A Chinese official on Tuesday rejected international criticism of internment camps in the restive Xinjiang region, calling them job training centres that will “gradually disappear” if “one day society no longer needs it”.
Nearly one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic minorities are being held in detention centres in Xinjiang, according to estimates cited by a UN panel.
But Beijing has denied the accusations, saying people are attending “vocational education centres” to rid them of any extremist thoughts in a region that was hit by deadly riots and attacks in recent years.
“Our education and training centres have been set up according to our needs. The students that come in to learn, it’s a dynamic number that changes,” Shohrat Zakir, chairman of Xinjiang’s government, told journalists on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary meeting.
“As a whole, the number of people in the education centres should be less and less, and if one day society no longer needs it, these education centres can gradually disappear,” he said, without providing the number of people at the facilities.
In an 18-minute-long reply to a journalist’s question, Mr. Zakir defended the centres, saying that they taught Xinjiang residents Chinese, helped them gain awareness of the law, improved vocational skills, and were vital in the region’s fight against extremism. “When (students) are able to distinguish between right and wrong and able to resist the infiltration of extreme thoughts… they have a strong desire to get rid of poverty and get rich, actively pursuing a better life,” he added.
Former inmates have said they found themselves incarcerated for transgressions such as wearing long beards and face veils or sharing Islamic holiday greetings on social media.
Critics allege Uighurs in the camps are being brainwashed in a massive campaign to enforce conformity with Chinese society and the abandonment of Islam.
Mr. Zakir also hit out at “certain individuals”, whom he says “sensationalised” the number of people in these centres. “It’s not like that,” he said, calling on reporters to visit Xinjiang.
But, journalists are harassed and surveilled by local authorities when reporting in the region. “ I think, a horrific situation there,” U.S. envoy on religious freedom Sam Brownback said.