The Luopu County (洛浦) No. 1 Vocational Skills Training Center is difficult to miss. It emerges suddenly, a huge campus towering over hectares of farmland.
Outside the compound — surrounded by tall, white concrete walls lined with barbed wire and surveillance cameras — a police car patrols as several guards carrying long batons stand watch.
The center, which straddles a highway, is bigger than most of the surrounding villages — about 170,000m2. A banner on one building reads: “Safeguard ethnic unity.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Half a dozen people were standing on the roadside, staring at the buildings. No one was willing to say exactly what the prison-like facility was, or why they were waiting on its perimeter.
“We don’t know,” an older woman said.
Another woman had come to see her brother, but declined to say more. A young girl with her two brothers announced that they had come to see their father — her mother quickly hushed her.
They were reluctant to talk, because the building was not a formal prison or university, but an internment camp where Muslim minorities, mainly Uighurs, are sent against their will and without trial for months, or even years.
Researchers and residents have said that southern Xinjiang, where the Luopu County No. 1 Vocational Skills Training Center is located, has borne the brunt of the government’s crackdown on Muslims, because of its density of Uighurs and distance from major cities.
“We have a saying in Hotan (和田): If you go into a concentration camp in Luopu, you never come out,” said Adil Awut (name changed to protect identity), from Hotan City, who is now living overseas.
This month, the UN asked for direct access to the camps after a panel said that it had received “credible reports” that 1.1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui and other ethnic minorities had been detained.
Beijing has aggressively defended its policies and sought to portray the camps as benign and describe Xinjiang, where outbursts of violence occurred in the 1990s and 2000s, as peaceful thanks to government efforts.
A starkly different reality emerges in Luopu, also known as Lop County, where interviews with current and former residents, and analysis of public documents revealed new details about the government’s continuing campaign in one of the worst-affected areas of Xinjiang.
Local authorities are expanding detention camps, increasing surveillance and policing, and co-opting residents through intimidation, force and financial incentives.
In the past year, at least 10 buildings have been added to the No. 1 Vocational Skills Training Center, satellite imagery showed.
Construction work on the camp, identified through company records found by University of British Columbia student Shawn Zhang, was still being carried out when reporters visited in the middle of last month.
Luopu, a sparsely populated rural county of about 280,000 people that is almost entirely Uighur, is home to eight internment camps officially labeled “vocational training centers,” public budget documents showed.
Last year, officials expected to accommodate 12,000 “students,” as well as another 2,100 inmates at another detention center — a total of about 7 percent of the county’s adult population, or 11 percent of the entire male population.
Luopu County also planned to spend almost 300 million yuan (US$44.3 million) on “stability control,” including about US$300,000 on a surveillance system to cover all mosques, and funding for almost 6,000 police officers to work in “convenient police stations” and security checkpoints, as well as to patrol residential areas.
The security measures and staggering costs underline China’s commitment to its controversial policies in Xinjiang, despite growing criticism.
Across the province, domestic security expenses doubled in 2017 as the security campaign got under way, with spending on detention centers in counties with large concentrations of ethnic minorities quadrupling, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher focused on Beijing’s ethnic policies.
Budget overruns were common. Luopu County exceeded its budget by almost 300 percent in 2017, the highest increase in spending in all of Hotan Prefecture.
Yet, the buildup continues. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyzed 28 camps across Xinjiang and found that they had expanded 465 percent in size since 2016, with the largest growth from July to September last year. Five camps in Hotan City and surrounding counties had at least doubled in size, with one camp increasing 2,469 percent between 2016 and last year.
In Luopu, officials are bringing more than 2,700 assistant officers into the county’s 224 villages and townships. The “students” are closely monitored: About 2,000 staff and police have been hired to oversee 12,000 detainees.
Authorities are also spending money on incentivizing residents.
Officials in Luopu hire local imams and other religious leaders as “patriotic religious people,” paid a yearly stipend of 4,200 yuan in an area where average disposable income is 6,800 yuan a year. Their job is in part to stop residents from going on non-government organized pilgrimages to Mecca.
The relatively low-level assistant police, recruited mostly from Uighur communities, are paid 4,100 yuan a month, almost on a par with police in major cities.
Some local governments are struggling to maintain this pace of spending. In neighboring Cele County (策勒), where authorities expected to have about 12,000 detainees in vocational camps and detention centers, a budget for this year said: “There are still many projects not included in the budget due to a lack of funds. The financial situation in 2018 is very severe.”
As China’s economy slows, they could struggle even more.
“The sustainability of this system basically depends on the financial capabilities of the central government,” Zenz said. “The long-term financial sustainability of all these top-down measures is certainly questionable.”
Hotan Prefecture is under “grid style” management, involving intense policing and mass surveillance. On the Luopu government Web site, it is described as “often in a state of level one or two response,” the highest state of emergency.
In Luopu, like many places in Xinjiang, the movements of Uighur residents are restricted. While Han Chinese are waved through security checkpoints, Uighur commuters register their ID cards, do full body scans, have their vehicles searched and their faces scanned.
Hand-held devices scan smartphones for content deemed problematic.
A police officer demanded to check the cell phone of a reporter, saying that “someone saw Arabic or Uighur language on it.”
Abdulla Erkin (name changed to protect identity), born and raised in Luopu County, was living in Urumqi, in the north of Xinjiang, when the crackdown began in earnest.
He said his family warned him not to return.
“They all told me: ‘Don’t come here. Don’t come here. Just live in Urumqi,’” he added.
“It’s worse day after day,” his sister, who works in a local government bureau in Luopu, told him.
Erkin said that most of his friends have been sent to a camp, or prison.
Now living overseas, he last month discovered that two of his brothers had been detained, and he fears that five of his nephews are also gone.
A Uighur businessman living in northeastern China told reporters that he left Hotan, because of the constant threat of being detained.
“My sense as well is that the counties of Hotan Prefecture have been the target of most severe repression,” said Darren Byler, a lecturer at the University of Washington who has been focusing on Xinjiang.
“From the perspective of the state, Hotan is framed as the most ‘backward and resistant,’” he said.
Chinese officials have said that international observers are “welcome to Xinjiang,” but Guardian reporters were questioned by police in Luopu for four hours and followed by at least seven people in Hotan City.
An official at the police station adjoining the No. 1 Vocational Training Center said that “all reporters, foreign or Chinese, from outside Xinjiang” were subject to their security measures.
In a village in Luopu County, almost every home has a plaque on the door marking it a “model red star family.” These are families who have met requirements, including demonstrating “anti-extremism thought” and a “sense of modern civilization.”
Over the past year, Luopu local officials have gathered villagers to sing patriotic songs, a practice common in the camps, and teach female residents how to be “good, new era women” who promote “ideological emancipation.”
However, it is not clear that these initiatives are what have inspired obedience. A woman burning a pile of branches lists people in her family who have been sent “to training,” including her 16-year-old son.
Another woman said that her husband has been in training in a different village since December 2017. She does not know why he was sent.
“We have always been farmers,” she said.
A man carrying plastic bags of naan bread and skewers explains that his neighbor has gone to the training center.
He suddenly interrupts himself: “We are scared talking with you.”
“They will retaliate,” he said.
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