Inside China's 'boarding schools' for adult Muslims

The Chinese state sees its treatment of Uighurs and other Muslims very differently to the outside world, reports Anna Zacharias in Xinjiang

This is Wensu County Vocational Skills Training Centre.

Outside China, the centre is known as one of the detention camps scattered around Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. They are believed to contain hundreds of thousands of Muslims, many of them Uighurs. The network of facilities – described by the United Nations as a “massive internment camp” – is shrouded in secrecy.

Inside China, the facility is known as a “boarding school” used to counter terrorism and extremist thought. Its “students” have been radicalised and turned against the state, the authorities say. Chinese officials point to absence of terrorist attacks – none in 28 months, compared with 30 over the 25 years since 1990 that killed more than 450 people and wounded 2,500.

China sees the issue differently than the rest of the world.

The National was there to hear its side of the story.

Far from simply being a place of re-education for “radicalised” Muslims, the centres are considered an integral part of Beijing’s strategy that puts Xinjiang at the centre of its One Belt One Road Initiative. The development is driven by Chinese investments in more than 60 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Xinjiang is China’s resource-rich gateway to the West, with significant oil and gas reserves and a 5,700-kilometre border shared with eight countries. 

But the Chinese government has been criticised for its treatment of Xinjiang's Muslim minorities, particularly Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who make up about 45 per cent of the province's 24.8 million people. International news media began coverage of alleged forced ethnic assimilation last year after estimated figures on people detained without trial were published.

Chinese authorities justify the vocational centres as necessary to counter a Uighur separatist movement and Islamist extremism. Uighur separatists have long called for independence from China and Uighur activists have described the country’s measures as cultural genocide.

After initially denying centres existed, the Chinese government began inviting journalists and diplomats on controlled tours of Xinjiang.

The National was among a group of foreign journalists invited by the Chinese government on a tour of Xinjiang in April. Our schedule was tight, often finishing after midnight. Our tour included visits to Islamic sites and two Vocational Skills Training Centres, as well as factories, farms, nurseries, a hospital and tourist sites.

We toured the city of Urumqi for two days, and then reporters from the western countries continued their trip in Kashgar while we flew south-west to the cities of Aksu and Hotan, a stronghold of Uighur nationalism.

‘I believe you are going to see the real Xinjiang’

On landing at airport in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, we were handed a 40-page guidebook with our itinerary and tips like such as “adjust to Beijing Time”. All of China uses Beijing time, although the sun rises two hours later in Xinjiang. As supplementary reading, we were given another booklet detailing 28 terrorist attacks dating from the 1990s.

On the first afternoon we visited an exhibition on terrorism with graphic photographs of dismembered bodies and tables laden with hand grenades. Our guide recited a statistic we would hear repeatedly: there has been no terrorist attack for 28 months, a figure cited as evidence the government detention policy is working.

Back on the bus, we had our first informal talk with Mr Li Jie, chief information officer of Xinjiang, who travelled with us throughout the trip and encouraged questions. "We should think about the question, why for 28 months there hasn't been a terrorist attack?" Mr Li said. "If we find the answer to that, we'll find the meaning to this media event."

"Feel free to reach out and communicate with us," he said. "We believe as long as there is communication there won't be misunderstanding. As the Chinese saying goes, 'seeing is believing'. I believe you are going to see the real Xinjiang. What we hear a lot of times is not true."

In class at the Wensu County Vocational Skills Training Centre

We visited the first vocational centre in Aksu Prefecture, an 80-minute flight south-west of Urumqi. Our bus played promotional videos of the lush oasis city as we drove through dust storms.

There is nothing around the Wensu County Vocational Skills Training Centre. It is a landscape of red soil, power lines and dusty sky as far as the eye can see.

On arrival, we were ushered to a mirrored hall where young men and women stomped and clapped to synthesised folk music. “It is a Uighur dance,” said the camp manager, Rebguli Rematala. “It’s a very happy and free Uighur dance.”

Journalists posed with students for selfies before we saw a horticultural class, dormitories and a Mandarin class where residents were being taught a lesson on unruly behaviour. The lecture was about a boy who loses his temper when he can't remove a nail from a wooden board.

"From this lesson, students are trying to learn how to control their emotions, especially when they face a situation that they can't handle," said the state translator. "So, the teacher believes it is good for students who were influenced by extremist ideas, that they must learn how to control emotions."

Down the hall, we entered a room of tables spread with layered cakes, biscuits and pastries. Students poured tea, buttered walnut buns and baked egg tarts. “As you can tell by the smell, this is a baking class,” said the translator.

Chinese authorities frequently compare vocational centres to boarding schools, except that attendance is obligatory and residents are aged 22 or older. Former residents at other centres said students can be separated from their families, including young children, for months at a time.

Residents must pass exams in Mandarin, law and anti-extremism before starting vocational training. Everyone we interviewed had lived there for a year. We were told there are three categories of residents: those who have committed minor crimes, those who participated or planned terrorist attacks and those at risk of extremist influence. Wensu residents fell into the latter.

