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From denial to pride: how China changed its language on Xinjiang's camps

The Guardian logo The Guardian 22/10/2018 Lily Kuo in Beijing

In this image from China’s CCTV, young Muslims read from official Chinese language textbooks in classrooms at the ‘Hotan vocational education and training center’ in Xinjiang. © AP In this image from China’s CCTV, young Muslims read from official Chinese language textbooks in classrooms at the ‘Hotan vocational education and training center’ in Xinjiang. China’s state broadcaster CCTV last week offered a look inside Xinjiang’s controversial internment camps.

In the 15-minute segment journalists visit the Hotan City Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre where they teach students Mandarin, China’s various legal codes, and job-relevant skills, according to a city official, reciting almost verbatim a description previously given in Chinese state media.

Students are shown learning cosmetology, baking, sewing, woodworking and more. The cafeteria is decorated with balloons and bunting, and all the dorms have air conditioning. One young woman tells an interviewer woodenly: “If I wasn’t here studying, I don’t even want to imagine where I’d be. Maybe I would have followed those religious extremists into a life of crime. The government and party found me in time and saved me.”

Over the past few weeks, China has launched its most aggressive defence against international criticism of its policies in the far western territory of Xinjiang, home to about 12 million Muslim minorities. Researchers and advocacy groups say China’s campaign in the name of rooting out extremism is rife with human rights abuses, namely the use of re-education camps and the mass surveillance and detention of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims.

After months of denying the existence of such camps, officials appear to be trying a new tack: normalising the camps as places for “free vocational training” that are more similar to summer camps than de facto prisons where people can be kept indefinitely without due process.

Centres ‘stop impetuous killings and comfort people’

“The Chinese Communist party is losing precious control of the narrative,” said Timothy Grose, who focuses on ethnic policy in China at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. “In a few weeks’ time high-ranking officials have gone on record to angrily deny the existence of a network of re-education centres while accusing the ‘west’ of inciting unrest ... to proudly showcasing them as an example of the party’s altruism.”

On Tuesday, China’s state news agency Xinhua released a lengthy interview with Shohrat Zakir, the governor of Xinjiang, the most any senior official has publicly spoken about the camps. The governor said in addition to vocational training, there were basketball and volleyball courts and arts competitions.

He called these examples proof of the “humane management and care” at these training centres and avoided using the term “education,” a term that harkens back to China’s use of education through labor, a labor camp system started in the 1950s and abolished in 2013, after being declared incompatible with China’s commitment to rule by law.

China’s state-run Global Times has published numerous editorials hailing the vocational centres. An editorial on Wednesday said: “Since the vocational training centres were set up, the situation in Xinjiang has changed for the better. They may not operate flawlessly, but aim to stop impetuous killings and comfort people frightened by violent terrorist activities.”

In defending China’s work in Xinjiang on Twitter, Global Times editor in chief Hu Xijin said he did not believe the trainees “go there voluntarily,” but “they have been given sincere help of education and training to enable them to return to normal life eventually.”

‘The government realises it can’t just deny everything’

The ramped up publicity campaign may be in anticipation of an upcoming panel at the UN human rights council in early November when other governments can question China on its policies. Xinjiang is expected to be a major topic, especially after the UN’s committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (CERD) in August publicly cited estimates of 1 million Muslim minorities detained, raising global scrutiny.

“China was caught off guard at August’s UN CERD review at just how strongly the committee raised the situation in Xinjiang. The government realises it can’t just deny everything ahead of next month’s UN review and so is now engaging in a propaganda campaign to justify mass arbitrary detention of ethnic Muslims in camps,” said Frances Eve, a campaigner with Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Analysts say the campaign has revealed some important clues about the direction of China’s policies in Xinjiang. Recasting the camps as vocational training centres is more palatable not only to international audiences, but also to those in Xinjiang, according to Adrian Zenz, a researcher who focuses on Xinjiang.

“If they ramp up vocational skills training, it could be an indication they are moving to reintegrate some of these detainees and eventually release them,” he said. In Zakir’s interview, the governor said he expected some students would be released by the end of the year.

“There are deeper signs that the party seeks to legalise, standardise and ultimately normalise this educational process” for Uighurs and other Xinjiang minorities,” said James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “I think the ultimate aim is the creation of a vocational, patriotic education system for adult minorities in Xinjiang.”

Despite the rhetoric, even CCTV’s careful camera placement at the Hotan City vocational skills education and training centre failed to hide the centre’s more correctional side, according to observers. Using satellite imagery, researcher Shawn Zhang found what he believes is the reeducation camp featured by CCTV. The segment was shot in the one building that is not surrounded by a razor-wire fence. The compound also features security checkpoints and watchtowers.

In one scene, a group in matching jumpsuits sit in a classroom studying instructions on how to behave in society: “At all times I should be civilised, honest, respect my elders … obey laws, dress neatly, love work … and be industrious and frugal.” Under the eye of what appear to be surveillance cameras and microphones, they recite in unison: “I am a citizen who obey laws and regulations.”

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