A senior official in Xinjiang has described mass internment camps for Muslim minorities as “training” and “boarding schools” where residents receive vocational, legal, and language training as well as “de-extremisation education”.
Beijing has faced growing international criticism for its crackdown in Xinjiang, a far north-western territory of China where it holds as many as a million Muslims prisoner in camps. Former detainees have said that they were subjected to political indoctrination and abuse.
In a rare, detailed interview published by the state-run news agency Xinhua, the Xinjiang governor, Shohrat Zakir, said: “Xinjiang conducts vocational skills education and training according to law. The purpose is to fundamentally eliminate the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism, and eliminate the terrorism activities before they take place.”
Over the last few months, as scrutiny over the situation in Xinjiang has grown, Chinese officials have shifted from denying the existence of such camps to justifying and reframing how they are described. Zakir’s interview represents one of the most detailed accounts of China’s defence of the centres and what goes on inside them.
Zakir said residents at the centres in Xinjiang learn Mandarin “to accept modern science and enhance their understanding of Chinese history and culture”. Students received vocational training, including courses on making clothing and footwear, assembling electronics, hairdressing and e-commerce, he added.
Students undergo legal training on the Chinese constitution, China’s legal code, and local regulations, according to the governor. He said the centres were for people “influenced by terrorism and extremism” and suspected of “minor criminal offences” to receive “free vocational training”.
The interview follows a revision of local rules last week to allow the regional government to officially permit the use of “education and training centres”to incarcerate “people influenced by extremism”. The interview, detailing daily life at the camps and the various kinds of vocational training, appears to be an attempt to normalise the system.
“The Communist party is clearly on the defensive, seeking to deflect international criticism of its radical new policies in Xinjiang and justify them retrospectively,” said James Leopald, a scholar focusing on Chinese ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Former detainees of camps in Xinjiang told the Guardian they did not receive vocational training but spent most of their time being forced to study Mandarin, pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist party and memorise patriotic songs. Ex-detainees have detailed being tortured, isolated and cut off from their families. Most of those detained are ethnic Uighurs, as well as Kazakhs, Hui and other Muslim minorities.
The governor of Xinjiang described a life in the centres that is in stark contrast to the accounts given by witnesses of poor nutrition and constant surveillance. One former detainee told the Guardian he had attempted to kill himself.
Zakir said the training institutions “care about the mental health of students” and provide counselling services. He said the cafeterias in the camps prepare “nutritious diets” and that all dormitories were equipped with radios, televisions, and air conditioning. Facilities for basketball, volleyball, table tennis and stages for performances have been built, he added. Activities such as writing, singing and dance contests are also organised for students, he said.
“Many trainees have said they were previously affected by extremist thought and had never participated in such kinds of arts and sports activities. Now they realise how colourful life can be,” Zakir said.
The governor did not say how many “trainees” were at the centres or how long their courses were but indicated the programmes were temporary. Zakir said some trainees were “expected to complete their courses successfully by the end of this year.”