China on Tuesday issued an ardent defense of the alleged mass internment of minorities in its far west Xinjiang region, with a regional official insisting that authorities are preventing terrorism through “vocational education” centers.
Beijing has sought to counter a global outcry against the facilities with a series of op-eds and interviews and a roll out of new regulations that retroactively codify the use of a system of extra-judicial “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang.
Up to one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic minorities are believed to be held in such centers, according to estimates cited by a United Nations panel.
Former inmates have said they found themselves incarcerated for transgressions such as wearing long beards and face veils or sharing Islamic holiday greetings on social media, a process that echoes the decades of brutal thought reform under Mao Zedong. The program has come under increasing fire from the international community, receiving particular censure from the United States and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Chinese authorities initially denied the existence of the facilities. But they have changed their tune as satellite imagery and documents issued by their own government have made that position untenable.
In recent weeks the story has shifted from outright dismissal to acknowledgement that the camps exist, with the caveat that they are being used primarily for “vocational education” in a bid to halt separatist sentiments and religious extremism.
In a rare interview with China’s official Xinhua news service published on Tuesday, the chairman of Xinjiang’s government, Shohrat Zakir, defended the use of the centers, saying that the region was now “safe and stable.”
The official did not say how many people were being held in the centers.
“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.
Zakir said the facilities were intended to improve job skills and Mandarin abilities among minorities with “a limited command of the country’s common language and a limited sense and knowledge of the law.” Those who struggled to find work as a result, he added, were “vulnerable to the instigation and coercion of terrorism and extremism.” He said that the “free” programs were limited in duration, “trainees” signed a contract with the centers that laid out a clear plan of study and included a stipend.
Asked about the future of the programs, Zakir said “some trainees” were “expected to complete their courses successfully by the end of this year.”
The comments follow weeks of efforts by Chinese officials and state media to defend China’s actions in Xinjiang, where riots and attacks led to hundreds of deaths in recent years. Op-eds by Chinese diplomats have appeared in newspapers around the world, arguing that the program is an effective means of eliminating the threat posed to the region by religious extremism.
An editorial in the nationalist tabloid the Global Times warned foreign governments on Tuesday not to meddle in Xinjiang’s affairs. “Obviously vocational education is a periodic and temporary plan aimed at eradicating extremism,” it said, adding that criticism was “just messing up the whole thing and creating a narrative against China.”
Taking to Twitter—a social media platform that is blocked in China—the paper’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin said officials had told him the official figures for the number of people in “vocational education” were “much fewer than the ‘1 million or so’ speculated by the outside world.”
“Chinese officials didn’t reveal the true number to avoid falling into the stats trap, giving Western media another excuse to hype up the issue,” he added.
The positive image of the centers portrayed in the PR drive is belied by testimonies from former detainees who describe harsh treatment in the facilities. Large numbers of families outside of China say their relatives in Xinjiang were spirited away by police never to be heard from again.
Critics have warned that mass incarcerations and forced cultural assimilation of China’s western Muslim minorities risk further inflaming and perpetuating separatist anger.