Human rights activists say China’s arbitrary detention of up to a million Muslim members of ethnic minorities is grotesque. A U.S. government commission says the re-education centers in the western Xinjiang region may constitute a crime against humanity.
But in the most extensive government comments to date, a senior Chinese official makes them sound something like summer camps, with dancing, singing, writing and sports competitions to go along with free job training, food and movies.
Their aim, acknowledged Xinjiang government chairman Shohrat Zakir in an interview published Tuesday with a state-owned news agency, is to “better guard against the infiltration of terrorism and extremism.”
The camps are training people to work and to speak Chinese, “improve their communication abilities, gain modern science knowledge and enhance their understanding of Chinese history, culture and national conditions,” he said.
Human rights groups estimate about a million people, most of them Uighurs and Kazakhs, have been detained in the centers in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region since last year.
According to Human Rights Watch, detainees are forced to undergo political indoctrination for months to eradicate any Islamic, Turkic, Uighur or Kazakh sense of identity. They also must praise the Communist Party and learn 1,000 Chinese characters before being released, the group said.
Sophie Richardson, spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview Tuesday that the way Zakir described the camp system, “It sounds lovely.
“But no amount of propaganda is going to suffice in the face of so much credible evidence of human rights violations.”
The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China last week released a report charging that China’s arbitrary detention of Muslims may represent the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War II, and may be a crime against humanity. A group of lawmakers has called for U.S. sanctions against officials involved in the policy.
Omer Kanat, director of the Uighur Human Rights Project, said Zakir’s statements are “ludicrous and contemptible from top to bottom. This propaganda piece won’t fool anyone.”
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last month called on the Chinese government to allow independent rights monitors into the region. China responded that she should respect China’s sovereignty and “not listen to one-sided information.” Earlier this month the European parliament called on China to end arbitrary detentions of minorities in Xinjiang.
In the face of the mounting pressure, Zakir insisted that China’s policy has proven successful in fighting the scourge of terrorism. He said religious extremism had been “effectively contained,” but that authorities must remain on high alert.
Zakir said the training is designed to counter religious or family disciplinary customs “concocted or distorted by extremists” and to replace them with a sense of being “firstly citizens of the nation.”
“Through vocational training, most trainees have been able to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism,” he said. “They have notably enhanced national consciousness, civil awareness, awareness of the rule of law and the sense of community of the Chinese nation.”
He said offenders who committed minor terrorism-related offenses have been offered a combination of “punishment and leniency” in the “vocational training centers.”
“Various activities such as contests on speech, writing, dancing, singing and sports are organized. Many trainees have said that they were previously affected by extremist thought and had never participated in such kinds of art and sports activities, and now they have realized that life can be so colorful,” he said.
Before receiving “training,” many people in the regions spoke little Chinese and were jobless and poverty-stricken, Zakir said. Now, he added, they want to lead modern lives.
“I think Beijing feels no particular pressure to change gears,” said Richardson, speaking by phone from Geneva on Tuesday. “They clearly think that their strategy is appropriate. It’s up to the rest of the world to point out that the arbitrary detention of up to a million members of an ethnic minority is grotesque and unacceptable.”
According to Zakir, Xinjiang was victimized by thousands of terrorist attacks since the 1990s, including bombings, assassinations, poisonings, riots and assaults. Beijing has blamed Uighur separatists for much of the violence.
The violence included 2014 attacks at markets in Urumqi and Kashgar in which a total of 65 people were killed, a knife attack at the Kunming railway station the same year that left 33 people dead and 143 injured, and a knife attack on sleeping coal miners in Aksu in 2015, in which 50 people perished.
The attacks declined in 2016, according to state media, after a sharp government crackdown. Since then, authorities have established an intensive surveillance network with near-blanket coverage by cameras, roadblocks, security checks, random monitoring of mobile phones and the mass collection of DNA samples. It also established its sweeping system of detention and re-education camps.
Restrictions on Muslims are now so stringent, they have “effectively outlawed Islam” according to a Human Rights Watch report last month. Among the behaviors banned are wearing an “abnormal” beard, veiling the face, refusing to listen to state TV and radio or attend government schools, and applying halal rules to products such as toothpaste instead of just to food.
In many cases, multiple members of one family have been detained, with children placed in state orphanages instead of with extended family, according to The Associated Press and Human Rights Watch.
“Reports of children being placed in orphanages against their families’ wishes are particularly alarming given the government’s sustained assault on the cultural identity of Turkic Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang,” Richardson said Tuesday.
As criticisms have grown, Chinese officials have used different terms to describe the facilities. In early 2017, the terminology was “counterterrorism training schools.” Then they were referred to as “socialism training schools,” and now, “vocational institutions.”
Zakir on Tuesday identified four prefectures in southern Xinjiang as hotspots that he said have continued to breed terrorism and religious extremism. “There is still a long way to go for southern Xinjiang to eradicate the environment and soil of terrorism and religious extremism,” he said.
Uighur rights activist Kanat countered that there is no legal basis to justify the internment of about a million people without charge.
Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, also emphasized that terrorism was not a justification for detaining such a large portion of the population.
“The scope and scale of the abuses that we are documenting are well beyond what’s legal and effective,” she said. “The kind of repressions that Chinese authorities are using and have been using for decades actually produces resentment.”
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