A senior Chinese official offered the government’s fullest defense so far of its mass detention program for Muslims in China’s far west, saying it formed a bulwark for social stability and suggesting the detentions are voluntary.
In a lengthy interview published Tuesday by the government’s Xinhua News Agency, the chairman of China’s Xinjiang region, Shohrat Zakir, portrayed the camps as generously equipped vocational schools that are vital to a crackdown on religious extremism. He said the clampdown helped bring an end to terrorism and a drop in crime in the region.
International outrage has been growing over reports the Chinese government has forced as many as one million people into “re-education camps,” where former detainees say they were forced to endure intensive “brainwashing” sessions including close study of Communist Party propaganda.
“Facts have proven that vocational education and training fit the reality of current efforts in countering terrorism, maintaining stability and eradicating extremism in Xinjiang,” Zakir said, according to Xinhua.
Omurbek Eli, a businessman who has described his time held in a camp in 2017, scoffed at Mr. Zakir’s description of the indoctrination centers as “colorful” places where students play basketball, watch movies and join in singing contests. His experience, he said, was far harsher, involving long days of marching, singing patriotic Chinese songs and memorizing Chinese laws.
“They’re full of nonsense,” Mr. Eli, who is originally from Xinjiang and obtained Kazakh citizenship, said by telephone. “They say that these camps are to eradicate terrorism, but inside I saw lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, even officials who had nothing to do with extremism,” he said. “They call these vocational training centers, but it was really a prison.”
Xinjiang quietly legalized “vocational skill education training centers” on October 10, which the law said would be used to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education”. That move came less than two months after a Chinese government spokesman completely denied the existence of re-education camps during a UN hearing on human rights.
The interview, published in Chinese and English, is part of an evolving strategy by China to explain the campaign. U.S. officials and United Nations experts estimate hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly from the Uighur ethnic group, have been detained in the past two years. While the detentions initially attracted little attention, criticism—from the U.S., Europe, and some Muslim groups—has been building in recent months.
China director for Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said Mr. Zakir’s interview failed to address concerns over “mass arbitrary detention, pervasive restrictions on religious freedom, and repression”.
She said the Chinese government would “only gain credibility by releasing all the detainees and closing all camps, not by doubling down on propaganda campaigns”.
Scattered throughout the interview are quotes, purportedly from “graduates”, praising the government for giving them the opportunity to change their ways are given below.
“The government didn’t give up on me. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation, and education,” said one. “I will cherish this opportunity and become a person useful to the country and society.”
Another said his income had “increased a lot” since receiving training. “I have become the main support for my family. I can stand tall and start receiving praise from my elders. My wife has become more considerate. My kids are proud of me. I have regained respect and confidence.”
Mr. Zakir did not say how many people had been through the training, but said those who complete it have “notably enhanced national consciousness” and that Xinjiang was now “not only beautiful but also safe and stable”.
Chinese officials equivocated over the mass detentions before a United Nations panel in August, saying minor criminals in Xinjiang had been sent to vocational schools to learn how to reintegrate into society. Revisions to Xinjiang’s counterterrorism regulations, made public last week, acknowledged for the first time that the vocational training centers were being used for “deradicalization” work.
“They clearly want to get out in front of the story after a year of trying to deny it,” said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia. Part of the current effort, he said, is likely aimed at pre-empting further criticism at a U.N. review of China’s human-rights record, scheduled for November.
Reporting by scholars outside China and interviews with former detainees and their relatives by foreign media, including The Wall Street Journal, have documented the expansion of the detention program and the intense political indoctrination those held are subjected to. They described being held against their will, forced to sing patriotic songs and prohibited from praying.
In the Xinhua interview, Mr. Zakir contradicted those accounts, suggesting enrollment in the institutions is voluntary. He said the facilities sign “training agreements” with each trainee.
Chinese law doesn’t allow for indefinite detention without trial, so Xinjiang’s camps can only be legal if they are voluntary, according to Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. If they are, he said, independent experts should be allowed to inspect the facilities—something that authorities have refused to allow thus far.
Offices with Xinjiang’s Communist Party Committee either declined to comment or didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.
China’s resort to mass detentions comes after a year-long government campaign to suffocate an occasionally violent Uighur separatist movement that Beijing says has links to extremist religious groups abroad. Islamic State has produced videos aimed at recruiting Uighurs, some of whom have left China to fight with the organization in Iraq and Syria.
Human-rights groups and Uighur activists living abroad say the violence is driven by extreme restrictions on Uighur religious and cultural activities and by state-sanctioned policies that ultimately benefit Han Chinese at the expense of minorities in Xinjiang.
In the interview, Mr. Zakir cited several laws and regulations he said justified the campaign. He reiterated earlier government statements that the centers are intended to rehabilitate minor criminals.
He described the vocational centers as resort-like facilities equipped with volleyball courts, ping-pong tables and film-screening rooms, where ethnic customs are respected, nutritious meals are provided “free of charge” and each air-conditioned room comes with its own TV.
According to interviews with former detainees and their family members, conditions in the centers vary widely. While some resemble vocational schools, others seen by the Journal look more like prisons, surrounded by thick walls topped with razor wire and watched over by armed police in guard towers.
Several former detainees told the Journal they were subjected to hours of political indoctrination daily and forced to denounce Islam. One said he was strapped to a chair for hours with his hands shackled behind his back and interrogated about ties to religious groups abroad, which he denied having. Authorities declined to comment.
Mr. Zakir said the training program helps prevent religious extremism by teaching trainees Mandarin, which “gives them a foundation to accept modern scientific knowledge and recognize China’s history, culture and national conditions.”
Mr. Leibold, the Xinjiang expert, said much of Mr. Zakir’s description seems “aspirational.” He and other critics have said the program is more likely to exacerbate ethnic resentment than promote harmony.
“I think it’s quite dubious that this can be effective in the long term,” Mr. Leibold said.
The Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims mostly based in Xinjiang. They make up about 45% of the population there.
They see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations, and their language is similar to Turkish.
In recent decades, large numbers of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) have migrated to Xinjiang, and the Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat.
Xinjiang is officially designated as an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south. It has seen cycles of violence and crackdowns for years, but rights groups say the current operation goes far beyond tackling terrorism and could ultimately worsen the security situation.
The World Uyghur Congress has said people are being held in detention indefinitely without charge.
Some former detainees have told the BBC of physical as well as psychological torture. They allege that entire families have disappeared.
Human Rights Watch has accused China of “rampant abuses” which violate the rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy.
Nikki Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, denounced the situation in the region as “straight out of George Orwell.”
Speaking to a meeting of defense ministers in Washington Monday, Haley said Beijing was engaged in “the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.”
“Their brutal tactics are self-fulfilling. They’re busy creating the very radicalism they claim to be tamping down,” she said.
The US has said it would consider sanctioning China over its policies.
In a statement Tuesday, Human Rights Watch called for the Chinese government to release children allegedly sent to orphanages while their parents have been placed in detention.
“Governments that weren’t previously outraged by Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang should press China to change course immediately and limit the long-term harm of these policies,” said HRW China director Sophie Richardson.
Last week, a bipartisan panel in Washington issued a report condemning the indoctrination camps. Lawmakers on the panel, including Senator Marco Rubio, proposed legislation that would punish China for the detention program.