acing mounting international criticism, China is now looking to flip the narrative on its secretive indoctrination camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, casting them as fun-filled centers of learning where “trainees” previously under the influence of extremism can turn around their lives by becoming fluent in Mandarin and picking up new skills like shoe-making in between carefree games of volleyball and nutritious meals.
When first accused back in August of detaining as many as 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, China angrily denied the accusations while also admitting to holding an undisclosed number of individuals in what it called “vocational education and employment training centers.” Afterward, Chinese officials mostly kept mum and indignant on the subject, sticking closely to that vague narrative, which, of course, failed to appease Beijing’s critics.
In an apparent attempt at warding off continued global condemnation, China’s official Xinhua news agency published a lengthy interview with Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir on Tuesday which was translated into English, providing China’s most detailed defense yet of its “professional vocational training institutions.”
According to Zakir, those at the training institutions are given free lessons in the Chinese language and in Chinese law in order to help them “gain modern science knowledge and enhance their understanding of Chinese history, culture and national conditions.” The “trainees” are also taught skills to help them find good jobs after “graduation.”
Among the vocational training programs on offer at these institutions, Zakir listed courses on “clothing and footwear making, food processing, electronic product assembly, typesetting and printing, hairdressing and e-commerce.”
Claiming that the centers help trainees “expect and pursue a modern life,” Zakir quotes one as saying:
I didn’t understand the country’s common language, nor did I know about the laws. I wouldn’t even have known that I had made mistakes. But the government didn’t give me up. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education. Now I have made great progress in many aspects. I will cherish this opportunity and become a person useful to the country and society.
Zakir claimed that the “trainees” are paid basic incomes and bonuses for their work, adding that the centers are careful to respect and protect the various customs and habits of each ethnic group, providing them all with “nutritious” and appropriate meals.
Meanwhile, the “trainees'” dormitories come “fully equipped” with radio, TV, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a shower, Zakir said, adding that the institutions themselves also boast sports venues for basketball, volleyball, and table tennis, along with reading rooms, computer labs, film screening rooms, and performance venues where various activities take place.
“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.
While they may have been largely a secret to the world only a few months ago, Zakir credits the centers with playing an important part in “countering terrorism, maintaining stability, and eradicating extremism in Xinjiang,” declaring:
Since its launch, the work has won high recognition and sincere support from people of all ethnic groups across Xinjiang. It has played an important role in achieving social stability and enduring peace and security in Xinjiang, and served as a positive exploration and constructive attempt for the international community in countering terrorism and eradicating extremism.
According to Zakir, those at the centers are people who have been “influenced by terrorism and extremism” or have been “suspected of minor criminal offenses.” The interview tellingly fails to mention how many people are being held at these camps across the region and is careful to never mention any words like “detainee” or “detainment.”
The interview with Zakir comes one week after China amended anti-extremism rules to allow local governments to set up “vocational training centers” where those who have been “influenced by extremism” can be transformed through education, evidently trying to provide some belated legal cover for its re-education system.
On Tuesday evening state broadcaster CCTV aired a 15-minute segment praising the centers and the “beautiful” changes that they are making in Xinjiang. The video includes footage of happy “trainees” enjoying their time at one center and thanking the Chinese government for improving their lives.
Needless to say, former detainees have described these camps much differently. Rather than basketball games and hairdressing lessons, they remember instead the long hours of political indoctrination where they were forced to sing patriotic Chinese songs including hymns praising Xi Jinping, along with the nights where they were forced to sleep in cramped rooms with 35 other people while sometimes chained to their bed, and the times they experienced or were witness to beatings, abuse, and torture at the hands of Chinese authorities.