Western governments and human rights groups, as well as a United Nations panel, estimate that China has held up to a million people — nearly all of who belong to Muslim ethnic minorities — in a secretive network of reeducation centers operating outside the scope of Chinese courts. A growing body of first-person testimony from inside the centers, backed by satellite imagery and Chinese government documents and reports, have painted a picture of grueling facilities that ostensibly offer educational courses but operate to erase detainees’ sense of religious and ethnic identity through forced repetition, confessions and drills.
Although various Chinese government officials have previously issued patchy defenses of the program or denied its existence outright, Beijing has made a concerted push in recent weeks to argue its perspective: that the facilities dispense mild but necessary education to steer the population of Xinjiang, which has at least 10 million Muslims in an area half the size of India, away from extremist ideology.
“As a result of the vocational education and training, the social environment of Xinjiang has seen notable changes, with a healthy atmosphere on the rise and improper practices declining,” said Zakir, who is a member of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority that makes up a majority of those detained.
In the past decade, Xinjiang, a vast territory bordering Central Asia, and other parts of China have suffered attacks, including bombings and mass knife assaults, that officials blame on Uighur extremists. And between 2013 and 2015, Syria-based militant groups have used messaging apps to goad thousands, of men, women and children to flee the suffocating security environment in Xinjiang for the Middle East.
Chinese authorities responded with an unprecedented crackdown that combines sophisticated digital surveillance with a sprawling reeducation effort, sweeping up Muslim residents who maintain contact with overseas relatives, study at Islamic schools known as madrassas abroad, or simply have habits such as praying regularly or growing beards. The measures are vastly disproportionate to the militant threat facing China and could exacerbate violent extremism, international rights groups and U.S. State Department officials have warned.
Large numbers of people are believed to have been swept up since the centers began proliferating in 2017, and relatively few have emerged. Zakir signaled Tuesday that might change once some students finish their training, although he did not give details about the number of detainees who might be released — or how many are held.
He did, however, acknowledge that some of those held had been merely “influenced” by extremism and did not commit crimes. Those detainees are receiving lenient treatment that involves lessons in Mandarin, garment-making and electronics assembly, he said in an apparent counterpoint to criticism about the mass detentions’ arbitrary and extrajudicial nature.
Zakir denied any mistreatment of detainees, instead describing them as liberated in a setting where radio, TV, sports, dancing and singing can be enjoyed by those who were previously under the sway of fundamentalist religion.
“Now they have realized that life can be so colorful,” he added.
Hours later Tuesday evening, China’s state broadcaster CCTV aired a 15-minute segment about the centers, in which men and women in uniforms were shown reciting from Mandarin textbooks, learning to sew and playing board games.
“Before, I didn’t have any skills,” a young man named Miqit said to the camera as a narrator stated that he previously did not work or study because he was consumed by religion. “Now my parents are happy. I am happy.”
Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch who has published extensively on Xinjiang’s reeducation centers, said China’s argument that the reeducation system is designed for the benefit of those held inside “only serves to deprive detainees of basic procedural protections available in China’s criminal-justice system, such as access to lawyers.”
“The speech is targeted at the international community in response to an avalanche of international reporting and condemnation on Xinjiang’s political education camps and high level of repression,” Wang said. “The Xinjiang authorities’ clumsy justifications for these camps only serve to illustrate what ‘the rule of law’ in China means — that the [Communist] Party bends it to its will and uses it as a weapon against perceived political enemies, whether they are human rights activists, minorities or political rivals.”
Zakir’s comments appeared to be designed to rebut allegations of the detention program’s human rights violations — and criticisms about its lack of grounding in Chinese law — at a time when Beijing is preparing to face an annual United Nations Human Rights Council meeting. The remarks surfaced days after Xinjiang’s legislature announced a revision to its anti-extremism law that offered legal cover for local authorities to establish “education and transformation organizations.”
If the Xinhua article containing Zakir’s statements, published in English and Chinese, was carefully measured in its construction, other officials and state organs have hit more strident — and conspiratorial — tones in China’s defense.
Last week, a Xinjiang website run by provincial authorities compared Western governments that criticized human rights in Xinjiang to “shrill housewives.” Over the weekend, a Chinese diplomat in Islamabad publicly lashed out at Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who had tweeted a report about Xinjiang. The diplomat called Haqqani corrupt and “without soul” — comments that ricocheted around Pakistani social media.
After the Xinhua article published, Hu Xijin, the influential editor of the state-run Global Times tabloid, argued that Western forces were using the Xinjiang issue to try to undermine China.
“The West just cares about finding faults with China and accusing us with nonexistent wrongdoings,” he said in a video post on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website. “They put pressure on China on the global stage and try to mess up the governance of Xinjiang. In fact, those Western forces don’t care about the well-being of Xinjiang residents at all.”