In April this year, the Information Office of the State Council of China invited eight overseas media outlets, including BBC and Singapore’s Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, to visit two of China’s vocational skills education and training centres in Xinjiang.
This is done in an attempt to paint a positive image of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighurs after human rights organisations and some Western media have previously criticised the Chinese government for suppressing and monitoring them. In fact, the United Nations has said that there are millions of Muslims in the country who are being held in “re-education camps”.
As such, the Chinese government wanted to change the world’s perspective of these “schools” and organised a media trip to show the current status of these “re-education camps”. They call it the “Educational Skills Training Centre” (ESTC), which means that these centres “transform” students’ ideas and “get rid of their extremist thoughts” through education, by providing trainings to solve low-level knowledge and employment problems.
The ESTC focuses on young people because the potential for violence in them is higher compared to seniors. Besides that, they are also more likely to accept “thoughts” than older people.
Following the visit, Chinese-newspaper Lianhe-Zaobao published an article on 23 April stating that all the officials and trainees answered questions raised by the reporters to them.
Training centre called to “extend the extreme”
During an interview with the Uighur president of the training centre, he mentioned that the purpose of ESTC is to allow students to learn Chinese and study law, in order to stop them from following extremist beliefs.
When asked on prosecuting student to violate religious belief activities, the principal said that no students were forced to eat pork or drink.
Besides visiting the school, foreign media were also taken to the Xinjiang International Convention and Exhibition Centre in Urumqi to visit the terrorism case exhibition. The exhibition presented each case with a set of oversized images and a short description of text. Some of the images include gory pictures of corpse and headless body, with only a short text of basic information such as the date, place, the number of casualties, and all the perpetrators are called “terrorists”.
In order to avoid inciting hatred between the people, the exhibition is generally not open to the public.
On 18 March, the State Council Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued a “White Paper on Anti-terrorism, De-extremism and Human Rights Protections in Xinjiang”.
The White Paper said:
Since 2014, Xinjiang has destroyed 1,588 riot groups, arrested 12,995 treacherous personnel, seized 2,052 explosive devices, investigated 4,858 illegal religious activities, involved 30,064 people, and collected 345,229 illegal religious propaganda materials.
BBC’s “unannounced visits” revealed the darker side of the training centre
Based on a video uploaded by BBC, Chinese leaders told its reporter John Sudworth that the teaching and training centres are schools, and not prisons. In an urge to find out the truth, Mr Sudworth took an “unannounced visit” to other forbidden areas in Xinjiang, which raised more questions.
In its video, it is revealed that thousands of Uighur Muslims are brought into these teaching and training centre and the Chinese government hopes to prove to the outside world that these individuals are students and not detainees, and they are “voluntarily accepting anti-extremism education”.
Some interviewees told that they were previously influenced by extremism and terrorism. However, they were discovered by the village police who persuaded them into the school to “transform their own thoughts.”
In the school, students are taught Chinese and other religious-related laws, replacing their own faith and cultural teachings. Besides that, they are also forced to wear uniforms, live in a dormitory of at least 10 people with shared toilets.
Mahemuti, who is the person-in-charge at the Hotan County Education Training Centre, said that people must comply with the regulations in the centre and they can only leave when they’re allowed to.
When asked if this place is considered a prison since students have to obey the rules and not allowed to leave when they want to, Mr Mahemuti stressed that the school is indeed a training centre and questioned, “If he is in prison, can the students learn to draw?”
However, BBC reporter found that some graffiti in the school wrote “I am broken”, but it was not included in their video to protect the identity of the student.
Unauthorised places are not allowed to shoot
Based on original satellite images of the vicinity, many parts of western Xinjiang had tight security with fences, barbed wire and watchtowers, but Mr Sudworth told that nothing was visible in the school, indicating that they were all removed right before the media trip started.
However, when the BBC reporter went to unauthorised areas to shoot, he saw equipment for installing safety nets and suspected watchtowers inside the school, before being told to leave the premise.
Rakhima Senbay, who was a former detainee at the Chinese education camp, said that she was sent there for more than a year just because she installed WhatsApp in her mobile phone.
She noted that she had to wear an ankle for a week in the camp, was beaten several times and once was struck with an electric baton.
When asked on how she felt when she saw the Chinese government showing the world of how happy Muslim students are studying and dancing in the school, she said that they’re warned before the visit and told, “If any of you speak out, you will go to a worse place than this”.
Zhang Zhisheng, the deputy director of Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office, told BBC that some people show the capability of killing someone even before committing a murder. “Should we wait for them to commit the crime? Or should we prevent it from happening?”
On the other hand, Xu Guixiang from the Xinjiang Propaganda Department, noted that the school is there to take pre-criminals and “return them to normal society as a law-abiding citizen”.
Buayxiam Obliz, the head of the Moyu County Education Training Centre, said that the school is here to change the religious extremist characteristic of a student so they will be able to secure employment later on in life.
The BBC reporter then said, “We will call that brainwashing”, however Ms Obliz responded, “We’re not completely changing their thoughts. We only remove the extremist elements.”
Evidence of destruction of mosques found
On 7 May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry severely refuted reports on the destruction of large-scare mosques. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yan Shuang said that Xinjiang is an open area, and hopes that the relevant media will not spread gossip or hearsay.
However, when Mr Sudworth looked closely at the gate of one of the mosques, Etikar Mosque, he witnessed a shocking discovery. This is because the satellite image taken of the mosque in the end of 2017 showed that the gate was still there, but in reality it’s no longer there now. Besides that, a traditional Uighur community nearby was also destroyed.
The BBC reporter also noted that the two main reasons why the communities are being destroyed is because of political stability and economic development.
“There is no doubt that the original community here is poor, but destroying them, oppressing the beliefs of the people who have lived here, forcing thousands of people to receive re-education, people worry that the entire history and culture are being erased”.
Although BBC took a bold move to showcase the darker side of Xinjiang and its “re-education” camps, but other invited foreign media outlets, including Lianhe Zaobao, took a less harsher route despite trying to “uncover the mystery of the Xinjiang Education and Training Centre”.