same time. (RELATED: Independent Report Finds Evidence Of Beijing’s ‘Intent To Destroy’ Uighurs In Xinjiang Genocide)

The expansion of internment camps in Xinjiang appears to be an attempt to transform the initial “training centers” for re-education into a more permanent system of prisons and pre-trial detention facilities, AP reported. Many Uyghurs initially marked for re-education have been moved into this prison system.

AP reporters who visited the Dabancheng center were unable to speak directly to detainees during their investigation. But multiple testimonies from former detainees, many of whom have since fled Xinjiang, said they witnessed torture and beatings at the detention center. (RELATED: ‘Dystopian Hellscape’: New Report Shows The Inner Workings Of Chinese Camps For Uyghurs)

One teacher at the Dabancheng center called it “worse than hell” and said she could hear the sounds of people being tortured with electric batons and iron chairs during re-education classes, The AP reported.

Police records obtained by the Intercept in January reveal the cases of eight Uyghurs in the regional capital Urumqi who were detained at the Dabancheng facility in 2017 for reading religious texts or simply being considered an “untrustworthy person.”

Many of the prisoners are detained for acts not normally considered criminal, such as traveling abroad or attending a religious gathering, outside researchers said. Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, told The AP that many prisoners have not committed “real crimes by any standards” and go through a “show” trial without due process.

“We’re moving from a police state to a mass incarceration state. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared from the population,” he said. “It’s the criminalization of normal behavior.”