China defends re-education centres in Xinjiang

Beijing: China on Tuesday said that re-education camps in Xinjiang, in which human rights organisations say close to one million ethnic Uyghurs are being held, were actually part of vocational training programmes aimed at eradicating terrorism and religious extremism.

Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said the camps – whose existence China had until recently denied – were opened under the directive of Chinese President Xi Jinping to fight against the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism, reports Efe news.

“Xinjiang has launched a vocational education and training program according to the law. Its purpose is to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening,” Zakir said.

This is the first time that the Chinese authorities have publicly discussed their vision of these re-education camps amid widespread criticism from the international community.

Last week, China formalised the use of these centres “to educate and transform people who have been influenced by extremism” by introducing a new clause in its legislation.

The regional head of government added that the residents of Xinjiang, most of whom are Muslims, “often have difficulties in finding employment due to limited vocational skills” which has made them “vulnerable to the instigation and coercion of terrorism and extremism”.

For that reason, Xinjiang authorities have provided them with “free vocational training,” he said.

The head of Xinjiang’s government made no reference to claims by organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of abuse, torture and deaths in custody at these centres.

Zakir said that the camps’ occupants were taught the country’s common language and legal knowledge and were “paid basic incomes and a bonus”.

He also said the centres were equipped with all kinds of facilities, including indoor and outdoor sports venues, film screening rooms and dancing activities, in stark contrast with the accounts of former detainees, who said the deplorable conditions had driven some inmates to suicide.

One former camp occupant, Kairat Samarkan, who held in one of the centres between October 2017 and Februrary 2018, told Amnesty that he was “hooded, made to wear shackles on his arms and legs and was forced to stand in a fixed position for 12 hours when first detained”.

The families of the detainees, who are not accused of any crimes, have said they have had no contact nor any knowledge of their relatives’ whereabouts or wellbeing.

In a report published on Tuesday, The Human Rights Watch said that the detainees’ children have been taken to state orphanages, “adding to the trauma” caused to them by the government’s “sustained assault on the cultural identity of Turkic Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang”.

In August, China had denied to the UN the existence of the re-education camps, which hold Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups of the region.

In Xinjiang, Muslims, of whom there are around 23 million in China, cannot freely practice their religion since they are forbidden from wearing veils, are banned from sporting “abnormal” beards, praying regularly or having books on Islam or the Uyghur culture, all of which China considers “extremist”.