Many nights in the past few months, Shawn Zhang has come home from work at a student legal-aid program and pulled up satellite imagery of a place 10,000 kilometres away.
He is looking for re-education camps in Xinjiang, the Chinese region where, scholars estimate, hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim people have been forced to undergo political indoctrination. What Mr. Zhang has found has given the Chinese-born University of British Columbia law student, 28, an important role in documenting a system that Chinese authorities call “vocational skills training,” but critics liken to military prisons.
Some of the most revealing details lie in the shadows, which show features that would otherwise be invisible in overhead images. There, in silhouette, lie the barbed-wire-topped fences and guard towers that surround the re-education centres.
Locating those centres has become a personal project for Mr. Zhang, who has now found 21 suspected locations – six in July alone – and sees the re-education system as the most pressing human-rights concern in China today.
Long-standing frictions between the dominant Han Chinese population and Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority group, broke out into riots in 2009. Uyghurs have subsequently been blamed for terrorist attacks in China, and large numbers of Uyghurs have joined organizations such as the Islamic State.
Re-education is “part of China’s plan to gain full control over Xinjiang,” Mr. Zhang said. “So it’s basically trying to wipe out their culture, their identity, to fully assimilate Uyghurs into Chinese.”
Though Mr. Zhang is a student whose Xinjiang research is a personal project, his database is founded in part on addresses contained in government bid documents for the construction or renovation of facilities used for re-education.
That makes it a “highly credible” reference that helps to demonstrate “the vast scale of the project,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies the region.
“Because of their size and their distribution across the province, we can deduce that this project is highly organized and systematic. The repetition in design – from fencing and police stations to dormitories and public gathering spaces – makes it clear that the camp system is centrally planned or at least synchronized, rather than an ad hoc system based solely on the impulses of local officials, Mr. Byler said.
“It also provides circumstantial evidence that supports estimates of around 10 per cent of the Uyghur population being interned in these camps. Seeing the physical form of the camps has the effect of making them undeniable as an existential fact.”
Some of the locations he has found, however, are “vocational training facilities, many of which likely perform re-education, but one has to be more careful,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who specializes in Tibet and Xinjiang at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal-Munchingen, Germany.
Mr. Zenz has also used government procurement documents to assess the scope of the re-education system. He estimates that, at a minimum, several hundred thousand people have been placed into re-education.
“The evidence for re-education through satellite images is nice,” he said. Still, he added, “satellite images by themselves are currently unable to provide conclusive evidence of a widespread re-education network. But they corroborate some of my findings.”
Mr. Zhang studied Chinese literature at Peking University and obtained a master’s in East Asian studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. He envisioned a career as a scholar, but debates among roommates at Peking U helped sharpen his political views, as did a widely viewed documentary on the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. He became interested in Charter 08, the 2008 manifesto calling for major change to China’s authoritarian governance system, and in Liu Xiaobo, the dissident Nobel Peace laureate who was its best-known signatory.
Studying law, he concluded, would arm him with the tools to pursue his interest in human rights. He enrolled in the law program at UBC.
Though he doesn’t call himself an activist, his online writing on human-rights issues has nonetheless drawn the attention of Chinese authorities. In 2012, he was questioned by secret police over Twitter posts he made about the Chinese Jasmine Revolution, a series of pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Earlier this year, police contacted his parents after he had posted images of a Tibetan flag to Twitter and Weibo, the Chinese social-media service, demanding he delete the content. When he didn’t comply, they persuaded one of his father’s friends, a propaganda official, to speak with his father. His father was photographed at that meeting, and asked to sign a document about their conversation. Police called Mr. Zhang’s parents again after he posted an unflattering image of Chinese President Xi Jinping; Weibo has suspended two of Mr. Zhang’s accounts this year.
The pressure on Mr. Zhang’s family has brought him some attention in Canada, where his experience has been held up as a warning about China bullying citizens outside its borders. Mr. Zhang says that, to the best of his knowledge, he has not been subjected to Chinese monitoring at UBC.
But he fears his Xinjiang re-education research places him at risk. He expects to apply for Canadian permanent residency this summer, and “I don’t think I will go back to China unless I have a Canadian passport,” he said.
Chinese authorities have denied the existence of re-education centres, although state media have openly discussed campaigns to spread Communist Party ideology and government reports have provided some details on their efforts, which includes setting up new government departments for vocational skill-training education.
Mr. Zhang’s search for the centres is motivated by a desire to add concrete evidence to the accounts of people whose relatives have been taken into re-education, or who have themselves endured a system that includes repeated recitation of indoctrination language.
He hopes the international community can press China to end re-education (Canadian diplomats have raised the issue in China, and at the United Nations).
But he is pessimistic: He has seen other hopes dashed. When Mr. Liu, the Nobel laureate, was arrested, “we all thought he would survive prison and become a leader of Chinese democracy,” Mr. Zhang said.
But Mr. Liu died last year before his release “and everything he did changed China so little.”