China is doubling down in Xinjiang

China is doubling down in Xinjiang

Our columnist visits factories accused of using forced labour

Avast expanse of sand dunes, studded with the wind-eroded ruins of lost Silk Road cities, the Taklamakan Desert is a fine place to hide a guilty secret. At first glance, shame is a plausible explanation for a mini construction-boom under way in this remote corner of Xinjiang. For outsiders are increasingly shocked by China’s rule over this north-western region, where millions of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority, endure oppressive, high-tech surveillance and the constant fear of detention for alleged Islamic extremism.

For the past few years overseas human-rights groups and scholars have used satellite images and Chinese government documents to track dozens of factories rising on the Taklamakan’s southern edge in Lop County, a poor and almost entirely Uyghur area. The factories line the newly laid streets of an industrial park sponsored by the city of Beijing, 4,000km to the east. More alarmingly, satellite images and the Xinjiang government’s own propaganda suggest that as the park rose from the desert sands, at least one political re-education camp lurked amid the factories.

Across Xinjiang over a million Uyghurs have passed through such camps in recent years. Officials eventually admitted to the camps’ existence in 2018. Pointing to terrorist attacks by Muslims from Xinjiang, they said China had set up vocational training centres to cure minds infected with religious extremism. In October 2018 China Central Television toured a camp in Hotan, an ancient oasis city.