Signaling the start of a new phase in Xinjiang, officials quoted reams of figures to support their claims that life in Xinjiang had improved remarkably under 70 years of Communist rule and that the government’s “deradicalization” campaign had been effective.
“All ethnicities have worked together to make Xinjiang a beautiful place,” Shohrat Zakir, deputy secretary of the Communist Party of China in Xinjiang and the highest-profile Uighur in the government, told reporters at a news conference organized by the State Council, or cabinet office, on Tuesday.
As if to show the harmony of Xinjiang, the State Council had organized Uighurs to sing and dance for reporters, and there were traditional handicrafts and dried fruit on display, along with signs saying, “Build a beautiful Xinjiang. Realize the Chinese Dream.”
The government’s portrayal of the situation in Xinjiang differs sharply from firsthand accounts of life there, with former inmates having described a systematic effort to rid the minority Uighurs of their culture and religion and make them assimilate into the Mandarin-speaking ethnic Han majority.
Some people who have emerged from the camps have managed to escape from China or at least get word to relatives, despite the Chinese government’s restrictions on international communication and heavy surveillance.
They describe camps of relentless indoctrination, where Muslim Uighurs are being forced to renounce their religion and instead swear allegiance to the ruling Communist Party.
There are about 11 million Uighurs living in the Xinjiang region of western China, and between 1 million and 3 million of them have been detained in camps since 2017, according to American government and human rights group estimates.
At the same time, Chinese authorities have razed mosques, forced men to shave their beards and women to leave their hair uncovered, and have instituted an all-encompassing surveillance system involving facial recognition cameras, ubiquitous checkpoints and placing ethnic majority Han Chinese in Uighur households to keep tabs on ethnic minority families.
The Chinese government, after long denying the existence of the camps, by the end of last year could no longer argue with the satellite imagery showing huge detention centers with barbed wire and watchtowers. It suddenly announced that the sites were “vocational training centers” designed to “deradicalize” extremists in the area.
Asked about the camps, Zakir and Alken Tuniaz, another senior Communist official in Xinjiang, said that they were aimed at the “deradicalization” of people who had been influenced by extremists from surrounding countries.
“We have taken measures to educate and save these people and help them see the real picture,” Zakir said. “For these people we have set up vocational education and training camps. They are not concentration camps as some people have said.”
Media reports about brainwashing at the camps were “fabricated” and “totally groundless,” he said, noting that the authorities had started to open the camps to visitors, including selected diplomats and journalists, last year.
Those who have been through the camps describe witnessing almost the exact same scenes, right down to the detainees singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in English.
Tuniaz said that people were not allowed to practice their religion in the camps — the first time a Chinese official has confirmed this — but said that their “freedom of religious beliefs is protected” in the centers.
“There was a man who hadn’t cut his beard,” said Tuniaz. “After the training at the center, he has the language skills to communicate and he can understand what is legal and illegal, and he has now started a business. His elderly father shook my hand and thanked the government for saving his son.”
The program had been successful and “most of the graduates have reintegrated into society,” Tuniaz said.
“More than 90 percent of the graduates have found satisfactory jobs and good incomes and have become positive members of society. They have also driven other people around them to get rich and work hard and live a better life,” he said.
The officials declined to say how many people had been through the camps, describing the number as “dynamic.”
But academics and activists monitoring the situation in Xinjiang say there have been no signs of mass liberations from the camp.
“I don’t see any evidence that large numbers are being released simultaneously,” said James Leibold, an expert on Xinjiang who teaches at La Trobe University in Australia. “If they were out, we would know.”
The camps have come in for sharp criticism from mostly Western countries, with more than 20 countries — including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan — writing to the U.N. Human Rights Council to express concern “about credible reports of arbitrary detention” of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
China this week said that 50 countries — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan — have written a joint letter commending Beijing for its counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts and on the economic and social progress in Xinjiang.
The Foreign Ministry declined to supply the letter or the list of the 50 countries to The Washington Post, even though it has been all over state media this week, saying it was up to the Human Rights Council to release the information.
The Chinese authorities now seem to be turning to a new phase in their operation of the camps and their repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, experts say.
In a report published this month, German scholar Adrian Zenz wrote that growing numbers of detainees have been released from camps into forced labor.
“The state’s long-term stability maintenance strategy in Xinjiang is predicated upon a perverse and extremely intrusive combination of forced or at least involuntary training and labor,” he wrote, describing factory and other work as part of a supposed poverty-alleviation effort.
State newspapers and television channels this week have been full of reports about how happy and stable Xinjiang has become.
The Xinjiang Daily has constantly exhorted readers to “remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind” — a phrase from the president about building a strong Communist Party. Almost every day, government officials and party cadres in Xinjiang are studying the Xi Jinping Thought doctrine and organizing self-reflection sessions, asking themselves: “Did we do things right?” the paper reported this week.
Separately, in a white paper titled “Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang” released this month, the State Council said that the area had “ long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory.” It also said that the area had “never been the so-called ‘East Turkestan’ ” — referring to the name that many Uighur activists use for the area — and that Uighurs were not a Turkic group. Academics called this historical revisionism.