UPDATED: 01:35 EST on 12/06/18
Uyghur exile leaders on Friday dismissed China’s claims that members of their ethnic group held in political “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are taking part in “vocational training,” saying Beijing seeks to cover up widespread abuses in the region.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of such camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency earlier this week that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism.
"Since its launch, the work has won high recognition and sincere support from people of all ethnic groups across Xinjiang. It has played an important role in achieving social stability and enduring peace and security in Xinjiang, and served as a positive exploration and constructive attempt for the international community in countering terrorism and eradicating extremism," Zakir said in an interview with the official Xinhua News Agency published on Oct. 16.
According to Zakir, Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in the region are taught Mandarin at the camps, as well as important vocational skills and lessons on Chinese law, all while being provided with free meals in comfortable living conditions, and that they are free to come and go as they like.
Reporting by RFA and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Western governments have increasingly drawn attention to the camp network, where Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert recently said the U.S. government was “deeply troubled” by the crackdown on Uyghurs, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley described it earlier this week as “the largest internment of civilians in the world today” and “straight out of George Orwell,” during a speech at the Chiefs of Defense Conference Dinner in Washington.
‘Covering up crimes’
Zakir’s claims were part of a now almost daily barrage of Chinese state media propaganda extolling the camp system.
On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV ran a prime-time program praising the camp system, with interviews with Uyghurs thanking the campaign for correcting their erroneous ways. Critics said the interviews looked like the televised forced confessions and apologies China has used to showcase the conversion disappeared human rights lawyers and other dissidents.
On Friday, Washington-based lawyer and Uyghur activist Nury Turkel, and Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, said Zakir’s claims that Uyghurs are benefiting from free job training centers in the XUAR are “aimed at deceiving the international community” ahead of a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council early next month, when Beijing is likely to face questions from foreign governments over its policies in the region.
“The hard truth is that these are not ‘vocational training facilities,’ as the Chinese government claims,” Isa told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview.
“The one million Uyghurs locked up there face daily psychological and physical abuse, torture and brainwashing. It is a fact that many Uyghurs, including my own mother, have died in these camps as a result of official mistreatment and torture.”
Isa suggested that China’s claims came “only as a result of international pressure and scrutiny,” and that if Zakir is telling the truth, Beijing should grant the U.N. and Western governments unfettered access to the region to investigate the camp network.
“The WUC strongly condemns the lies spun by the Chinese government in order to cover up its crimes against humanity … and calls on Chinese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all detained Uyghurs and close the camps,” Isa said.
“The WUC urges the international community not to fall into the trap of Chinese propaganda and misinformation.”
Turkel told RFA that Zakir’s statement “was expected,” adding that China’s government “has a habit of initially denying and later justifying its illegal actions by conflating obvious facts and confusing general public with ludicrous official statements and spins.”
He said that international pressure has forced China to “deny its brutal treatment and criminalization of the Uyghur people based on their race, religion, culture and traditions,” and create a narrative to suggest that Beijing “is doing a favor for the Uyghurs.”
“I urge the international community to be extremely cautious of China’s calculated propaganda campaigns to mislead the world while continuing its onslaught on the Uyghur people,” he warned.
Reported by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: In his interview, Shohret Zakir did not say that participation in the "vocational training camps" is voluntary.