BEIJING — Frontier Services Group, the security contractor led by Erik Prince, who created the controversial Blackwater company, will build a training base in Xinjiang, the western Chinese region where as many as 1 million Muslims have been put into extrajudicial detention camps.
The security company said the plans were at a “very early” stage, and it could not say what kind of training would be carried out at the base, which will be built with a Chinese state-backed company.
Over the past two years, the Chinese government has been running a sweeping campaign to “sinicize” the Xinjiang area, which is home to a large Muslim population belonging to the ethnic Uighur minority. It has created “vocational training camps” to “de-radicalize” people it calls Islamic extremists.
Frontier Services Group signed a deal on Jan. 11 to build a training center in the Caohu industrial park in the Xinjiang city of Tumxuk, the company said in a Chinese-language statement on its website.
The signing ceremony was attended by officials from Tumxuk, a city controlled by a Xinjiang farming and paramilitary group known as the “bingtuan,” and from CITIC Guoan Construction, part of an enormous state-run conglomerate.
The deal was first reported by the Reuters news agency, and the statement disappeared from the company’s website soon after, although a cached copy can still be viewed. A spokesman for the company, Marc Cohen, said the statement was posted on the website by mistake, and he did not answer questions about what kind of training would be done at the center.
The group would invest $6 million in the center, which would be able to train 8,000 people a year, according to the state-run Foshan News Network, which reported on the signing ceremony.
The now-deleted photo of the signing ceremony on Frontier’s website showed Chinese officials but did not show Prince, who is the company’s executive director and deputy chairman.
Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is a former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater, a military contractor that was controversial for its actions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A former Blackwater security guard was sentenced to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms in 2015 for killing 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.
Frontier, through its spokesman, tried to distance Prince from the Xinjiang project.
“Mr. Prince is a minority shareholder in FSG and deputy chairman. He had no knowledge or involvement whatsoever with this preliminary memorandum regarding the company’s activity in Xinjiang,” Cohen said in an email.
“Any potential investment of this nature would require the knowledge and input of each FSG board member and a formal board resolution,” he said.
Frontier, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, has focused its business on China. It has an office in Beijing but also in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar.
In 2017, Frontier opened the International Security Defense College in Beijing, which it said aimed to become “the largest private security training school in China” but was meant to protect Chinese enterprises in Africa and Asia rather than support China’s domestic police or military.
The company is also scouting for business in the countries that China is targeting for its “Belt and Road” initiative, which is building infrastructure and spreading China’s influence around the world.
It has inked deals in countries including Kazakhstan and Myanmar, as well as across Africa. In December, Frontier received a license to operate a security business in Cambodia, and it will soon start offering “services such as cash escort, airport security, VIP close protection in Cambodia,” the company said on its website.
Xinjiang borders the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, making it the Chinese gateway to Europe and a key stop on the Belt and Road.
But it has also been the site of an all-encompassing crackdown.
Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been interned in the barbed-wire-ringed camps, where they are forced to speak Mandarin Chinese and pledge allegiance to the Communist Party.
Western governments and human rights advocates have said the camps are prisons and that the state is trying to dilute Uighur language and culture, while strengthening its control over the region.
The U.S. Senate is considering putting sanctions on China over its mass internment and indoctrination program.
The United Nations says as many as 1 million people have been detained there, but a State Department official last month put the number as high as 2 million.
“Reports suggest that most of those detained are not being charged with crimes and their families have little to no information about their whereabouts,” said Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights, according to the Hill.
“Former detainees who have reached safety have spoken of relentless indoctrination and harsh conditions. For example, praying and other religious practices are forbidden,” he said. “The apparent goal is to force detainees to renounce Islam and embrace the Chinese Communist Party.”