Where Did the One Million Figure for Detentions in Xinjiang’s Camps Come From?

Where Did the One Million Figure for Detentions in Xinjiang’s Camps Come From?

  • Supporters of the People’s Republic of China with flags attempt to block an activist from Amnesty International holding a protest board reading ‘China: Up to 1 million people detained in camps in Xinjiang,’ in The Hague, Netherlands, October 16, 2018.

As journalists and scholars have reported in recent months on the campaign of religious and cultural repression and incarceration taking place in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, a central question has emerged: How many people has China’s government detained as part of the campaign? In the absence of officially reported numbers or other hard evidence, researchers of various stripes have converged on the figure of one million as a common estimate of the people the Chinese government is detaining in Xinjiang’s camps.

But where does this figure come from, and how is it formulated?

An August 2018 United Nations session appears to have first popularized the number. At the session, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it had received “many credible reports” that one million ethnic Uighurs in China were being held in internment camps, though it did not specify the sources of these reports. In the following days, the figure was repeated in stories in The Wall Street JournalAl Jazeera, and HuffPost, all citing the U.N. session. A week later, the U.S. State Department issued a public statement raising its previous estimate of hundreds of thousands of detainees to a number “possibly . . . in the millions.” News coverage in the months since has often referred to the “one million” estimate; other reports cite lower numbers of detainees, though still in the hundreds of thousands. Chinese representatives stated at the August U.N. session that “there is no such thing as re-education centers”; by October, the local Xinjiang government had passed legislation enshrining them as a formal method to “transform” people influenced by “extremism.” But even after admitting to their existence, Chinese officials have chafed at Western reports of the numbers held there, with a spokesperson calling the estimates “defamatory” and the results of “ulterior motives.”

Given the Chinese government has not released its own official numbers, and given the extreme obstacles that prevent independent on-the-ground accounting of camp inmates, how do outside observers arrive at the one million estimate?