China is saving Muslim ethnic minorities from the lure of religious extremism by teaching them to speak Mandarin and accept modern science, a senior Chinese official said in a report Tuesday, Beijing’s latest propaganda effort to defend its internment of Muslims against mounting criticism.
The ruling Communist Party’s resistance to Western pressure over the camps highlights China’s growing confidence under President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, who has offered Beijing’s system of authoritarianism and economic growth as a model for other countries.
The report published by the official Xinhua News Agency indicated that key to the party’s vision in the far west Xinjiang region is the assimilation of the indigenous Central Asian ethnic groups into Chinese language, culture and history — and in turn, a “modern” way of life.
Despite growing alarm from the U.S. and the United Nations — which estimates that around 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities have been arbitrarily detained — China has maintained that Xinjiang’s vast dragnet of police surveillance is necessary for countering latent extremism and preserving stability.
Meanwhile, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) have long resented restrictions placed on their religious practices. They say they meet widespread discrimination in jobs and access to passports.
In the Xinhua report, Xinjiang Gov. Shohrat Zakir described the extrajudicial internment of Muslims as a network of “free vocational training” centers where people are taught employable skills that will help them find work in the manufacturing, food and service industries. Zakir said they are paid a “basic income” during the training, in which free food and accommodations are provided.
The report was a rare move by the ruling Communist Party to publicly outline what it is trying to achieve with what former detainees have characterized as political indoctrination camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the party.
Ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs have told The Associated Press that ostensibly innocuous acts such as praying regularly, viewing a foreign website or taking phone calls from relatives abroad could land one in a camp.
Zakir said the vocational training centers were for those “suspected of minor criminal offenses” who can be “exempted from criminal punishment.” He suggested the measures were within the legal framework of China’s anti-terrorism laws.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the system deprived detainees of basic protections in the criminal justice system, such as access to lawyers.
The authorities’ attempts to justify the camps “illustrate what the ‘rule of law’ in China means_that the Party bends it to its will and uses it as a weapon against perceived political enemies,” Wang said in an email.
Zakir appeared to try to counter reports of poor living conditions within the camps, saying that “trainees” were immersed in athletic and cultural activities. The centers’ cafeterias provide “nutritious, free diets,” and dormitories are fully equipped with TVs, air conditioning and showers, he said.
Omir Bekali, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh citizen, said he was kept in a cell with 40 people inside a heavily guarded facility. Before meals, they were told to chant “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland!” During daily mandatory classes, they were told that their people were backward before being “liberated” by the party in the 1950s.
According to Bekali, he was kept in a locked room with eight other internees. They shared beds and a wretched toilet. Cameras were installed in the toilets, and baths were rare.
Internees who refused to criticize their peers or parrot official lines were punished, Bekali said, while those who enthusiastically followed orders were rewarded with better living conditions.
The trainees were previously mired in poverty and therefore susceptible to the influence of terrorists, according to Zakir.
He said the training gave them a grasp of the country’s “common language” (Mandarin Chinese) as well as its history and laws, putting them on the path toward a “modern life” and making them “confident about the future.”
The idea that one’s beliefs can be transformed through indoctrination dates back to the Mao era, when self-criticisms and public humiliation were routinely employed to stir up ideological fervor.