Interviews with residents were conducted with Chinese government officials nearby and through a government translator. It is impossible to verify the accounts. Three people interviewed, ages 24, 25 and 30, were all from Wensu county and all cited the same three reasons for admission: downloading unauthorised or illegal apps, watching and sharing violent or unauthorised online videos about Islam, and praying in public. 

Praying in public is a cause for detention in Xinjiang. The first resident had prayed in a hospital. The second had prayed at a hospital and on a bus. The third had prayed at her office and on a bus.

She had worked in public relations and said online videos turned her against Han colleagues, the largest ethnic group in China. She enrolled at the centre when the local party secretary recommended it to her parents after she quit her job.

Residents said they had regular family contact, can go home on weekends and added nobody wanted a mobile phone because it would interfere with their education. The manager said people have the right to own a phone or laptop but there was no Wi-Fi at the centre. Any religious practice, including prayer or fasting for Ramadan, is banned because the centre is an educational institution.

We were repeatedly told attendance was “a choice” and “voluntary”. When asked about the dropout rate at the centre, the manager said: “We do not have dropouts because if they fail to come here, they will face sentencing.”

The choice is this: attend a vocational centre without trial where you could be held – typically for a year but potentially longer – or face trial and, likely, prison.

‘Western media don’t believe their eyes’

Back on the bus, Mr Li and the government translator suggested the measures implemented at Xinjiang centres could be exported to our respective countries.

"What kind of measures should governments adopt to reduce terrorist attacks?" asked Mr Li. "I think you could introduce the successful experience of Xinjiang because for 28 months there have been no terrorist attacks."

The conversation turned to western media outlets, which have reported on detentions based on analysis of satellite imagery, Chinese government documents and interviews with former residents and relatives.

"I don't know what to do, even though we provide the correct information for them but they insist on what they think," said Mr Li. "We want your opinions about what we should do with the person who arrives here with bias and they even don't believe what we show them. They don't believe their eyes."

Meanwhile, western journalists on the Kashgar tour visited a vocational school where residents performed the children's song If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.

‘It’s like other schools’

On day five, we flew to Hotan prefecture, where 97 per cent of the population is Uighur.

The second training centre had 1,000 residents, mostly young men, who can go home once a week. We were shown classrooms for mechanics, computing, hairdressing, horticulture, electronics, cooking, floristry and animal husbandry.

"It's like other schools – it's a boarding school," said Buayxam, the manager of Moyu County Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre. "None of the students feel lack of freedom."

The centre has had 1,000 graduates since it opened in April, 2017 and there is no current recruitment. The most recent graduate finished in 2018. We were told there is an employment rate of 100 per cent after graduation, and most do factory work.

We had time for a six-minute interview with a 25-year-old farmer. He said he had been influenced by extremist ideas after being reported to the town committee when he fought with a friend who would drink in bars. He said he would have faced jail but opted for re-education.

No official data on boarding school attendees

Mr Li never specified figures on centres or residents.

“Trainee numbers are quite dynamic because when they pass the exams, they graduate,” he said.

We were told 408 were enrolled at the Wensu centre and there was at least one centre in each Xinjiang county, averaging 700 to 800 trainees. But, he said, some are empty.

 Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has identified 84 re-education camps using satellite imagery. If government data on Hotan Prefecture is representative of Xinjiang, total detainees would be 845,000 to 1.152 million people. Satellite imagery, construction bids, government documents and interviews with former detainees support estimates of about one million. But with no official numbers, all figures are educated guesses.

Parallel to the camp system are prisons and detention centres where people are held while they are awaiting or undergoing trial or placement in centres.

Mr Li dismissed such estimates. “Can you imagine what it would be like if they were missing one in 10?”

Construction bids for centres required high-security features with watchtowers, high walls with razor wire, locked doors, barred windows, full camera surveillance and facilities for armed security. Neither centre we visited had razor wire or watchtowers. Both were walled, but this felt normal after a few days in Xinjiang.

Buildings everywhere had walls, security gates, and most places had razor wire, including schools and apartment complexes. Public markets had security checkpoints and officers in riot gear.

Surveillance and religious freedom in Xinjiang

In Urumqi, mobile police stations flashed blue and red lights every few hundred metres. Mr Li was not at liberty to provide figures on police stations or police officers. Tens of thousands of security personnel have been hired to man security checkpoints.

Our tour was tightly co-ordinated, but we saw checkpoints everywhere. Police stationed at traffic junctions on our route ensured we did not stop for red lights. At no point were we unescorted.

The foundation for mass surveillance and “transformation through education” programmes in Xinjiang began in 2014. That year, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people were sent to re-education centres.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, specialises in Uighur culture and said information was extracted from people once they were in detention.

“In many cases, people named others who had talked about Islam or who were seen as worse ‘extremists’ than they were,” Mr Byler said.

"That's how the assessment process continues to be held. Eventually, it landed around 10 to 20 per cent of the Turkic Muslim [Uighur and Kazakh] population in medium-security prisons, where they're being re-educated."

