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Inside China’s Largest Detention Center

People stand in a guard tower on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
People stand in a guard tower on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Inside China’s Largest Detention Center
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In their cell, Uyghur prisoners sat quietly in straight lines, looking at a television playing black and white images of Chinese Communist Party history.

They were in one of an estimated 240 cells in just one part of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in far western China.

Reporters from The Associated Press recently visited the center as part of a government-led visit to the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The detention center is the largest in the country and, possibly, the world. Its size is estimated to be almost 90 hectares. A sign at the front identified it as a “kanshousuo,” a pre-trial detention center.

Chinese officials did not say exactly how many people were being held were there. The AP estimated the center could hold about 10,000 people, and possibly more.

The AP is the first Western media organization permitted into the facility.

The center suggests that China still detains and plans to continue detaining large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities. Satellite imagery shows that new buildings nearly two kilometers long were added to the facility in 2019.

China describes the arrests of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war against terror.” The campaign began after several knife attacks and bombings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs.

One part of China’s campaign is its so-called “job training centers.” Former detainees have described the centers as severe prison camps. Thick wire barriers and armed guards surround such centers.

At first, China denied their existence. In 2019, under heavy international criticism, the government said that everyone who had been in such camps had completed the program.

Information gathered from the AP’s visit and other sources suggest that while many “training centers” have closed, others were simply turned into prisons or pre-trial detention centers. Many new centers have also been built.

The changes seem to be a move from the temporary job “training centers” into a more permanent system of prisons and pre-trial detention centers.

While some Uyghurs have been released, others have simply been moved into this prison network.

Darren Byler is a Uyghur expert at the University of Colorado. He noted that many prisoners did not carry out “real crimes by any standards.”

“We’re moving from a police state to a mass incarceration state. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared from the population,” Byler said.

During the AP’s visit in April, officials noted the differences between the No. 3 facility and the “training centers” that the Chinese government claims have closed.

“There was no connection between our detention center and the training centers,” said Urumqi Public Security Bureau director Zhao Zhongwei.

But in September 2018, the Reuters news agency took a picture of the front of the center. It shows that the facility used to be called the “Urumqi Vocational Skills Education and Training Center.”

A former building contractor who visited the facility in 2018 told the AP that it was the same as the “Urumqi Vocational Skills Education and Training Center.” The contractor said it had been turned into a detention facility in 2019. He asked not to be named for fear of punishment against his family.

“All the former students inside became prisoners,” he said.

At the center, officials led the AP reporters past gun-carrying guards in military clothes. In a control room, workers watched a wall of televisions showing images from each cell.

“We can see if they’re breaking regulations, or if they might hurt or kill themselves,” said Zhu Hongbin. He is the center’s director.

The center shows the prisoners video classes, Zhu said, to teach them about their crimes.

Zhao, the other official, said prisoners are held for 15 days to up to a year before trial, depending on their suspected crime. Zhao said the legal process is the same in Xinjiang as in the rest of China.

Since the crackdown started in 2017, hundreds of thousands have been sent to prison, say Chinese government numbers. Many are serving prison terms of five years or more.

A Xinjiang spokesperson called the higher imprisonment rates “severe measures” in the “war against terror.”

“By taking these measures, terrorists are more likely to be brought to justice,” the spokesperson said.

Many family members of those imprisoned, however, say they were sentenced on false charges.

The online publication the Intercept reported that its reporters had seen a police report involving eight Uyghurs from one Urumqi neighborhood. The Uyghurs were detained for reading religious materials, or for being an “untrustworthy person.”

AP reporters did not witness any signs of torture at the facility. The reporters were unable to speak to any former or current detainees.

But a Uyghur who fled Xinjiang, Zumret Dawut, said a friend who worked at the center had witnessed severe treatment. The friend is now dead, but she told Dawut she had seen two young adults forced to sign confessions claiming they were involved in terrorism. Their bodies had been beaten until their skin was bloody, the friend said.

Xinjiang officials deny all claims of abuse.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Dan Novak.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in this Story

cell – n. a room in a prison

autonomous – adj. existing or acting separately from other things or people

facility – n. a building built for a specific purpose

standard – n. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable

incarceration n. to put someone in prison

regulation – n. an official rule or law that says how something should be done

crackdown – n. a serious attempt to punish people for doing something that is not allowed