China’s bizarre defence of ‘brainwashing’ camps
AN ATTEMPT by China to quash concern about a network of centres that the US has branded as little more than "brainwashing" camps and "straight out of George Orwell" appears to have backfired with critics saying Beijing is now on the defensive.
In a rare interview, a senior Chinese official's reassurance that the camps had helped people learn new skills and boasted "nutritious, free food". But the happy view of the camp took a turn when he was quoted as saying they had also helped people "realise their mistakes".
People at the camps have said they have been incarcerated against their will, but Shohrat Zakir, governor of the Xinjiang region, said they were nothing more than "boarding schools".
And he said "graduates" from the centres were positively joyous about their time away from home with one reported as saying: "My wife has become more considerate."
In the interview, published on Monday by China's state news agency Xinhua, Mr Zakir is neither asked nor comments on accusations that the centres are actually little more than heavily guarded internment camps where people resistant to Beijing's world view are sent for re-education. Or how many people are at them.
Officially called "vocational education and training" centres, the Chinese Government has said the camps are essential to quell dissent in the restive province and had helped the region become "safe and stable".
Agitation by separatist and radical Islamic groups, some of it violent, has led to a heavy crackdown by the central government. But international observers have said this has increasingly gone far beyond weeding out terrorists and now anyone who doesn't follow the Communist party's line could be in Beijing's sights.
More than a million Muslims are allegedly being held in the prison-like camps, according to human rights organisations and US officials.
Last week, it emerged the province's government had introduced new laws to give a legal basis to the detentions.
Earlier this month, US Vice President Mike Pence said camp "survivors" had endured "around-the-clock brainwashing" and there was a deliberate attempt by Beijing to "strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith".
On Monday, Nikki Haley, Washington's ambassador to the UN, described the situation as "straight out of George Orwell".
"Their brutal tactics are self-fulfilling. They're busy creating the very radicalism they claim to be tamping down," she said.
But in the interview Mr Zakir said the centres were vital to fight the "three evil forces" of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Ostensibly voluntary, he suggested there could be consequences for those who refused to turn up.
"Those suspected of minor criminal offences … can be exempted from criminal punishment, with free vocational training through vocational education institutions."
He said the program was designed to give people useful skills, including the Chinese language, so they could lift themselves out of poverty.
'MY KIDS ARE PROUD OF ME'
Mr Zakir made the centres sound like a resort: "The cafeteria prepares nutritious free diets, and the dormitories are fully equipped with radio, TV, airconditioning, bathroom and shower. Indoor and outdoor sports venues for basketball, volleyball and table tennis have been built."
And it's got results he said: "Many trainees have said that they were previously affected by extremist thought and had never participated in such kinds of art and sports activities, and now they have realised that life can be so colourful."
Yet Omir Bekali, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh citizen, said he was kept in a cell with 40 people inside a heavily guarded facility, reported AAP.
The interview veered from the gushing to the creepy when Mr Zakir spoke of the dramatic turnarounds achieved.
"Through vocational training, most trainees have been able to reflect on their mistakes."
And then to the bizarre, when Mr Zakir quoted previous participants saying they were not aware of said "mistakes".
"I wouldn't even have known that I had made mistakes. But the government didn't give me up," one person was reported to have said.
"I will cherish this opportunity and become a person useful to the country and society."
For one local, the camp had even improved his marriage.
"I can stand tall and start receiving praise from my elders. My wife has become more considerate. My kids are proud of me. I have regained respect and confidence."
Mr Zakir said another participant had been in the dark about her ex-husband's legal obligation to help pay for their child's upbringing.
'THANK THE PARTY'
But others have been less enthusiastic about their time in the camp.
People claimed they have been detained in the camp for nothing more than studying overseas, have received threats against their families and been barred from shopping centres and public transport because their IDs have been marked.
Another said they were forced to sing patriotic songs and recite communist texts and if they refused were deprived of food.
Before meals of vegetable soup and buns, the inmates would be ordered to chant: "Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!"
ON THE DEFENSIVE
China has long viewed the country's ethnic minorities as backward, said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic polices at Melbourne's La Trobe University.
Dr Leibold described Beijing's perspective on minorities as: "They're superstitious, they're deviant, they're potentially dangerous. The role of the party-state is to bring them into the light of civilisation, to transform them."
It's unknown how many prisoners may be held in the camps, but a Human Rights Watch report estimates that up to 800,000 of the region's 22 million population may have been in them.
Even outside the camps, all aspects of life are controlled for the minority residents.
According to a Buzzfeed News report, growing a beard or naming your child Muhammad or Medina can see you reported to police.
Women are reportedly banned from wearing burqas and veils in Xinjiang. Residents are no longer allowed to fast. And as of 2016, millions of residents were made to surrender their passports and seek permission from the government in order to leave China.
- with AAP