<span>In many cases, people named others who had talked about Islam or who were seen as worse 'extremists' than they were</span>

There are restrictions on Islam in China, particularly in Xinjiang, although to what extent is contested by the government and its critics.

The state declares support for religious freedoms, but freedom to perform the five pillars of Islam, an obligation for all Muslims, is curtailed or banned in Xinjiang. 

Mosque attendance is said to be low as they are tightly monitored and worshippers fear attracting attention.

In Xinjiang, fasting in Ramadan, visiting a mosque or observing Islamic holidays, such as Eid Al Fitr, can lead to detention. Muslims are expected to celebrate secular Chinese holidays such as the Spring Festival to prove they are not extremists. 

Simple acts such as wearing the veil, growing a beard or declining to drink alcohol, eat pork or smoke can lead to claims of extremism.

All non-sanctioned gatherings are banned, including small religious or secular gatherings in the home. Uighur women, who do not traditionally pray at mosques, cannot join neighbours or extended family for any religious or cultural activity.

Elsewhere in China, controls are more relaxed. Mosques are freely used.

"There are already many people that have been taken to camps, primarily because they don't speak Chinese well or they're undereducated, and maybe they are 'guilty' in some way of listening to an unauthorised Islamic message," says Mr Byler. "But their primary crime is simply that they're not well integrated in the Chinese state."

To address questions on religious freedom, we visited the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in Urumqi. The state-funded campus is where all imams are trained and certified.

A journalist enquired about travel bans on Xinjiang residents to Muslim-majority countries and asked how many people from Xinjiang travelled to Makkah last year for Hajj.  

<span>The Quran doesn't actually say you have to go to Makkah for Hajj</span>

“The Quran doesn’t actually say you have to go to Makkah for Hajj,” said the institute’s dean, Abudulrekep Tumniaz.

“Hajj is a duty Muslim believers must perform but you must be physically able, economically capable and you have to make sure this trip would be as safe as possible. Without these conditions, Muslims are also allowed not to perform such kind of duty.”

When asked about vocational centres, he said western media attacked China out of jealousy. “These people don’t actually know what’s going on here. They haven’t seen what’s going on here. Rumours arise because they don’t want to see we are doing well here.”

He stood on the mosque steps and played a video of people singing at a training facility. “The students are quite happy,” he said.

The three mosques were visited were either new or renovated, had only one or two Qurans, and had no calligraphy with the name of God or the Prophet Mohammed. During the seven-day tour, we saw only five mosques in passing. Hundreds of small mosques, and mosque compounds from the 12th century, are believed to have been demolished in the name of renovation.

When we inquired about this, Mr Li said Xinjiang has the highest mosque ratios per capita in the world.

“I think you don’t know an important figure, actually, the average share of mosques in Xinjiang ranks top in the world," he said.

"The land area is very vast and very sparse. It’s about 10 Beijings. Its a sparse land. That is why. We are proud that we are ranked the top.”

‘It’s very difficult to change the locals’ habits’

We visited several cultural venues as evidence of state investment in Uighur culture.

The definition of acceptable cultural practices, however, is narrowly defined by the state. Folk dancing and nan bread were widely promoted. We were treated to several dance shows every day. But cultural practices central to daily life, particularly those associated with Islam, were not seen.

On the first day in Urumqi we visited a government-endorsed bakery at the Grand Bazaar with different types of nan, the ubiquitous central Asian flatbread. “You can write your name on it,” said the English language translator. "This one says China."

Despite displays of nan and toddlers in doppa skullcaps, Uighur culture was largely absent.

At the new RMB180 million Aksu Museum, signs in English and Mandarin told of Han warriors taming the western “wasteland”. Islam was mentioned once, in the context of war and forced conversion: “Uighurs’ belief in Islam is not the result of the voluntary conversion and transformation at that time but the forced implementation by religious wars and the ruling class.”

In Aksu, we visited the Kekeya Green Wall, a forest of 13 million trees planted in tidy rows by volunteers over three decades. We stood on a patch of land overlooking a small gully with wild brush.

“This is what it looked like before,” said the guide. “The soil was rather hard with salt, which enhances the difficulties of planting. Using the plough was very difficult. So, finally, bombing was used to level the ground.”

We were assured life in Urumqi was returning to normal after decades of terrorism.

During a bus conversation at the end of our tour, Mr Li reminded us the centres are temporary. But not so temporary. After people with extremist tendencies have been educated, the camps may be extended to accommodate farmers, to achieve poverty alleviation targets, he said.

"It's very difficult to change the locals' habits. Shepherds and farmers don't brush their teeth, they don't shower and they walk in slippers. Those habits are not hygienic and we wish to help them change that through the boarding school system," Mr Li said.

He did not specify whether or not attendance would be voluntary. But given the majority of the Turkic population is rural, this could encompass almost the entire non-Han population in Xinjiang.

Hours later, we attended a farewell banquet. Amid dancing, feasting and brotherly speeches, we were given a final reminder of that old Chinese expression: seeing is believing. But you can’t always believe what you hear.