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Xinjiang: What China shows world vs. what former detainee describes

Beijing plays up 're-education' camps while Uighur refugee recalls torture

Ethnic Uighurs practice calligraphy at the Artux Vocational Skill Education Training Service Center in China's Xinjiang region. Beijing calls such facilities "re-education centers," but Western countries label them as “internment camps.” (Photo by Shosuke Kato)

URUMQI/KASHGAR, China/TOKYO -- As pressure mounts on China from Western democracies that have accused it of locking up over a million ethnic Uighurs in the country's Xinjiang region, Beijing is intensifying a campaign to justify its policy.

On the 10th anniversary of the July 2009 uprising by Muslim ethnic minority Uighurs in the region's capital, Urumqi, China published a white paper and hosted news conferences to convey its views. It also allowed a group of journalists from foreign media, including Nikkei and some Western news organizations, to visit the region on a guided press tour.

The centerpiece of the mid-July tour was visits to what China calls "re-education centers" for the Uighurs, but what the West describes as "internment camps."

At the Shule County Vocational Skill Education Training Center, on the outskirts of Kashgar, the largest city in western Xinjiang, slogans displayed inside the building include "Patriotism," "Respect for Work" and "Wealth and Strength."

More than 1,000 Uighurs in their 20s to 40s are enrolled at the center, which has a dormitory accommodating 10 in each room, a cafeteria and other facilities. The center claims it teaches other vocational skills besides Mandarin language, but it was not clear what they were.

A watchtower at what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Xinjiang’s Dabancheng district. Such centers "are not internment camps as some say," Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, claimed last month.   © Reuters

"Students enroll by invitation of local governments," said Mamat Ali, director of the center. "Some even come voluntarily." While students are expected to live in the dormitories, they are allowed to return home on weekends. "We never lock this place up," he said.

A 25-year-old Uighur man, who used to watch videos on Islamic extremism and learned how to make bombs, said: "I wasn't able to distinguish what was right and wrong." But after acquiring Mandarin-language skills at the center, he is seeking to "secure a stable job and find a happy life."

While strongly denying a United Nations report and other allegations on detaining Uighurs and other minorities, China asserts that the facilities are educational. "They are not internment camps as some say," Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, told reporters in Beijing last month, reiterating his previous comments.

At another facility shown to reporters, the Artux Vocational Skill Education Training Service Center in the north of Kashgar, the emphasis appeared to be on more practical vocational skills, with a sewing factory, kitchen, beauty salon and supermarket cash registers in place.

"Students can freely make phone calls and send emails," said Hairat Jurat, the center's director. "There are no rules to detain them." Roughly 200 Uighurs of a similar age are enrolled and allowed to return home on weekends.

A 26-year-old Uighur woman who spoke in fluent Mandarin said: "I will learn sewing and other clothing skills to open a tailor in the future." She said she had voluntarily applied to enroll at the center after her neighbors tipped off the police that she was telling her son not to play with ethnic Han Chinese children.

Mehrigul Tursun is one of the few ethnic Uighurs to escape from a detention center in Xinjiang. She had been detained three times and described being tortured, beaten and electrocuted. (Photo provided by Amnesty International Japan)

Other stories people at both centers shared struck similar tones -- that they are repentant for being unfriendly to the majority Han Chinese but have become aware of their identities as Chinese citizens after spending time at the facilities, toeing the Communist Party line.

Xinjiang Vice Chairman Alken Tuniaz stressed at a news conference in July that the number of people in these facilities is "fluid" and "most of them have completed their studies and found employment."

The press tour, though, was managed by the Chinese government, and reporters had virtually no choice but to visit prearranged places. All activities, including three meals a day, were conducted under the presence of Chinese officials.

The official view on Xinjiang stands in stark contrast to what is heard outside of China. Take, for instance, the account by Mehrigul Tursun, one of the few detainees who escaped abroad.

The 30-year-old Uighur woman -- who now lives in exile in the U.S., and spoke last month via video call at an event in Tokyo co-hosted by Amnesty International and Meiji University -- said she had been detained three times since May 2015.

The first time came after she arrived in Urumqi with her 45-day-old triplets, who were born in Egypt, where she lived with her Uighur husband. She had returned to Xinjiang to visit her family, but was separated from her babies at the airport and taken to detention.

A sign in Xinjiang urges every ethnic group to "ceaselessly boost the sense of identity" with the great motherland, the Chinese race, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics. (Photo by Shosuke Kato)

After three months of internment and losing over 10 kg, Mehrigul was released. Her children were severely ill, and she was taken to a hospital in Urumqi, where her son had already died and her two daughters had surgical marks on their necks. "No one in the hospital told me what happened to my kids," she said.

The second detention came two years later, when Mehrigul was summoned by police in her hometown in Xinjiang. She was tortured for three days, beaten and electrocuted. "I couldn't take it anymore and begged the officers to kill me," she said.

Mehrigul was later put into another internment camp with far worse conditions. She lived with more than 50 people in a single room and usually had to sleep on the overcrowded floor. A hole in the floor served as the toilet.

Food rations were meager. Detainees were given an extra piece of bread when they properly recited slogans praising Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. But they were subjected to harsh physical treatment if a recitation was deemed unsatisfactory. Mehrigul said she witnessed the deaths of nine women.

Detainees were also given unknown medications and injections. Mehrigul said she felt "tired for about a week, lost my memories and felt depressed." Doctors in the U.S. later said that she had been sterilized. She was discharged four months later after being diagnosed as mentally ill, but was "under 24-hour surveillance."

The third detention came about half a year later. Mehrigul was given an orange uniform, which indicated either a life sentence or execution, but it turned out to be a path toward freedom. She told authorities that her execution could cause diplomatic trouble with the Egyptian government. She was allowed to return to Egypt with her children after meeting with Egyptian Embassy staff from Beijing, but was ordered to return to Xinjiang within two months.

The city of Kashgar, in western Xinjiang. In a recent statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council, 22 countries called on China to "refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs" and other minorities. (Photo by Shosuke Kato)

In Egypt, Mehrigul discovered that her husband had traveled to China in search of her and their children, but was subsequently detained and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment. Chinese officers repeatedly contacted Mehrigul, using her family members -- 26 of whom were detained when she left Xinjiang -- to lure her back.

She instead sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. "Returning to China only meant that I will be killed," she said. "I was determined to tell the world what is happening at home." She and her daughters were accepted by the U.S. government, which has recently been raising the level of protest on the Uighur issue.

"In Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uighurs, in internment camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing," Vice President Mike Pence said at a conference last month. "Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the same event, called the situation "truly the stain of the century."

The international community, mainly Western democracies, is taking a common stance against China. In a joint statement last month to the U.N. Human Rights Council, 22 countries -- not including the U.S., which withdrew from the council under President Donald Trump -- called on China to "refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang."

China hit back. Alken, Xinjiang's vice chairman, said 50 countries had signed a letter in support of Beijing's policy as of July 26. He called the allegations from Western governments "slandering and smearing."

Naoko Mizutani, associate professor at Meiji University who specializes in Uighurs and Chinese minorities, said at least 100 people have been killed at re-education centers in Xinjiang. "But this figure is only something that has surfaced so far," she said. "It is just the tip of the iceberg."

As a former detainee, Mehrigul does not know why fellow Uighurs and other minorities have been rounded up. She met doctors, bankers, teachers and other intellectuals in those facilities who "definitely do not have to be re-educated."

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