“I WAS influenced by extremism and when the village police discovered my opinions, they advised me nicely. After that, I decided to enrol in this school. I did this voluntarily.”
This was the main narrative by Muslim Uyghurs at the Vocational Training Centres on how they ended up there.
The answers appear rehearsed, as if they were read from a script.
Every one of the Uyghurs interviewed insisted that it was his choice to be there.
That they came to a realisation overnight that their extremist opinions were wrong and that they needed re-education.
At the Shule County Vocational Training Centre, the students seemed free to move around, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that their dormitories of at least 10 people per room had sturdy doors that could only be locked from the outside and a squat toilet with no doors.
Asked if the students could lock the doors from the inside, Shule’s headmaster Mamat Ali said: “They could if they wanted to.”
But when asked on how it was possible with no locks on the other side of the door, no response was given.
Other questions went unanswered.
Mamat said there had been no case of anyone trying to run away, or of students being angry with the system at the centre.
“They know it is against the rules (to run away).
“They can go back during the weekends.”
There are eight security guards at the centre, but we hardly saw any one of them.
“No” was Mamat’s reply when asked if the Uyghurs could practise their religious beliefs while at the centre.
He said this was because China’s constitutional law stated that no religious activities should take place at public places like the centre.
Mamat, who gave the international media a tour of the three-story complex located at a remote facility, said the people were there voluntarily.
“They were the ones who chose this school.
“Before coming here, they realised that they had done something wrong.
“They have an understanding of their behaviour, so that is why they are here now.”
‘CURE’ FOR EXTREMIST BELIEFS
A 25-year-old Uyghur named Quban Jan, from western China, said he chose to come to the centre as it was necessary for him to eliminate his extremist opinions.
He said Uyghurs like him were free to make their own decisions and all of them had chosen to leave home to come to the centre.
He said his days at Shule were spent in the classroom learning Mandarin, China’s law and regulations, and vocational skills of his choice.
After class, he was free to carry out any activity, such as playing basketball within a walled courtyard at the centre.
“With the vocational skills, I hope to get a stable job when I re-enter society.”
Why is he at the centre?
“I read some texts about religious extremism on my mobile phone and I kept them. After reading them, I spread the extremist opinions through QQ and WeChat (China’s social media platforms).”
He insisted on finishing his story even though journalists wanted to ask him other questions.
“The passages mainly stated that Muslims should find opportunities to kill pagans (non-Muslims) or drive them away from our land.
“After reading those comments, I wondered how I could deal with so many pagans.
“So that was why I spread the message.
“I had also searched ‘self-made bombs’ on the Internet.”
With a small frame and neat haircut, Quban does not look like someone who would buy matches, fireworks, batteries and other materials to make a bomb.
However, he was discovered by police in his village, who told him that what he was doing was illegal.
Quban, who has been at the centre for almost a year, said he was never sent to jail for what he did and the police never arrested him for it.
He said he applied to the government to join the centre.
Quban, like the 1,000 other Uyghur Muslims living at Shule, said they were there voluntarily to be “cured” of their extremist beliefs, even though they had never committed any violent act.
SPACIOUS CLASSROOMS, AIRY COURTYARD
Last month, I was part of a group tour sponsored by the State Council Information Office of China.
The group, comprising journalists and cameramen from 24 countries, visited China’s vast border region of Xinjiang, a Muslim-minority region, which is home to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The message imparted through the tour is that the establishment of the centres is in accordance with the law and aimed at eradicating extremism.
The message is that these are not “re-education camps” as reported by the Western media, which criticised the Chinese government for suppressing Muslims in the country through the centres.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had raised concerns about the alleged detentions of Uyghurs and there were reports claiming Xinjiang was essentially a detention camp, albeit disguised as “re-education camps”.
The committee had alleged that the camps were not for vocational training, but “for political and cultural indoctrination”.
However, from what we were shown, the facilities were nothing like what was described by the centres’ former residents, who claimed that they were “physically and psychologically” tortured.
Featuring spacious classrooms for baking, computer, sewing and dance performance skills, the area around the building was filled with flowers with an airy courtyard.
It certainly did not look like a prison or a detention camp.
At Atushi Education and Training Centre, students’ offences varied, from reading and spreading texts and videos on terrorists to assaulting non-Muslims.
However, the reason why they were at the centre was similar — they had chosen to leave their homes and families on their own accord to go to the facility for an indeterminate period.
Like the previous centre we visited, we were carefully guided through the corridors through classes comprising about 40 people each.
We saw students chanting phrases in Mandarin as the teacher guided them.
A student, Mastulam, who has been at the centre for almost a year, said she was there for attempted illegal preaching after being influenced by extremist opinions.
“I used to hate the Han (ethnic minority) because they are pagans and I beat them up,” said the 28-year-old Uyghur as we approached her while she was having lunch at the cafeteria with her friend.
The mother of a 4-year-old child said her participation in illegal preaching caused her marriage to disintegrate.
She used to fight with her husband every day as he did not agree with her.
“When I went to court to get a divorce, they told me what I did was wrong.
“So I volunteered to come to this centre,” she said, adding that she applied to get into the training centre after she was convinced by her relatives and the government.
During the tour of the centre, we were shown other classes and one of them was the dance and performance class where students wearing traditional costumes were practising ethnic dances.
They put up a performance, which included a hip-hop dance.
During the tightly-controlled trip, we were taken to three cities in Xinjiang and to only two out of the reportedly 100 so-called “vocational training centres” accompanied by officials from the Information Office.
A request to visit a third school of our choice was turned down.
‘SAFEST PLACE IN CHINA’
During our seven-day trip, we were taken to mosques, industrial and agricultural parks, village-run factories, poverty-alleviation relocation sites, bazaars, hospitals, museums, cultural centres and remote villages as part of an attempt to change the world’s perception of the livelihood of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
“Ethnic experiences” offered to media representatives to showcase the region’s Uyghurs, Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs, Tajiks and other ethnic groups through dance performances and home visits were surreal.
Apart from the singing and dancing, the most memorable one was a “laneway fashion show” by young Uyghur women wearing colourful one-piece dresses during a home visit at the Qinjian Village in Kashgar. Never have I ever imagined seeing this in the middle of a village.
Another thing that caught my attention during the tour were these big red Chinese characters on buildings and information boards during the home visits.
Little did I know that the characters actually carried a message — “Listen to the Government”.
On the first day of our trip, we were taken to the Xinjiang International Convention and Exhibition Centre to watch an exhibition on terrorist attacks in the region from 1990 to 2016.
A display of gory images and videos of people being killed in the attacks were the main part of the exhibition.
Also shown were seized self-made explosives, knives and guns to show how authorities were fighting to combat terrorism.
Due to the incidents, Xinjiang had, in recent years, focused on preventing terrorism.
It is doing this by tightening security and introducing platforms for those who are influenced by extremist thoughts to study the country’s laws.
If asked how it feels to be in what is described as the safest place in China, my answer is: “I have never felt so watched.”
In Urumqi, journalists who were on tour travelled in a presidential-like convoy in two buses, which were escorted.
Traffic along the entire highway of Xinjiang’s capital was closed off to make way for us and the roads were equipped with heavy video surveillance.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) was also seen in the middle of the desert.
Xinjiang Publicity Department director Tian Wen said Xinjiang had been free from crime for the past 30 months.
In her welcoming speech, Tian said Xinjiang was the safest place in China and she hoped the visit would help the media have a better understanding of the region.