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Reuters:

Gay McDougall, a member of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, cited estimates that 2 million Uighurs and Muslim minorities were forced into “political camps for indoctrination” in the western Xinjiang autonomous region.

The current Chinese position seems to be:

A Chinese official told the committee tough security measures in Xinjiang were necessary to combat "extremism and terrorism", but they did not target any specific ethnic group or restrict religious freedoms.

"Xinjiang citizens, including the Uighurs, enjoy equal freedom and rights," Ma Youqing, director of China's United Front Work Department, told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination."

Is there evidence for Gay McDougall claim that China interns that many Uighurs and Muslim minorities?

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    I believe the official line from China is that they have such camps, so I assume the only thing you're skeptical about is the scale, right? – Andrew Grimm Oct 27 '18 at 23:03
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    @Henry : I do consider the number one million to be different then two millions but in any case I would like to have an actual source about where the number is coming from. Ideally, one that's neutral not from the Open Society Justice Initiative, on which board Gay McDougall sits. According to Wikipedia the Open Society Foundation funds the Uighur separatist group Ittipak. Saying "up to a million" is a clever way about not saying anything false when the author doesn't know the actual number. – Christian Oct 28 '18 at 10:20
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    @AndrewGrimm I do think the core question is one of scale. – Christian Oct 28 '18 at 10:21
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    Note: These people are often put in these 're-education facilities' for periods shorter than a year (e.g. source). The quote(s) seems to be about people having been put in at any time, not about currently being in them. – user22865 Oct 29 '18 at 10:33
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    @JanDoggen : Given that around 15% of the US African American population has been in prison in their lives, does that mean that the charge is that the Chinese imprison their Uighur population at roughly the same rate as the US imprisons their African American population? – Christian Oct 29 '18 at 10:55
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Source 1: Official Chinese figures

The Chinese government has admitted the existence of these camps, claiming that they are for "anti-extremist ideological education, psychological correction, and behavior correction". If they ever put out official figures for how many people have been admitted to the camps, I will edit this answer and make note of it here.

(Edit: In September 2020 the Chinese government admitted to providing "vocational training" to 1.29 million Uyghurs every year from 2014 to 2019. The phrase "vocational training" was not defined and outside analysts believe it may refer to forced labor as well as internment.)

The population of Xinjiang is 1.5% of China's total population, but in 2017, 21% of all arrests in China were made in Xinjiang, a total of 227,882 people, according to official Chinese figures. These figures show a 700% year-on-year increase in arrests. The type of sentencing for these arrests was not specified.

From January to March 2018, 461,000 residents in Xinjiang villages were "relocated" according to a report in Global Times. The specific destination of these residents was not specified other than "other parts of the region."

Source 2: Mizutani Naoko

Adrian Zenz published a peer-reviewed article in 2018 giving two major sources for the figure of 1 million: Zenz, A. (2018). “Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude”: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang. Central Asian Survey, 1–27. doi:10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997 

The first of Adrian Zenz's sources is Mizutani Naoko 水谷尚子, currently an associate professor at Meiji University. Mizutani comes from an anti-imperialist angle, beginning her research with a vindication of the Japanese war crime testimonials given by the Association of Returnees from China, which was positively reviewed in Japanese academic journals. Her research specialized in using Chinese sources to elucidate the relationship between the Nationalists and Communists in the 20th century. Starting in 2007 she became a critic of modern colonialist techniques in Xinjiang and published a book based on interviews with dissidents.

