China says these centres are part of a highly successful de-radicalization program in the region, though fewer people will be sent through, officials said last week when allowing rare media access.
Camps like these have attracted global concern. Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, scholars, foreign governments and UN rights experts over what they call mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups who call Xinjiang home. In August last year, a UN human rights panel said it had received credible reports that a million or more Uighurs and other minorities in the far western region are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp.”
During a visit by foreign reporters, including Reuters, last week to three such facilities, officials defended China’s policies in Xinjiang. China says the centres have reduced extremism by teaching residents about the law and helping them learn Mandarin.
In one class, reporters were allowed to briefly visit residents as they read a Chinese lesson from their textbook entitled Our Motherland Is So Vast. There was plenty of singing and dancing in other rooms reporters visited, including a lively rendition in English of If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands that seemed to have been put on especially for the visit.
Several residents agreed to speak briefly to reporters, though all in the presence of government officials. Reporters were closely chaperoned at all times.
All the interviewees said they were there of their own accord after learning of the centres from local officials or the police. Many answers used extremely similar language about being “infected with extremist thought.”
It was not possible to independently verify their stories. All the interviewees said they had not been forewarned of the visit.
Residents said they can “graduate” when they are judged to have reached a certain level with their Mandarin, de-radicalization and legal knowledge. They are allowed phone calls with family members but no cellphones, and residents are provided halal food.
Only minimal security was visible at any of the three centres. Reuters last year reported on harsh extrajudicial detentions and interrogations at the camps, which are at odds with Beijing’s claims, and took pictures of guard towers and barbed wire surrounding some.
Wu’er Kaixi, a Chinese dissident from the Uighur minority who is now living in exile in Taiwan, told Reuters on Monday, Jan. 7 that the nature of last week’s media trip was typical of how the Chinese government conducts media trips to suit their “propaganda” and would paint a false picture of what is going on in Xinjiang.
Asked at a regular briefing on Monday about reports that China had invited UN experts to Xinjiang, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that all parties, including the UN, were welcome, as long as they respected appropriate travel procedures.
The government says its goal is for Uighurs to become part of mainstream Chinese society. Officials, including the director of the Kashgar Vocational Education Training Centre, Mijiti Mahmoud, point to a lack of violence in the past two years as evidence of the program’s success.
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Urumqi’s Exhibition on Major Violent Terrorist Attack Cases in Xinjiang, normally closed to the public, displays graphic images and footage from what the government says are attacks.
“People can have a better understanding about the background and what Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has done over the years for maintaining stability,” Shi Lei, Xinjiang’s Communist Party committee deputy propaganda chief, told reporters.
In Kashgar, Hotan and Karakax, petrol stations are still surrounded by barbed wire and heavy security barriers. Residential areas are dotted with small police stations.