Left: Ravi Velloor, Associate Editor at Straits Time (Image from Straits Times). Right: "Vocational training centre" in Wensu County, Aksu Prefuncture, Xinjiang. (Image by Azamat Imanaliev/Shutterstock.com)

ST journalist finds it hard to fault China for running Uighur ‘re-education’ camps

While the rest of the world is appalled at the events unfolding at Xinjiang, China where people of Uighur minority are being held in what has been likened to ‘concentration camps’, others appear to be more understanding of China’s approach to the minority community.

Specifically, the Straits Times published an opinion piece that seemed to paint the camps with a different brush than the rest of the world. Written by ST’s associate editor Ravi Velloor, who had visited the camps on the invitation of Chinese state publication China Daily, the article seems to subscribe to the narrative delivered by the Chinese government that these camps are merely facilities to help the ‘radicalised’ minority find their way back to Chinese society.

About eight overseas media outlets were invited to visit two of these camps in Xinjiang in April by the Information Office of the State Council of China. Invitees included the BBC and Singapore’s Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.

While the BBC reporter, John Sudworth visited the camp as planned, he also attempted a surprise visit off-limit areas of Xinjiang to check out what the camp were really like when they weren’t expecting visitors. What he found was distressing. Mr Sudworth reported that while satellite images shows security fences and barbed wires in the camp, they had apparently been removed before the cameras arrived. He also noted seeing equipment for installing safety nets and watchtowers in areas that they were unauthorised to film.

In his article, however, Mr Velloor wrote that while Western media has vilified the centres as ‘concentration camps’, “it is hard to fault China for wanting to rehabilitate the Uighur if their ideology is anathema to the Chinese state and hostile to other communities”.

The provincial minister and central committee member of the Communist part of China’s Xinjiang Wing Ms Tian Wen apparently impressed on Mr Velloor that ‘nothing will distract the state from its duty to secure its citizens’.

He noted, “if people are led by their religious doctrine into believing you may not celebrate at a wedding or mourn at a funeral, or marry into another community, the authorities will put a stop to it.”

During his visit to one of these training centres, Mr Velloor said he didn’t see any security guards at the door or barbed wires on the walls. He described the place as having “the air of a boarding school” and noted that the inmates could go home on weekends if they wanted to.

Strikingly, Mr Velloor himself noticed that the smartly dressed students and perfectly folded bed linen dormitories suggested that the residents were told to expect visitors. However, he also felt that the stories ‘did not seem contrived’ and that responses to questions ‘flowed in a natural way from students picked at random’.

Mr Velloor adds, “I have little doubt that there was significant window-dressing in the centre I was allowed into. Also, that harsher methods are used on those deemed more susceptible to extremism, or have actually committed violent acts.”

Taken in by rhetoric, the journalist said that “it is not easy to fault a state that will not tolerate significant sections of its people feeling a stronger loyalty to a transnational ideology that is not only alien to its own laws and culture, but also seeks to influence them into violence against non-believers.”

According to Mr Velloor, the camps have been effective as is evident by the fact that the Xinjiang province hasn’t experience a terror strike for the past 30 months.

The whole truth?

Others, however, disagree with Mr Velloor’ take on the situation. Singaporean writer, poet and playwright shared on his Facebook page a video expose by VICE about the ‘nightmare in Xinjiang’. He described the video as ‘frightening and harrowing’.

He notes in his post, “Apparently some Singaporean newspapers have fallen for the lie, uncritically parroting the Chinese government’s line that the concentration camps are necessary for security and unity, and not a form of cultural genocide.”

Though not directly referring to Mr Velloor’s article published by ST, Mr Sa’at added “But it is likely that too many years of lobbing softball questions and reproducing ministerial faxes have blunted the instinct for investigative journalism.”

Another journalist, Kirsten Han, also called our Mr Velloor’s take on the issue. Specifically highlighting several paragraphs in his article, Ms Han noted that while there is “mounting evidence, peer-reviewed research, investigative reporting (in print *and* film), and testimonies from Uyghurs and Kazakhs about what is happening in Xinjiang”, yet ST’s take on the matter was based on the invitation by the ‘Chinese state propaganda publication’ China Daily.

Mr Velloor’s rose-tinted view of the situation in Xinjiang is, as Ms Han said, based on an invitation to visit those camps. Clearly in expecting visitors, they would likely put their best foot forward and throw a proverbial blanket over the unsavoury aspects of the camp.