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China defends its Uighur detention camps

October 16, 2018

China has issued the most detailed defense yet of its policies in the Xinjiang region. Beijing says the region's Uighurs are being taught how to assimilate, while some see echoes of earlier re-education programs.

A Uighur woman in Xinjiang
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Azubel

In the face of increased international criticism, a senior government figure in a rare interview on Tuesday defended Beijing's detention policies in the troubled western province of Xinjiang. 

Shohrat Zakir, the No. 2 party official and most senior ethnic Uighur in Xinjiang, told state-run Xinhua News Agency that "vocational training" was being used "to the greatest extent" in the Xinjiang region to ensure militant activities are "eliminated before they occur."

This comes only weeks after the regional authority admitted the existence of the camps and last week retrospectively changed the law pertaining to detention without trial to legalize its mass incarceration programs.  

Beijing has clamped down in the region with heightened police powers it says are needed to root out Islamic extremism and separatism and clamp down on the periodic unrest between Uighurs and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

China's re-education camp policy

"Trainees" have signed "education agreements" to receive "concentrated training" and undergo "live-in study," Zakir said, adding that "trainees" were immersed in athletic and cultural activities. "While they were previously mired in poverty, such training put them on the path toward a modern life and makes them confident about the future," he added. The "vocational training centers" were designed to "educate and transform" people influenced by extremism.

Read moreChina's Xinjiang region legalizes Muslim internment camps

The official did not say how many people were being held in the centers. Estimates cited by a United Nations panel are that up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic minorities are being held.


Human rights groups and former inmates have said conditions in the camps are poor, with incarceration for transgressions such as wearing long beards and face veils or sharing Islamic holiday greetings on social media.

Many former detainees have said they received no vocational training.

The reports have prompted the US to consider sanctions against officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses. The new UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said in September that monitors should be allowed into the region.

Beijing's spin

China rejects the accusations of mistreatment and initially denied the existence of the facilities, but it has changed its stance as satellite imagery and released government documents made that position impossible to maintain.

An editorial in the nationalist tabloid The Global Times warned foreign governments on Tuesday "not to meddle" in Xinjiang's affairs. "Obviously vocational education is a periodic and temporary plan aimed at eradicating extremism," it said, adding that criticism was "just messing up the whole thing and creating a narrative against China."

jbh/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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