China's Efforts To Hide Its Muslim Concentration Camps Helped Reporters To Find Them

from the the-streisand-effect-works-in-mysterious-ways dept

Here's quite an example of the Streisand Effect. Buzzfeed investigative reporters have an incredible new series of stories about the massive new prison/concentration camps built in China to house the various Muslim minority populations they've been imprisoning (Uighurs, Kazakhs and others). But what's relevant from our standpoint here at Techdirt is just how they were able to track this information down. As revealed in a separate article, Buzzfeed's reporters effectively used the Streisand Effect. They looked at the maps provided online by the Chinese internet giant Baidu and spotted a bunch of areas that were "blanked out." The reporters noticed that this graying out was deliberate and different than the standard "general reference tiles" that Baidu would show when it didn't have high resolution enough imagery.

Once they realized that something must be going on in those spots, they found many more examples that matched in places where the reported complexes were:

Once we found that we could replicate the blank tile phenomenon reliably, we started to look at other camps whose locations were already known to the public to see if we could observe the same thing happening there. Spoiler: We could. Of the six camps that we used in our feasibility study, five had blank tiles at their location at zoom level 18 in Baidu, appearing only at this zoom level and disappearing as you zoomed in further. One of the six camps didn’t have the blank tiles — a person who had visited the site in 2019 said it had closed, which could well have explained it. However, we later found that the blank tiles weren’t used in city centers, only toward the edge of cities and in more rural areas. (Baidu did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

And then it was only a hop skip and a jump to finding more such tiles... and then cross referencing them with satellite imagery from other sources -- including Google Earth, Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs. And, voila:

We quickly began to notice how large many of these places are — and how heavily securitized they appear to be, compared to the earlier known camps. In site layout, architecture, and security features, they bear greater resemblance to other prisons across China than to the converted schools and hospitals that formed the earlier camps in Xinjiang. The newer compounds are also built to last, in a way that the earlier conversions weren’t. The perimeter walls are made of thick concrete, for example, which takes much longer to build and perhaps later demolish, than the barbed wire fencing that characterizes the early camps.

In almost every county, we found buildings bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, plus new facilities with the characteristics of large, high-security camps and/or prisons. Typically, there would be an older detention center in the middle of the town, while on the outskirts there would be a new camp and prison, often in recently developed industrial areas. Where we hadn’t yet found these facilities in a given county, this pattern pushed us to keep on looking, especially in areas where there was no recent satellite imagery. Where there was no public high-resolution imagery, we used medium-resolution imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel to locate likely sites. Planet was then kind enough to give us access to high-resolution imagery for these locations and to task a satellite to capture new imagery of some areas that hadn’t been photographed in high resolution since 2006. In one county, this allowed us to see that the detention center that had previously been identified by other researchers had been demolished and to find the new prison just out of town.

In other words, the Chinese government's efforts to suppress the existence of these concentration camps helped reporters locate them. It's long been known that internet maps in China were slightly off in China, in part due to deliberate obfuscation on geographic data, but the idea that they'd fuzz out maps in a way that now reveals just how massive their concentration camps are is fascinating (and, of course, troubling).

The more light that can be shed on what China is doing to Muslims in that country, the better. And the fact that its own ham-fisted attempts at censorship helped enable reporters to discover the extent of its concentration camps is clearly noteworthy.

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Filed Under: china, concentration camps, investigative reporting, maps, reporting, streisand effect, uighers
Companies: baidu, google


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  • icon
    Koby (profile), 28 Aug 2020 @ 10:07am

    Human Nature

    It's human nature that if someone says "don't look!" then everyone will want to look. Not only did the authorities not realize this basic truth, but they didn't think to at least place a few decoys.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2020 @ 2:29pm

    I used to read Techdirt daily for the pro-Chinese slant. I am devastated.

    I shall, of course, continue to come to Techdirt daily to complain about the absence of pro-Chinese slant, especially in articles that have no conceivable Chinese connection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2020 @ 3:55pm

      Re:

      And don't think I'm alone. Like the demon-infested swine, I am Legion.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 5:24am

    Why so many?

    I can understand why capitalism and autocracy have internment camps/prisons. The rich/bureaucrats are preserving their wealth, power and position.

    But why does socialism/communism have so many of these things? Who is put in the concentration camps/gulags but the population who socialism/communism is purported to serve.

    Why can't the loud mouth socialists & communists explain their penchant for such camps, and so many of them?

    Why would any sane, civilized person want to be in such a camp, or elect a government who espouses socialism/communism (by any name) and who just might put them in such a camp?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 1 Sep 2020 @ 8:13am

      Re: Why so many?

      "But why does socialism/communism have so many of these things? Who is put in the concentration camps/gulags but the population who socialism/communism is purported to serve. "

      For the exact same reason you ascribed to the capitalists above?

      Where China is concerned, however, you need the following fact to sink in; No matter what China says it is, "communist" surely isn't it. It's the same autocracy run by the same bureaucratic elite as it has been for millennia. The only thing that really changed in their last revolution was that they found no more need for the figurehead known as "emperor" - although that last claim requires a caveat since Xi Jin Ping's term of office is now for life.

      China has always run a full capitalist economy, a full dictatorship social and legislative system, and an ultraconservative cultural regime.

      Drink that in, and consider that the reason China builds "re-education" - or concentration camps - is for the same reason it always has. Because the people inside those camps are unwilling to be what the majority Han population refers to as Chinese.

