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World ‘My wife has become more considerate. My kids are proud’: China offers its own account of political indoctrination camps

The Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Shohrat Zakir talks during a session of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on the sidelines of the National People's Congress Beijing, March 13, 2018.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Chinese centres for “vocational education and training” provide students training, entertainment, food and even sporting opportunities – all for free – as they prepare people who were once petty criminals for productive work assembling cellphones, making shoes and cutting hair, according to a lengthy new defence of government policies in China’s far western Xinjiang region.

Some of those who have spent time inside the centres have told Western journalists the severe conditions and inadequate food, combined with forcible political indoctrination, led them to attempt suicide. One former trainer told The Globe and Mail that instruction included “many mentally oppressive and cruel things” that inflicted “pain, scars and pressure” on detainees, while offering no discernible benefit.

But in a 3,000-word interview published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday, Shohrat Zakir, one of the top officials in Xinjiang, gave a strikingly different account, saying many trainees have shaken off extremism and, because of what they learned, have now “realized that life can be so colourful.”

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Mr. Zakir’s comments provide the most detailed authorized description to date of activities inside a network of political indoctrination centres built across Xinjiang in the past two years. Foreign scholars estimate that hundreds of thousands, and perhaps a million, people have been detained and forced to recite Communist ideology and study Mandarin Chinese. Many of them are Muslim members of ethnic minorities in China, including Kazakhs and Uyghurs.

Mr. Zakir does not mention Islam, nor does he discuss numbers; Hu Xijin, editor of the Communist-run tabloid Global Times, said on Twitter this week that “it is much fewer than [the] ‘1 million or so’ speculated by the outside world.”

But the interview with the Xinjiang leader was published amid a broader Chinese effort to deflect criticism that it has arbitrarily detained large numbers of Muslims in what the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China has termed “the largest mass internment of an ethnic minority population since World War II.” The Commission last week asked the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of the 2022 Games.

The United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination also said in August it was alarmed by “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.” Former detainees have said they were taken away not for criminal reasons, but for having contact with foreigners or wearing religious clothing that Beijing has deemed extremist.

Mr. Zakir, however, said China has acted to “educate and save the majority of those who committed petty crimes, through assistance and education, to prevent them from becoming victims of terrorism and extremism.”

Xinjiang, he said, has “spared no efforts in protecting the basic human rights of the citizens from the harm of terrorism and extremism.”

He described a program designed to build model citizens and employable workers, saying those who enter “vocational training institutions” must first sign an agreement before being placed into a program that, at no charge, offers linguistic tutoring, lessons in Chinese laws and history and instruction in “clothing and footwear making, food processing, electronic product assembly, typesetting and printing, hairdressing and e-commerce.”

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Those receiving skills training “are paid basic incomes and a bonus. The mechanism has taken shape in which the trainees can learn, practice and earn money,” he said.

While in training, they receive “nutritious free diets” at a cafeteria, while “dormitories are fully equipped with radio, TV, air conditioning, bathroom and shower.” Sports and recreation facilities are provided, as are performance venues, he said, and trainees have seen improvements in “national consciousness” and their ability to “tell right from wrong and resist the infiltration of extremist thought.”

Mr. Zakir appeared to give credence to reports that few people have been released from the political indoctrination centres, saying “some trainees have come close to or reached the completion standard agreed in the training agreements.” Some are expected to finish by year-end, he said.

Even so, he cited comments from one trainee who claimed the experience had raised his income, and his self-respect: “I can stand tall and start receiving praise from my elders. My wife has become more considerate. My kids are proud of me.”

Analysts at Trivium China, a Beijing-based research analysis firm, came to a very different conclusion: “We think heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang are alienating the non-Han populations and likely sowing instability for decades,” Trivium said in an e-mail newsletter.

Mr. Zakir’s account is unlikely to assuage global concern about mass indoctrination in Xinjiang, said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not going to work, because the abuses are massive and they can’t just be simply wiped away with some rhetorical gymnastics,” she said.

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Detaining people without charge is contrary to China’s own law, she said, noting that Mr. Zakir’s justifications echo those for an earlier abusive system of “reform through labour,” which China recently abolished. These are “elaborate justifications that are meant to provide a psychological explanation for the abusers to feel they are not abusing these people at all,” Ms. Wang said.

It’s not clear, either, how many of Mr. Zakir’s statements are factual, or whether they describe only some elements of a multilayered system of indoctrination.

Although former detainees have described political, language and computer instruction, none interviewed by The Globe or organizations such as Human Rights Watch have described substantial skills training. The choice of vocations described by Mr. Zakir is also at odds with Xinjiang’s industrial needs. Local statistics show that clothing makes up only 0.1 per cent of manufacturing output in the region. Production of electronics is just 0.5 per cent. Both industries are concentrated in other parts of China.

Satellite imagery, meanwhile, shows no evidence of outdoor sporting facilities at some sites identified as indoctrination centres by government reports and procurement documents, including a massive location just outside the capital, Urumqi. (Some, however, are repurposed schools, which do have outdoor fitness grounds.)

Other supposed amenities cited by Mr. Zakir may serve a very different function, noted Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia who has gathered evidence about indoctrination facilities.

“For reading rooms, computer, film, auditoriums, I don’t know, I can’t tell from satellite” if they exist, he said. “But I think it is very likely political indoctrination needs these.”

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