Beijing has gone on the PR offensive, following condemnation in response to growing evidence that China has detained one million ethnic Muslims and put as many as two million into re-education and indoctrination training camps in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
This is a lengthy fact check, because the Xinjiang chairman’s claims are voluminous and, ultimately, unverifiable.
“It is safe to say that the Chinese government is starting to feel the international pressure groups generated by the human rights community and foreign governments around the world,” Francisco Bencosme, Asia Pacific Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA, told Polygraph.info.
Having previously denied such camps even existed, a high-ranking regional official has now rebranded the facilities as “people oriented” vocational institutes and schools.
Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, told state-run Xinhua News Agency that the "three evil forces" of terrorism, extremism, and separatism were the driving forces for launching the “vocational education and training program.” He added that the country has spared no efforts in protecting the basic human rights of citizens from the harm of terrorism and extremism.
Zakir said the vocational education and training program is in accordance with the constitution, the law on regional ethnic autonomy (which entitles citizens to the right of freedom of religious belief) and the “legislation law,” a set of official rules governing the adoption of Chinese national laws.
Zakir said vocational training had “enhanced” the sense of community of the Chinese nation, helped “trainees” master the country's common language, increased their knowledge of the rule of law, and helped trainees realize they “are firstly citizens of the nation.”
He also claimed that training had led to “notable changes” in the social environment.
Zakir said the faculties of the “institutions and schools” had done their best to “meet the trainees' needs in study, life, and entertainment on the basis of free education.”
“Faculties of the institutions and schools also try their best to ensure and meet the trainees' needs in study, life, and entertainment on the basis of free education. The cafeteria prepares nutritious free diets, and the dormitories are fully equipped with radio, TV, air conditioning, bathroom and shower. Indoor and outdoor sports venues for basketball, volleyball and table tennis have been built, along with reading rooms, computer labs, film screening rooms, as well as performance venues such as small auditoriums and open-air stages,” Zakir said.
“Various activities such as contests on speech, writing, dancing, singing and sports are organized. 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 realized that life can be so colorful.”
Mental health care, access to garment making and ethnic cuisine catering courses, and a paid basic income are all purportedly on offer.
"I didn't understand the country's common language, nor did I know about the laws,” Zakir cites one trainee as allegedly saying. “I wouldn't even have known that I had made mistakes. But the government didn't give me up. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education. Now I have made great progress in many aspects. I will cherish this opportunity and become a person useful to the country and society."
His comments followed a statement by outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who described the reeducation camps in Xinjiang as "straight out of George Orwell."
"At least a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been imprisoned in so-called 're-education camps' in western China," Fox News cited her as saying at the Chiefs of Defense Conference Dinner in Washington on Tuesday, October 16. She added that detainees are "tortured ... forced to renounce their religion and to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party."
Haley’s comments echoed similar sentiments expressed by a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Gay McDougall, who said Beijing had "turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp."
Gay and other rights experts expressed alarm over “credible reports” that China had interned one million people in counter-extremism centers and forced another two million into “re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination.”
Yu Jianhua, China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva, denied that such “reeducation centers” exist and that arbitrary detention is practiced. He said "the argument that a million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue."
Then, last week, the South China Morning reported that the regional government in Xinjiang had “legalized” the use of vocational and training centers to combat extremism.
“Governments at the county level and above can set up education and transformation organizations and supervising departments such as vocational training centers, to educate and transform people who have been influenced by extremism,” the newspaper cited a new clause in the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Regulation on Anti-Extremism” as saying.
But the legality of what has been described as a “retrospective justification” for the camps has been called into question.
“I don’t think the authorities ‘legalized’ these camps — the regional authorities have no legal authority to authorize detention systems, only the national legislature has that authority, and the latter has not legalized these facilities. These camps remain illegal under Chinese law,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Polygraph.info.
Government Control of the Press in Xinjiang
Following Beijing’s most recent volte-face, it remains difficult to separate fact from fiction due to the opaque media environment. As Wang noted, all Chinese journalists know to “steer clear” from XinJiang, while foreign journalists “are heavily surveilled if they set foot in the region, making reporting very difficult.”
Visits by Western journalists to Xinjian are rare, making it difficult or impossible to independently verify the government’s rosy picture or the claims of human rights groups and Western governments. Reporters for the Wall Street Journal traveled to the province 10 months ago, finding one detention facility “surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners… Villagers describe it as a detention center.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked China 176th out of 180 countries in its most recent annual World Press Freedom index.
