Fact check: has China detained a million Uighurs?

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In recent weeks, a number of reports (New York Times) have claimed that China has forcibly moved and detained a large population of its Uighur minority group in “concentration camps,” “reeducation camps” or “internment camps.”

Background: the Uighurs are a Turkic speaking minority in Xinjiang province.

Some reports have estimated the numbers of those detained as high as 3 million, while others have it as 500,000.


Reuters claimed that the United Nations announced they have “credible” reports of this allegation that a million Uighurs had been recently detained. The Atlantic and The Intercept have also published similar allegations.


Fact Check:

The total number of Uighurs in China are about 11 million. So the one to three million figure is about 9-27% of the total population. There is the indirect claim that the UN has reported that it has credible sources supporting this. There is also the direct claim that a large number of Uighurs have been detained.

As for the indirect claim, it appears to be false. The Reuters article is titled “U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps.” The New York Times article is titled “U.N. Panel Confronts China Over Reports That It Holds a Million Uighurs in Camps”. The Atlantic claimed “One million Muslims are being held right now in Chinese internment camps, according to estimates cited by the UN and U.S. officials.”

But according to an investigation by the Grayzone Project‘s  Ben Norton and Ajit Singh, it was not the UN that had made this claim, but one member of an independent committee (Gay McDougall) who is not an expert on China and made the claim without evidence.

A spokesperson from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed in a statement to the Grayzone that the allegation of Chinese “camps” was not made by the United Nations, but rather by a member of an independent committee that does not speak for the UN as a whole. That member happened to be the only American on the committee, and one with no background of scholarship or research on China.

Therefore, the claim that the UN has “credible reports” appears to be false.

What about the direct claim that one to three million Uighurs are being detained in China?

Video of the session where McDougall  made the claim is found here (starting at 1:25). She claimed there existed “credible reports” that the “State Party” has turned the “Uighur Autonomous Region” into a “massive internment camp” and a “no-rights zone”. She went on to say that one million Uighurs are being held in “counter extremism centers” and another two million are detained in “reeducation camps” and more people are held under house arrest.

However she did not specify her sources. (WikiTribune has contacted McDougall for clarification).

The Grayzone Project also documents that many of the accusations are from government funded groups and lack independent verification. Outside of these reports, there is little evidence of mass incarceration of the Uighur population in those numbers.

UPDATE: WikiTribune found a report from “Chinese Human Rights Defenders” published on August 3rd. This report seems to be the source (or at least one) of McDougall’s claims.

Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders is a “coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations”. The Grayzone Project has documented some of the funding for this organization (see Grayzone Project’s ink above).

The report said that they came to the figure of one million in reeducation camps and two million in “day or evening study sessions” by interviewing eight villagers from eight different rural villages in Xinjiang. They then “extrapolated” their estimate in those villages to cover the whole of Xinjiang.

The report did not specify the typical length of stay in the reeducation camps although it did give example testimonies of people who said they know of relatives who were forced to stay in morning or evening study sessions for two hours. Moreover their data seem to be of total people sent between July 2017 and June 2018.

The following table presents the data we have compiled based on interviews with eight ethnic Uyghurs. Their families reside in eight different villages in counties in the Kashgar Prefecture. According to the interviewees, each village has a population of between roughly 1,500 and 3,000, and the number of individuals taken into re-education detention camps from each village ranged from approximately 200 to 500 between mid-2017 to mid-2018.

So these are not the total number of people held at once in reeducation camps as McDougall had suggested and as some of the above sources explicitly claimed.

Furthermore the report qualified their estimate by saying that it may not be representative of all of Xinjiang.

We must be cautious in making these global generalizations, given that the government’s “de-radicalization” campaigns are mostly concentrated in Southern Xinjiang.

Due to the small sample size (n = 8) of interviewees in only non-representative portions of Xinjiang, and the fact that they did not look at total number held at once but people who have been held over a period of 11 months, we are changing this claim from unverified to likely false.

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