Top officials in Xinjiang have hinted that the system of internment centres used to hold a million Muslim minorities may one day be phased out.
Researchers say huge numbers of people, mostly Uighur Muslims, are being held in detention and re-education camps in the western territory as part of a huge security crackdown in the name of counter-terrorism efforts.
Defending their policies at a session of China's legislative meeting, the National People's Congress, officials said the camps – which China describes as vocational training centres – would be phased out if no longer needed.
"In general there will be fewer and fewer students in the centres. If one day our society doesn't need them, the education and training centres will disappear," said Shohrat Zakir, the governor of the region and its most senior Uighur official.
Mr Zakir’s comments come after months of mounting international criticism, and signal what could be a new phase in China’s campaign in Xinjiang, as the costs prove unsustainable for local governments and a significant portion of the population passes through the camps.
Adrian Zenz, a researcher focused on Xinjiang and Tibet, said: "This statement likely indicates that a large share of the presently detained might be released at some point. It is also a clear indication that the state believes the re-education campaign has been essentially successful."
According to Mr Zenz, it’s not likely the camps will be phased out entirely. The threat of being sent back to a camp would act as another tool of control. “I believe [the camps] are part of a long-term plan for social control not just in Xinjiang,” he said.
Detainees are slowly being released from the camps, but remain under house arrest, according to some reports based on accounts from relatives. Other reports say the camps are feeding into a forced labour system where detainees are released but ordered to work in textile factories.
Mr Zakir, in his remarks on Tuesday, said the students were able to earn 1,500 or 2,000 yuan (€197 to €263) a month after their training.
Accounts from former inmates and their relatives, former and current residents in Xinjiang, government documents, and satellite imagery have painted a picture of what rights advocates say is a worrying state of mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Mr Zakir called these depictions of the situation in Xinjiang “purely fabricated” and “very ridiculous”. He said the camps were “like boarding schools”, where students receive free accommodation, skills training, Chinese classes, and education in Chinese law. The students, as the official referred to them, are able to go home on weekends and speak their native languages.
While there are no religious activities in the centres, as stipulated by Chinese regulations, the students are “free to practise their religion after returning home or after graduation”, he said. “We fully respect and protect the religious belief of the students,” he said.
Former detainees have said they were punished for speaking anything other than Mandarin and that they were not allowed to leave or communicate with their families, accounts that match other media reports.
While relatives of those within Xinjiang are becoming more vocal, activists are also coming under pressure. Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent campaigner in Kazakhstan, has been placed under house arrest while awaiting trial for allegedly calling for a "jihad" against the Chinese government.
Chen Quanguo party secretary of Xinjiang, believed to be the engineer of the crackdown since being deployed to Xinjiang from Tibet in 2016, gave rare remarks on Tuesday.
Mr Chen hailed the use of "ethnic unity" gatherings, saying that "people of all ethnic groups will have more exchanges and communication during the process of living, studying and working together".
Under Mr Chen, Xinjiang has installed thousands of police stations and checkpoints, as well as programmes aimed at further integrating Uighurs in Han Chinese culture.
The “Becoming Family” initiative has Han Chinese officials live with Muslim families to “observe or report any unusual activity”.
Using an analogy that officials often deploy when discussing Xinjiang, Mr Chen said: “We are leading people of all ethnic groups to love unity as much as loving their own eyes, to cherish unity as much as their own lives, and to stay close together like the seeds of a pomegranate.” – Guardian