Combining unprecedented satellite and architectural analysis with the voices of dozens of former prisoners, BuzzFeed News exposed China’s vast new infrastructure that the government has built for the mass detention of Muslims.
American politicians from both sides of the aisle took notice of the series, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Jeff Merkley, and Pat Toomey. The first two articles in the series came at a crucial moment, when Congress was debating a bill to ban imports from Xinjiang made with forced detainee labor. The legislation easily passed the House in September and is awaiting approval from the Senate.
In February, Rajagopalan wrote about the plight of Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uighur woman who had been detained for 10 months at internment camps. Ziyawudun escaped to Kazakhstan — but was told she would have to return to China to apply for a new visa, Rajagopalan reported. Returning to the country would likely have meant that she would be detained again. In September, Ziyawudun arrived safely in the United States, ending the threat of forcible repatriation. Ziyawudun’s lawyer said that she believed the press coverage helped her case.
Killing discovered that Baidu Maps, run by China’s state-owned Google equivalent, had blanked out many satellite images that appeared uncensored on regular Google Earth — a clue that China wanted to hide these locations from the outside world.
There were 5 million of these tiles to wade through, however, which was far too many for individual human beings to process. Camps usually need to be near towns and infrastructure, so the team narrowed their search, yielding a still-enormous dataset of 50,000 locations.
Buschek built a custom web tool to sort through the images systematically. Soon the pool of possible detention sites was much more manageable. Still, the team had to go through thousands of images one by one, verifying many of the sites against other available evidence.
Killing is a licensed architect, a skill set she deployed to analyze the sites in detail. She developed sources at satellite imaging firms and obtained high-resolution images of key locations. These images enabled her to estimate the capacity of some of the compounds. Some could hold more than 10,000 people.
Rajagopalan and Killing homed in on the camp in Mongolküre. Pairing the images with survivor accounts, they provided as complete a picture as possible of how a camp functioned from the inside: the barbed wire pens in the courtyard where detainees were occasionally brought to exercise, the passage leading from the guardhouse to the main accommodation building, the colors of the outside walls.
Using specialized software, Killing developed a 3D architectural model of the camp — which she and BuzzFeed News’ art director, Ben King, deployed to tell the story. They created a scrolling interactive that blended the model seamlessly with the written text, allowing readers to see renderings of the cell blocks and classrooms at key points throughout the piece.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Soon after China began to round up and detain thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, Megha Rajagopalan was the first reporter to document the rise of mass surveillance in the region and the first to visit an internment camp — at a time when China denied that such camps existed.
In response, the government tried to silence her, revoking her visa and ejecting her from the country. It would go on to cut off access to the entire region for most Westerners and stymie journalists.
Undeterred, Rajagopalan kept digging. She started with a simple question: Where were people being held? With the estimated number of detainees running as high as 1 million, the Chinese government couldn’t just lock everyone up in its existing prisons. But in a region bigger than Alaska, it was immensely difficult for anyone to find evidence of new detention camps.
Rajagopalan teamed up with architect Alison Killing and programmer Christo Buschek to analyze satellite images. They analyzed thousands of satellite images censored by the Chinese government, which they compared with images on uncensored mapping software. Months of painstaking work later, they discovered more than 260 sites with the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds. Many also contained factories where detainees are forced to labor. These were built to be permanent, high-security facilities, signaling that the government aimed to imprison people for years.
Rajagopalan then traveled to Kazakhstan and persuaded more than two dozen former detainees to recount beatings and humiliations in harrowing detail, as well as provide more information on specific camps. Their accounts offered essential insights into life inside, from the ubiquitous cameras to the hierarchy of prisoners. They described being taken away from their homes, the horrors of life inside the camps, and the trauma that remains with them even after fleeing China.
What can others learn from this project?
Other journalists can learn from this project the value of persistence in reporting.
Expelling Rajagopalan was only one way that China tried to stop her. The government also banned people in Xinjiang from speaking to reporters.
In-person door knocking was out of the question, but so was any other form of communication, given China’s highly sophisticated and draconian mass surveillance system. The very few ex-detainees who have managed to flee China live in terror of reprisals against family members back home.
So in order to speak to people who had been locked up, Rajagopalan needed to get creative. It soon became clear that her best bet was Kazakhstan, a landing point for most of the escapees. In a country known for its own authoritarian impulses, Rajagopalan not only had to find survivors but also had to earn their trust.
It would have been a journalistic success to interview just three or four ex-detainees. Rajagopalan spoke to dozens and, as a result, gathered essential details that had never been reported.
Throughout her reporting, Rajagopalan had to endure harassment from the Chinese government, which had persisted beyond forcing her to pack up her apartment in Beijing on short notice. Its representatives repeatedly pressured her to write more-positive stories about the country. State security agents asked her to divulge her contacts. A member of the New York consulate even threatened to demand that her editor fire her. And after the first two stories ran, the Chinese government posted her personal information, including a government identification number, on Twitter.