China defends its de-radicalization education camps for Muslims

The Chinese government has faced accusations from activists, scholars, foreign governments, and United Nations (U.N.) rights experts over what they call mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, China. In August 2018, a U.N. human rights panel said it had received credible reports that a million or more Uighurs and other minorities in the far western region are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp.” However, senior officials, including Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s Governor and the region’s most senior Uighur, dismissed what they called “slanderous lies” about the facilities.

In response, Chinese government officials organized a visit for foreign reporters last week to three of these facilities, which it calls vocational education training centers, and a similar visit for diplomats from 12 non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. China believes its de-radicalization program in Xinjiang is highly successful but acknowledged fewer people will be sent through going forward. The reason for this is unclear, and it is unknown if the Muslim population is a stagnant figure, which perhaps explains the decrease in future numbers.

Speaking in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, Mr. Zakir said the centers had been “extremely effective” in reducing extremism by teaching residents about the law and helping them learn Mandarin. “As time goes by, the people in the education training mechanism will be fewer and fewer,” he said, adding, “One million people, this number is rather frightening. One million people in the education mechanism - that’s not realistic. That’s purely a rumor.” He stressed these are temporary educational facilities. Residents can “graduate” when they are judged to have reached a certain level with their Mandarin, de-radicalisation, and legal knowledge.

The government says its goal is for Uighurs to become part of mainstream Chinese society. Mr. Zakir said in parts of southern Xinjiang people couldn’t even say hello in Mandarin, and government officials point to a lack of violence in the past two years as evidence of program’s success. “Only with a deeper understanding of the past can you understand the measures we have taken today,” Shi Lei, Xinjiang’s Communist Party committee deputy propaganda chief, told reporters. One member of the Chinese armed forces, who has served in Kashgar, said the security situation had improved dramatically. “You can’t imagine what it was like there in 2014 and 2015. There were attacks all the time, bombings, stabbings. It was chaos,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Kashgar deputy party chief Zark Zurdun, a Uighur from Ghulja in northern Xinjiang, where many ethnic Kazakhs live, told reporters that “stability is the best human right” and “The West should learn from us” on how to beat extremism, dismissing concerns Uighur culture was under attack. “Did Kazakh vanish in the USSR when they all had to learn Russian? No. So Uighur won’t vanish here,” he added.