      The Uyghur? Have been a "problem" population for China for centuries and in both ancient and modern times have made repetitive attempts to secede. Resulting, finally, in a massive ethnic cleansing program meant to eradicate the non-chinese part of Uyghur culture.

      The end goal of course being the same one it has been for 2500 years or more - suppressing uprisings and unrest by silencing every open voice.

      So although the extreme left and extreme right are identical in their pressure of dissent it really doesn't pay to consider China anything other than the modern-day feudal bureaucracy it is. They're as "communist" as J. Edgar Hoover.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 5:25am

    Why so many under socialism/communism?

    I can understand why capitalism and autocracy have internment camps/prisons. The rich/bureaucrats are preserving their wealth, power and position.

    But why does socialism/communism have so many of these things? Who is put in the concentration camps/gulags but the population who socialism/communism is purported to serve.

    Why can't the loud mouth socialists & communists explain their penchant for such camps, and so many of them?

    Why would any sane, civilized person want to be in such a camp, or elect a government who espouses socialism/communism (by any name) and who just might put them in such a camp?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 5:51am

      Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

      But why does socialism/communism have so many of these things?

      Because those who gain power in a revolution like the power, and like all in power act to preserve their own power. Those who gain power in the system they establish then act the same way.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rocky, 29 Aug 2020 @ 6:34am

      Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

      You are conflating what they call their governing system and what it really is. A totalitarian system is a totalitarian system regardless of what they choose to publicly call it.

      Now, name just ONE country that purports to be socialistic/communistic that isn't totalitarian and that regularly imprison dissidents, intellectuals and undesirables. If you can't your whole argument falls apart.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 29 Aug 2020 @ 9:04am

        Re: Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

        "Now, name just ONE country that purports to be socialistic/communistic"

        Define "socialism". There's plenty of free countries with a strong socialist element of their government.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Rocky, 29 Aug 2020 @ 1:26pm

          Re: Re: Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

          Why is there a need to define socialism when we are actually talking about totalitarian governments?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Annonymouse, 31 Aug 2020 @ 11:24am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

            Why?

            Because the vast majority of Americans don't know that there is a difference between the two thanks in no small part to their own regimes misinformation.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 2 Sep 2020 @ 12:33am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

              ...and that gets ridiculous since no matter what China calls themselves, "communist" isn't what they are.

              They are, essentially, a capitalist-socialist hybrid autocracy. Same as almost any other nation, just with a generous helping of "dictatorship" added to the pot.

              If anything they are a far more nakedly capitalist nation than most others where competition is so cutthroat and byzantine it resembles the 30-year war. And that, of course, is why they are beating the crap out of US companies who've forgotten what real marketplace competition looks like and think it has to do with owning enough IP's.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 29 Aug 2020 @ 9:03am

      Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

      "But why does socialism/communism have so many of these things?"

      Socialism doesn't, generally. You might want to check a dictionary occasionally if you think those terms are interchangeable.

      As for communism, modern China is not a pure communist state, it has a lot of capitalist ideas baked in, along with a lot of totalitarianism.

      "Why would any sane, civilized person want to be in such a camp,"

      Do you think the people who get sent there have a say? Really?

      "elect a government"

      You think China has free elections with a government chosen by the people?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2020 @ 7:42am

      Re: Why so many under socialism/communism?

      China isn't really doing it for the reason the soviets started, they're doing it to commit genocide without wasting labourers, and to solidify national unity. It's also beneficial to the han majority, who know they won't get thrown into a camp for recalcitrant muslims. Look what happened to the English dominance in what used to be the British empire when they stopped oppressing natives and the smaller home nations. If you're han chinese and your country is getting very close to being america's equal as king dick, would being weakened like that (albeit to a lesser extent) be a worthwhile trade for giving freedom and equality to a load of ethnics? There's not a small minority who'll openly endorse such treatment of foreigners and ethnics in the west, and the vast majority tacitly accepts outsourcing it to other countries for cheap labour and to avoid localised pollution.

      As for why people would endorse socialism plus gulags: look at what happened to Allende and other left-leaning south Americans (who got in democratically) when they didn't ruthlessly suppress opponents, or the Indonesian socialists when they went into opposition (the Jakarta Method was the precursor to what happened in South America). The french were fairly competent at doing the same sort of thing when their former colonies got out of line too. Historically, also, there's been plenty of instances where the other lot were blatantly worse:

      • Batista was bad enough that Ian Fleming made one of his goons a villain in a Bond short story and expressed sympathy for the Castro regime.
      • the present king of Cambodia supported the communist alliance led by Pol Pot because they seemed saner and less corrupt than the American puppet regime they replaced. Since that government was selling arms to the communists while they were in open rebellion and had an price on those very official's heads, and Pol Pot hadn't gone off the deep end yet, that wasn't as ridiculous as it sounds (though america propping up the Khmer Rogue is).
      • in a different direction, there were women and socialists who supported the ayatollah in Iran because they knew they didn't have the numbers to form a socialist government (especially as they were split between "arab socialism", social democracy, soviet-style ML, and soft anarchism along the lines of the modern YPG) and preferred theocracy to having the shah and his masters back.

      Also, the 2008 American incarceration rate was close to the peak soviet incarceration rate (which includes those only legally alive), and plenty of people support that because only "bad people", or people unlike them, get incarcerated.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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