The Chinese government recently allowed journalists to tour high-security facilities housing countless Muslim religious minorities in an attempt to paint institutions that the U.S. government labels “concentration camps” as “training” schools helping terrorists get on the right path.
In a documentary last month, BBC reporter John Sudworth highlighted his experiences as one of just a few journalists the Chinese communist government allowed to tour selected “training education” centers built throughout China’s far-west Xinjiang province.
Over the last few years, the Chinese government received much international criticism for building a network of centers that have been used to imprison as many as over 3 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other non-Han Chinese Muslim minority communities that have called the Xinjiang province home for centuries.
“China used to deny that these places exist. But now we are being given a tour. The message: these are schools not prisons,” Sudworth said.
“This is what [the government] wants the world to see, [to] offer to others proof that these are not prisoners, but students willingly being guided away from extremism.”
As rights activists and the U.S. government has spoken out against China’s imprisonment of hundreds of thousands in Xinjiang, what Sudworth saw in the so-called “training centers” is not what many would expect from a population of people that have largely disappeared in the night to high-security facilities.
Inside the camps, Sudworth witnessed dancing, singing, and seemingly forced merriment.
One man shown dancing in a classroom visited by BBC told the British news outlet that it was his choice to come to the center. However, it should be noted that he may have said it was his choice to avoid extra punishment for speaking negatively about the government.
“I had a weak awareness of the law,” he said. “I was influenced by extremism and terrorism. … A policeman at my village told me to get enrolled in school and transform my thoughts.”
The Chinese government claims that these camps are established to re-educate people who have shown extremist tendencies and were built in response to decades of separatist and extremist violence in the region. The “students” are said to be vocationally trained to get a job after being released.
Despite the government’s claim that it is the students’ choice to attend the school, Sudworth reports that many people are enrolled in the school without any idea of how long they will be kept there.
“These are places where adults wear uniforms and they don’t go home at the end of the day but sleep up to 10 a room sharing a toilet with no idea how many months or years it will be before they can return to their families,” Sudworth said.
Sudworth said that “thoughts are transformed” through “long hours of rote learning Chinese,” the study of “China’s tightening restrictions on religion” and “the replacing of faith and cultural identity with a different loyalty.”
Sudworth asked one detainee if he is allowed to pray in the camp.
“China’s laws define schools as public places and in public places, religious activities are not allowed,” the man replied.
Sudworth pushed back against claims that students are there on their own free will. In speaking with an official at Hotan County Education Training Center, Sudworth asked what happens when students don’t want to come to the camp.
“We’ve never encountered that before but we’d proactively guide them,” the official claimed, pushing back against the idea that the training centers are prisons. “It’s part of their choice. It’s mainly about learning Mandarin, laws and skills. That’s how they graduate.”
At some of the camps the BBC crew was taken to, satellite images show that internal security fencing and watchtowers were taken down shortly before the tours for journalists began. Additionally, Sudworth notes that empty exercise yards were transformed into sports facilities.
Rakhima Senbay, who spent over a year in the camp system before escaping to Kazakhstan, told BBC that she experienced times at camp when they had to prepare for a “visit.”
“They warn us ahead of visits: ‘If any of you speak out, you will go to a worse place than this,’” she recalled. “That’s why everyone is scared and does what they are told, including dancing and singing.”
Many people are in the camps despite committing no crimes. Senbay explained that she was detained simply for having WhatsApp on her phone.
“They put cuffs on my legs for a week. There were times when we were beaten. Once I was struck with an electric baton,” she said, through a translator.
Zhang Zhisheng, an official in the Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office, justified the detention of people who have committed no crimes.
As the government has established an elaborate and intrusive surveillance system that watches over people in the province, Zhisheng told BBC that some people show they are capable of killing before they even commit murder. Zhisheng suggested that it is up to the government to prevent those killings from happening.
“Our focus is to take a person who’s on the edge of committing a crime, a minor criminal, and return them to normal society as a law-abiding citizen,” Xu Guixian from the Xinjiang Propaganda Department said.
BBC questioned a teacher named Buayxiam Obliz at the Moyu County Training Center about whether or not what they are doing to these “students” is considered “brainwashing.”
“We are not completely changing their thoughts,” Obliz reasoned. “We only remove the extremist elements.”
Xinjiang has been home to the Uighur community, a predominantly Turkic Muslim group, for centuries. However, 90 percent of the country is comprised of Han Chinese. The Uighur community and the Han government have long disagreed over who has the historical claim to the Xinjiang region.
Vice News did its own investigation into China’s crackdown against the Uighur community. Although it did not get access to a training center, Vice reporter Isabel Yeung interviewed a group of former Uighur detainees who have since fled to Istanbul.
One unnamed woman explained that she was locked up for reading the Quran and learning Arabic. She said she was accused of trying to “divide the country.”
“They gave me this letter [from state security] saying I was a terrorist,” another woman said. “They did it because I’m a Muslim and I’m Uighur. My feet were shackled for one year, three months and 10 days.”
Former detainee Aduweli Ayup told Vice News that he was jailed because he opened a Uighur language school for kindergartners.
“They arrested people at night,” he said. “They want people to disappear and be untrackable.”
One Uighur man who spoke with Vice News during a train ride pushed back against the government’s claim that the facilities are “vocational centers.” He stated that life for Uighurs in China was “not good at all.”
“Those places are prisons,” the man, who refused to be named for security reasons, asserted. “The police forced [people to go].”
BBC also reports that China launched a campaign to build boarding schools for Uighur children whose parents had been detained.
Parents living in Turkey told BBC about their wishes to be reunited with their children.
"If they want to be with their children they can come back,” Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming told the outlet, writing off the parents as merely "anti-government people.”
The U.S. State Department has been critical of the Chinese government’s “war on faith.”
Earlier this year in a speech in Hong Kong, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback accused China of creating a “terrorist problem.”
“The magnitude of these detentions is completely out of proportion to any real threat China faces from extremism, even according to China’s own official media and police reports,” Brownback said.
Randall Schriver, who is in charge of Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department, told reporters in May that at least 1 million and likely closer to 3 million citizens have been jailed in those “training centers.” Schriver defended his decision to call the centers “concentration camps.”
“So a very significant portion of the [Uighur] population, [given] what’s happening there, what the goals are of the Chinese government and their own public comments make that a very, I think, appropriate description,” Schriver said, according to Reuters.