Last month, a deputy editor, a head of a subsidiary newspaper, and two directors of the Xinjiang Daily group were arrested for being “two-faced” – a vague term “adopted by the Chinese authorities to accuse those who allegedly secretly oppose government policies,” RSF said.
Also in September, the Uighur editor-in-chief of a state-run literature magazine reportedly committed suicide “out of fear” of being detained in a political "re-education camp," sources told Radio Free Asia (RFA).
“Not satisfied with having virtually banned the region’s access to foreign media, President Xi Jinping is obviously trying to gag local media that does not print his propaganda,” Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau, said.
In March, China detained the close relatives of five reporters for RFA’s Uighur service in alleged “retaliation for their coverage of the Xinjiang region,” sparking condemnation from human rights and press freedom groups.
In August, Buzzfeed’s China bureau chief, Megha Rajagopalan, was effectively expelled from China after the country’s foreign ministry declined to issue her a new journalist visa – a move she linked to “reporting on and speaking about state surveillance, repression and incarceration of millions of Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
In December 2015, China’s foreign ministry refused to renew the accreditation of Ursula Gauthier, the Beijing-based correspondent for French news magazine L'Obs, claiming she had" flagrantly championed acts of terrorism and acts of cruelly killing innocents.”
Despite a near media blackout, reports do trickle out.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported eye-witness accounts that “dozens of people had been crammed into one room, forced to share a single toilet, being fed one meal of cabbage per day and told not to talk to anyone else.”
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, told RFA harsh consequences await those who resist reeducation.
"People have been tortured to death, while others have been beaten to death, or prevented from sleeping, or refused food or water," Raxit said. "Either that or they do whatever would be most humiliating to that person's psychological profile. Sometimes they humiliate them physically, and have been known to employ electric batons."
Murat, another Muslim from Xinjiang, told RFA “political education centers are generally like prisons.” He added: “Electric shocks, beatings, and humiliation all take place in there. It's very cruel."
Bencosme noted an interview that Amnesty International had conducted with Kairat Samarkan, who outlined his treatment in a “re-education” camp.
“Kairat said when he was detained at one of these camps he was hooded and made to wear shackles on his arms and legs,” Bencosme said. “They attached an iron bar with his arms spread wide and his body fixed in place so that he had to stand straight, unable to bend. They were forced to sing political songs and study the speeches of the Chinese Communist Party and praise the country. Kairat tried to take his own life while he was detained.”
And despite the alleged right to freedom of religious belief, Human Rights Watch claimed that with “unprecedented levels of control over religious practices, the authorities have effectively outlawed Islam in the region.”
Security and Surveillance in Xinjiang
For the 10-million strong Uighur population, the control reportedly extends far beyond camp walls.
A high-tech system of digital and biometric surveillance, checkpoints at virtually every corner, and the policing of individuals’ clothing and hair “are just some of the ways in which residents of Xinjiang experience restrictions on their individual rights even outside these camps,” Jessica Batke, a senior editor with the ChinaFile online magazine and a former research analyst at the U.S. State Department, told the Congressional Executive Commission on China, an independent U.S. government agency, in July.
Ultimately, the fact that there is a relatively small stream of eyewitness accounts aids China in its attempt to deny or obfuscate what is going on inside the camps.
Benscome said the restrictive nature of the camps forces rights groups to rely on interviews of those who have been released, making it difficult for those groups from independently verify many of the accounts of former detainees.
But Chinese authorities’ initial denials, followed by alleged ad hoc legal justifications for what is going on in the detention camps, point towards a concerted effort to shape public perceptions of what is really going in in Xinjiang.
“There is not enough lipstick on a pig that could hide the systematic repression that is going on in [Xinjiang] with up to one million people being arbitrarily detained. The Chinese government cannot continue to hide from the international community the ongoing human rights crisis occurring,” Benscome said.
Wang said HRW makes certain to “triangulate” its findings, not relying solely on accounts by eyewitnesses and families, but also examining documentary evidence, such as official documents and official social media posts.
“All of these point to an abusive campaign of mass arbitrary detention and other severe abuses in Xinjiang,” she said. “If the authorities are so confident that their detention camps are, in fact, just idyllic summer camps, then they should allow UN investigators, journalists and human rights organizations unfettered access to the region, including to these facilities, so we can see it for ourselves.”
The lack of verifiable information leads us to the verdict of “unclear.” However all signs point to a much darker conclusion. And with China itself stifling every effort at openness and transparency in Xinjiang’s allegedly life-affirming vocational schools, Polygraph.info finds its latest claims to be dubious at best.