- The governor of Xinjiang, western China, claimed that Uighur Muslims in his region’s re-education camps have a good life.
- He said they were taught history and hairdressing, among other courses to make life “colourful.”
- Former detainees, meanwhile, have described being physically and psychologically tortured.
- China subjects Uighurs to brutal and intrusive surveillance measures, which it describes as counterterrorism measures.
China has claimed that its controversial re-education camps – where persecuted Muslim ethnic minorities have described being beaten up and forced to chant patriotic songs or starve – were “free vocational training” centres that make life more “colourful.”
Xinjiang government chairman Shohrat Zakir made the claim to the state-run Xinhua news agency on Tuesday, referring to camps in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where 11 million members of the Uighur minority live.
Zakir said the camps exist “to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening.”
His remarks are the first detailed description of re-education camps from a Chinese official. His account could not be further from how former detainees and witnesses have described those camps.
Hairdressing courses and film-screening rooms, according to Beijing
Zakir said that people in the camps “will advance from learning the country’s common language, to learning legal knowledge and vocational skills.” He added that they will take lessons in subjects like Chinese history and constitutional law.
The vocational skills training includes courses on making clothes and footwear, assembling electronic products, typesetting, and hairdressing, Zakir said.
“Businesses in garment making, mobile phone assembly and ethnic cuisine catering are arranged to offer trainees practical opportunities,” he said.
He also claimed that the centres have reading rooms, film-screening rooms, auditoriums, and open-air stages.
“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 realised that life can be so colourful,” Zakir said, adding that the centres “pay high attention to the trainees’ mental health” and provide psychological counseling services.
Physical and psychological torture, according to former detainees
People who have witnessed or been interned in one of Xinjiang’s re-education or detention camps have described being shackled and beaten up, and forced to sing patriotic songs about Chinese President Xi Jinping in order to be fed.
Some also described being told to renounce their religion, and believe that the Communist Party would take care of them instead, according to The Guardian.
A former detainee told Human Rights Watch that he tried to kill himself while in one of the camps, and was given seven extra years of imprisonment as punishment for attempting suicide.
Many people also described being detained for bizarre and flimsy reasons, such as setting a clock to two hours behind Beijing time, or knowing people who had travelled out of Xinjiang.
Zakir’s remarks come as Xinjiang regional authorities passed new laws to encourage the building of “re-education centres” in Xinjiang, which Beijing previously said did not exist.
The new laws also called on tech companies to install “monitoring systems” on people’s devices and stop the transmission of messages unsavoury to the Chinese regime.
Earlier this year activists claimed that China has imprisoned 1 million Uighurs in detention centres or re-education camps in the region. The United Nations in August also said it received “numerous and credible reports” of those figures.
Beijing has repeatedly denied that number. On Monday, Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper, claimed that the number of people in those camps were “much fewer” than the 1 million figure. He did not give another figure.
Hu added on Tuesday: “Vocational training centres may not be the ideal solution, but it works.”
Uighurs are subject to some of the most brutal and intrusive surveillance in the world, which include being monitored by 40,000 facial recognition cameras across the region, and having their DNA samples and blood types recorded.
China justifies the surveillance as a counterterrorism measure, having blamed Uighurs for hundreds of terror attacks and riots over the past years.
Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, also claimed in a Tuesday tweet that “thousands of terrorist incidents happened in Xinjiang” from the 1990s, but that “there is 0 terrorist attack in [the past] 21 months.”
Leaders of the Muslim world have largely been silent over China’s Uighur crisis. But over the last month Pakistan and Malaysia – two of China’s largest economic allies in the Islamic world – broke ranks to criticise China’s activity in Xinjiang. Hundreds of people across Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan have also been protesting.
The US is watching
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN who recently resigned, slammed China’s internment of Uighurs at a dinner for defence chiefs in Washington, DC, on Monday.
“In China, the government is engaged in the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities that is straight out of George Orwell,” she said, according to Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin.
“It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today – it may be the largest since World War II,” Haley added.
A group of bipartisan US senators also wrote a letter last month pushing for sanctions against Beijing over its Uighur surveillance.