The figures used by Mizutani in her Newsweek article were obtained by the Istanbul-based Uyghur dissident source Istiqlal TV. However, Mizutani herself did not naively accept the numbers but cross-referenced them against publicly available data on total Uyghur populations and her own knowledge of Xinjiang administration:

この表は県単位で収容者数が記されており、ウルムチ市、ホタン市、イーニン(グルジャ)市など、市単位での数値が欠けている。中国の行政単位としては県が市より下となる。おそらく、大きな行政単位の中心市レベルと末端の県レベルでは管轄部署が異なり、このデータをリークした公安警察は、県レベルのデータ管理者だったのだろう。

This table records camp inmates by prefecture, and is missing values for cities such as Ürümqi, Hotan, and Yining (Ghulja). Chinese administrative divisions rank prefectures below cities. The administrative units at the level of large central cities may vary in method of control, so we may assume that the public official who leaked this data is charged with managing data at the prefectural level [only].

She adds that the data was likely current as of late 2017. Zenz uses these prefectural figures of 892,000, 12.3% of the prefectural population, and combines them with public data on the Uyghur population in cities to extrapolate a total figure of 1,060,000.

Mizutani continues to speak out about this issue, most recently discussing oppression of Uyghurs in an interview with the Communist Party of Japan.

Source 3: Radio Free Asia

Zenz's second source is a Radio Free Asia article, but it is not based on an anonymous leak like the Istiqlal TV data. The source is not named but is explicitly identified:

The security chief of Kashgar city’s Chasa township recently told RFA on condition of anonymity that “approximately 120,000” Uyghurs are being held throughout the prefecture, based on information he has received from other area officials.

“I have great relationships with the heads of all the government departments and we are in regular contact, informing each other on the current situation,” he said, adding that he is also close with the prefecture’s chief of security.

Tens of thousands of people are detained within Kashgar city alone, the Chasa township security officer said, citing statistics from the city’s subdistricts.

“Around 2,000 [are detained] from the four neighborhoods of Kashgar city, as well as an additional 30,000 in total from the city’s 16 villages,” he said.

Zenz notes that this figure of 120,000 is 10.4% of the city's Uyghur population, claiming it is a pattern.

It would be very easy for the Chinese government to refute this statistic: simply provide the name of the security chief of Kashgar city’s Chasa township in January 2018 and have him deny the comments. I do not see evidence that this has happened.

Zenz also cites another RFA article with the bare statistic that

A staff member who answered the phone at Bayanday’s No. 3 Village committee told RFA on condition of anonymity that his office had been instructed to send “10 percent” of the 4,131 residents living in 1,073 households under its supervision to re-education camps.

This claim, too, would be easy to debunk by producing a specific number for Bayanday’s No. 3 Village. No one has done so.

Source 4: Resident interviews

Zenz's group also conducted anonymous interviews with Xinjiang residents which he used to confirm his figure of roughly 10% of the Uyghur population being imprisoned.

Additional circumstantial evidence

Additional evidence such as satellite photos of camps is available in this ChinaFile article and this Quartz article.

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This BBC report covers a Chinese official explaining that "education centres" are necessary to prevent terrorism. Another BBC report describes how new prison complexes in the area have been mapped. The Chinese government denies that these are prisons, describing them as "re-education facilities", but with high walls, razor wire and guard towers they look an awful lot like prisons. Reporters are not allowed to go anywhere near them to find out.

From the second report:

Pages of local government tendering documents inviting potential contractors and suppliers to bid for the building projects have been discovered online by the German-based academic, Adrian Zenz.

[...]

Cross-referencing this information with other media sources, Zenz suggests that at least several hundred thousand and possibly over a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities could have been interned for re-education.

The estimates of the number of detainees are based on the size of these facilities, so the error bars are rather large. However most governments want to house prisoners as cheaply as possible, so the upper end seems more likely than the lower end. As such an estimate of 1-2 million seems perfectly plausible.

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    @Do you have a good reason for thinking that Adrian Zenz is biased to not take into account how many prisoners get housed in facility of a given size in the way you claim? For the claim that his upper end should be considered the lower end? – Christian Oct 29 '18 at 9:17
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The evidence for that claim comes from only one or two sources which have a clear conflict of interest in geopolitical matters relating to China, and no further independent research has verified their results. Leaked internal documents from the Xinjiang administration put the figure somewhere in the low thousands.

