China has issued an ardent defence of its mass internment of Muslim minorities in far west Xinjiang region, with a regional official insisting authorities were preventing “terrorism” through “vocational education” centres.
Sohrat Zakir, governor of Xinjiang, said Beijing was saving Uighur and Kazak Muslims from the lure of religious violence by teaching them job skills and to speak Mandarin, according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday.
The state media interview comes amid a global cry over reports of mass detentions and strict surveillance of ethnic Uighur and Muslim Turkic minorities.
Up to one million people are believed to be held in internment camps, according to estimates cited by a United Nations panel.
After initially issuing blanket denials, Chinese officials have in recent weeks said they were not enforcing arbitrary detention and political re-education across a network of secret camps, but rather some citizens guilty of minor offences were sent to vocational centres to provide employment opportunities.
The measures had helped to prevent attacks in Xinjiang for the past 21 months, Zakir said in the interview with Xinhua.
He did not say how many people were being held in the centres.
Trainees signed “education agreements” to receive “concentrated training” and undergo “live-in study”, Zakir said.
They received Chinese language lessons and lectures on the Constitution and laws, he said. Skills training included food processing, assembling electronic products, hairdressing, clothes making and e-commerce.
“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,” Zakir was quoted as saying.
“They have also been able to better tell right from wrong and resist the infiltration of extremist thought,” he said.
Some details in Zakir’s depiction of the centres were at odds with accounts by former detainees, who have said that conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse.
They said detainees did not receive any vocational training.
Omir Bekali, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh citizen, told The Associated Press news agency he was kept in a cell with 40 people inside a heavily guarded facility.
Before meals, he said, they were told to chant “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland!”
During daily mandatory classes, they were told that their people were backwards before being “liberated” by the party in the 1950s.
Some 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.
Patrick Poon, Amnesty International’s China researcher, said Zakir’s claims “fly in the face of all available evidence and are an insult to both those suffering in the camps and the families of those missing”.
He added: “No amount of spin can hide the fact that the Chinese authorities are undertaking a campaign of systematic repression.”
The Xinhua report comes as China ramped up propaganda efforts to defend its measures in Xinjiang, including courting foreign media and running opinion pieces abroad as it seeks to spin a more positive message.
On Tuesday night, state broadcaster China Central Television aired a 20-minute current affairs programme purportedly showing footage inside vocational training facilities in the southern oasis city of Hotan.
Clothed in bright school-like uniforms, dozens of students were shown at their desks learning Chinese and law.
In another scene, students were shown at various workshops and factories in front of sewing machines, working with wood, weaving carpets or baking bread.
“If I hadn’t been learning here, I can’t bear to imagine the consequences. I may have continued to follow those religious extremists onto a path of crime,” one young female student told the programme.
The new UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said last month that monitors should be allowed into the region, and calls have been made in the US Congress for sanctions on some Chinese officials.