When it comes to Chinese authorities’ eagerness to manage perceptions of the way they treat Muslim citizens in the Xinjiang region, it would be hard to beat a recent musical performance staged for an audience of foreign journalists.
On the fifth day of a government-sponsored media tour last month, at a detention facility in the far-western city of Kashgar, two dozen Uighur detainees belted out the American children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”
The group of adults, some as old as 40 and dressed in colorful, ethnic Uighur costumes, stumbled over the English lyrics. From the front of a classroom, their teacher guided them to stand up, sing and — at the song’s cue — clap their hands in unison: an attempt to show the visiting group of skeptical reporters that, despite the circumstances, they were living up to the lyrics.
It was a tough sell. The detainees have been locked away for months — for being, as authorities put it, “infected with extremist thoughts.” The U.S. and United Nations estimate that China has detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps in the vast, predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.
Some who have been released and managed to flee China have described these places to NPR as concentration camps where authorities brainwash detainees with Communist Party doctrine. Some claim they were tortured.
China’s government calls these places “vocational training centers.” Last month’s media tour at two of the camps displayed a choreographed attempt to change a narrative that is spinning out of Beijing’s control.
Mejit Mahmut, the ethnic Uighur principal of what authorities call the Kashgar Vocational Education and Training Center, insists the 1,500 students under his watch, most of whom are Uighur, are treated well and are free to return home to their families on weekends.
“People here have been infected by extremist thoughts,” says Mahmut. “They broke the relevant laws but their crimes are so minor that they are exempted from criminal punishment. The government wants to save and educate them, converting them here at this center.”
Mahmut says detainees spend their days taking classes in Mandarin (which many of them don’t speak), Chinese law (to understand the laws they allegedly broke) and learning vocational skills that can lead them into careers as tour guides, online retailers or electricians. Mahmut says the Kashgar government “has proof” that it’s been able to prevent terrorist activities through this type of training.
When pressed, he’s not able to offer evidence of this. Instead, he explains how students ended up at his facility.
“Some believed extremist ideas like killing non-believers would result in them going to heaven, so they participated in some activities that undermined social stability,” he says. “Others over-generalized the concept of halal,” he says — what is permissible under Islamic law.
“They considered many things un-halal,” he continues. “They believed government-issued IDs, money and daily appliances were from non-believers and therefore ‘un-halal.’ This is a major problem, and they were reported to authorities by their neighbors, and then police will talk to them to tell them what they’ve done wrong.”
Mahmut says students stay in the facility he oversees for an average of eight months and can leave after doing well on exams. But none of the several detainees the government made available to NPR said it was clear when they could return home.
Ayiguyi Abdel-Rahman, a 30-year-old mother of two, says she’s been detained for 10 months. Taking a break from her Chinese law class to talk with NPR, she says she doesn’t know when she’ll get out.
When asked why she had been detained, “I have serious extremist thoughts,” she responded, echoing nearly every detainee who spoke with NPR. “I made my children participate in religious activities from a young age. And I didn’t let them sing and dance in a cultural entertainment activity. I interfered with their personal freedom.”
Abdel-Rahman, dressed in a white t-shirt and a pink hoodie, says she also sent welfare checks back to the government because she didn’t think they were halal. She didn’t allow her children to watch TV cartoons for the same reason. “I’m very grateful for the [Communist] Party and the government for giving me such a good opportunity to study,” she says. “I’ve learned what I should and what I shouldn’t do, what is legal and what is illegal, what is religion and what is extremism.”
Abdel-Rahman’s 25-year-old classmate Yusu Pujiang has been in the facility for eight months and had to quit his job as a salesman to live there. One reason for his detention: “I forced my wife to stay home and not work,” he tells NPR. “I didn’t think the money women earned was halal. My neighbors reported me to the authorities.”
Pujiang says police also looked through his phone and saw that he had viewed online videos showing Osama Bin Laden training al-Qaida members.
“I didn’t know I was breaking the law,” says Pujiang. “I made a big mistake. But the Party and the government thought I was a victim, so they’ve given me a great opportunity to correct my behavior.”
Prior to their incarceration, none of the detainees NPR interviewed had understood that what they had done was against the law, and they didn’t understand that their thoughts qualified as extremist according to Chinese authorities’ definition.
“When the students arrive here, they don’t know what extremist thoughts are,” says Hei Lili, a teacher at another detention facility in the city of Atushi. “They learn that here in this facility. Most people in southern Xinjiang don’t understand Chinese. They don’t know much about China’s laws, either. They’re uneducated and unskilled.”
This raises the question many human rights advocates are asking: Why is it fair to detain Muslims for acting on what the state considers “extremist thoughts” if they don’t know what that means?
This question is posed to Du Bin, division chief of the Information Office of China’s Office of the State Council, the only Chinese official on the media tour who’s willing to speak on the record. His response: “If we only seek justice through due process, as in only punishing terrorists after they fired shots and hurt victims, let me ask you, is seeking justice in procedure still meaningful? If we take the appropriate actions and stop the attacker before he makes his move, we save the lives of the attacker, his family, and at the same time, we ensure the safety of victims.”
Du’s justification for interning Muslim minorities in Xinjiang for “extremist thoughts” seems reminiscent of the plotline for the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report, and he makes it clear to the foreign journalists on the tour that his opinions are his own, not those of the government agency he works for.
“Take the Sri Lanka and 9/11 attacks as examples,” Du continues. “What’s the point of ensuring justice after due process, when all the victims have been killed? That’s why I’m emphasizing the preventative measures the Chinese government takes. It’s proven that this measure is the key to fight terrorism.”
When asked to clarify if he’s saying the Chinese government is detaining those who are about to commit crimes, Du hedges. He reiterates that if people are showing signs of breaking the law, local authorities will decide whether they need to be detained under the region’s so-called “de-extremification” laws.
Du says detaining and educating them and providing job skills are all necessary to help the Xinjiang region achieve a national goal of eradicating poverty by 2020.
When pressed to provide the exact number of people inside Xinjiang’s network of detention facilities, Du explains why he won’t.
“If the Chinese government gives you an exact number that can endure the test of time after conducting a strict census, other countries would say we detained too many people in ‘concentration camps,'” he says. “If we give you a small number, you would say the Chinese government is lying, right? We’re in a dilemma.”
No matter the numbers, the situation for Muslims inside the detention camps is grave, says Serikjan Bilash, director of the Kazakh human rights group Atajurt. The group has collected more than 1,000 testimonies from families of those who have been detained. Many of them have fled across China’s northwestern border to Kazakhstan.
“These so-called study centers are prisons,” Bilash told NPR last October in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city. “They’re hell. It’s we in Kazakhstan who are disclosing what is happening in Xinjiang. We aren’t afraid to speak up because Kazakhstan is more democratic than China.”
Bilash may have spoken too soon. In March, just five months after NPR interviewed him, Kazakh authorities detained him on suspicion of “inciting ethnic hatred.” Police conducted a raid on Atajurt’s Almaty office. Bilash remains under house arrest. Kazakhstan’s government is a Beijing ally that has positioned itself as “the buckle” in China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, its global trade and investment campaign.
Back in Kashgar, as authorities finish up their tour of the Vocational Education and Training Center, they offer journalists a look inside a student dormitory. The detainees say they sleep six to a room in comfortable accommodations. But in one corner of the complex, there is writing etched into a wall. It looks like someone has tried to paint over it, but the message is still legible. The first line: “This room is excellent.” Then, underneath: “Bear with it, my heart.”