The most popular estimate of the "1-2 million" figure come from Adrian Zenz's 2018 paper (PDF available here after email signup). In the section "Estimating Re-Education Detainee Numbers", Zenz builds his estimate entirely based on hearsay from two sources: Japanese academic Mizutani Naoko, and Radio Free Asia.

  • Radio Free Asia is American state-media outlet, subsidiary of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which is directly overseen by the United States Congress and State Department. On July 23, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo essentially declared a new Cold War against China in a speech. This follows the 2011 "China pivot" under the Obama administration and U.S. military intervention in Central Asia in the early 2000s.

  • Mizutani is a Japanese researcher who was notably barred from China in 2010 (RFA source for sake of argument) for material support of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur separatist who advocates for the secession of all or part of Xinjiang province as "East Turkestan". Kadeer herself has worked for Radio Free Asia and other U.S. foreign state-media in the past. Mizutani's source for her Newsweek numbers cited by Zenz is Istiqlal TV, a Turkey-based ETIM media group.

  • Zenz himself is a senior fellow of the far-right Washington D.C.-based think tank Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. In his 2019 Wall Street Journal interview, Zenz said "I feel very clearly led by God to do this. I can put it that way. I'm not afraid to say that," says Mr. Zenz. "With Xinjiang, things really changed. It became like a mission, or a ministry."

Zenz's methodology of extrapolating figures obtained from hearsay is deeply flawed and requires rigorous independent verification to be credible.

To be charitable, we have unverified claims by two or more geopolitical opponents of China being used by a religious zealot, which is then sourced by news media as a reliable academic source. Zenz being a zealot does not discount the value of any rigorous scientific work he does, but that is clearly not the case. There is a clear conflict of interest violation taking place in this paper and associated body of research.


Alternatively dubious estimates in news media articles (such as the BBC report) are based on Google Earth imagery of buildings in Xinjiang and a number of volatile assumptions, such as:

  1. The buildings were constructed for the purpose of human incarceration.

  2. There are XX prisoners per square meter of prison, and the prisons are running at maximum capacity.

  3. The prisoners were incarcerated through an ethnic-targeting program.


So what is a more realistic number?

Leaked documents obtained by ICIJ suggest a radically different scale of political persecution. One document, titled "Bulletin #2", says that there were "4,314 Xinjiang people" who passed a preliminary screening to warrant investigation into possible ties with the violent separatism the region has been experiencing. Of those, "1,707" were currently residing in Xinjiang and warranted special investigation.

The later "Bulletin #20" expands the screening to include all 1.8 million users of a particular media-sharing software, of which 40,557 were deemed "high-risk" (having prior convictions, etc.). The bulletin explicitly identifies the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" as a principle concern.

These figures represent the upper-bounds of possible incarceration. Not all suspicious persons will end up being convicted of treason (leaked court document). As such, the scale of political (terrorist) prosecution is liberally in the 1,000-50,000 region according to these internal documents, considerably less than Zenz et al.'s unsubstantiated 2 million figure.

The leaked documents also provide no evidence that there is any ethnically-motivated internment taking place. The concern of the Chinese officials is solely with combating the threat of violent extremism relating to ETIM and associated groups. Claims of "genocide" are similarly unsubstantiated by the documents, which describe a modern prison system that emphasizes the health safety of inmates and staff (The "Telegram" document).

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    Thank you for your patience. I've read the update and find this a good answer now. Unfortunately, your downvotes may never be reversed, however, if you provide answers like this one in the future, as the first draft, then I'm sure you will quickly gain upvotes. I hope to see you post again soon. – fredsbend Aug 10 at 19:02
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    Your answer seems to assume that only persons convicted of treason will be incarcerated. However the allegation is that these camps are for people who have not been convicted of any crime. – Paul Johnson 13 hours ago

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