Chinese official claims Xinjiang camps are ‘vocational centres’

Official says life in Xinjiang better since crackdown on Islamist fundamentalists began

A senior Chinese Communist Party official has defended the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in the restive western region of Xinjiang, saying the camps have a chiefly vocational function that is essential to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Shohrat Zakir, the number two Communist Party official and most senior ethnic Uighur in Xinjiang, made what is the most comprehensive defence so far of the camps, which have angered rights groups and some overseas governments.

“Through vocational training, most trainees have been able to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism. They have notably enhanced national consciousness, civil awareness, awareness of the rule of law and the sense of community of the Chinese nation,” he said in a lengthy interview with the Xinhua news agency

China says Xinjiang faces a genuine threat from Islamist militants and separatists. Tensions between the Uighurs and the ethnic Han majority in China have intensified in recent years, and hundreds have been killed in unrest between the two communities.


Mass detentions

Reports from UN agencies of mass detentions of about one million people, combined with strict surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, has prompted the US to consider sanctions. China initially denied arbitrary detention and political re-education across a network of secret camps, instead saying that they were vocational centres for minor offences.

Mr Zakir said that inmates were happier after their time locked up because the camps had a strong vocational element.

“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 realised that life can be so colourful,” Mr Zakir said in the interview, adding that the lessons learned in the camps had prevented violent attacks over the last 21 months.

Human rights groups and former detainees alleged that conditions in the camps were poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse, but Mr Zakir said facilities were very top notch, with computer labs and reading rooms, excellent cafe facilities, air conditioning, bathrooms and showers, and auditoriums and open-air stages.

Tourism booming

He said that since the government had stepped up security measures in Xinjiang, China’s biggest province and the source of much of its oil and gas, people’s livelihoods had started to improve, tourism was booming, and the economy was up strongly, as was disposable income.

Detainees are tutored in the Chinese language – a key complaint by the Uighurs is that their culture is being subsumed by Han Chinese culture, and they also have lectures on the constitution. They learn skills such as making clothes and shoes, food processing, assembling electronic products, typesetting and printing, hairdressing and ecommerce, Mr Zakir said.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing