Wearing a burqa or watching “illegal” Islamic videos could land you in trouble in China’s restive Xinjiang province where the government is running a number of ‘Vocational Training Centres’ to re-educate thousands of Uygur Muslims, who Beijing thinks have radicalised.
Mlherban Ximih, 28, a Uygur Muslim from Asku prefecture in Xinjiang, has been lodged at the Wensu County’s Vocational Training Centre since June 2018 for wearing burqa.
Her mother-in-law had “forced” her adhere to strict dressing rules like not wear make-up and western outfits, she said.
Ximih’s mother-in-law and her husband Iblyim Kader were sentenced to 17 years in jail for “inciting people”.
Fearing that Ximih could have also been “influenced by extremist ideas”, authorities sent her to the vocational centre to undergo de-radicalisation.
“The neighbours informed the police about this (she wearing burqa) to the local police following which I was sent to the vocational training centre,” said Ximih, whose three-year-old daughter is now being looked after by her mother.
She is one of the several 275 “trainees” (as addressed by the government), including 11 women, lodged at the “vocational training centre”, many of them are here for over a year now.
These centres have come under intense criticism from human rights bodies for mass arbitrary detention, forced political indoctrination, and religious oppression of Uygurs, the ethnic Turkish Muslims.
There was no official figure of how many such centres exist in Xinjiang. An official of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region said almost all counties in the province have at least one such centre but many have been shut.
Xinjiang, the western province of China, is one of the largest in the country and borders India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrghzstan. The Uygur Muslims dominate the demography in the province.
The Chinese government organised a media visit to two centres – in Wensu and Kashgar – recently and this correspondent was part of the press delegation.
As the metal doors slide, and the delevan enters the compound of the Wensu County ‘Vocational Training Centre’, the delegation is greeted by Rebigul Requtela, a woman in her 30s, and the dean of the vocational centre, along with two other officials.
The centre has three buildings, all painted in light brown — the five-storey main administrative block, the other two blocks of three-storey each serve as classrooms and training centre. It also has residential blocks that house the trainees.
The outside premises of centre also houses a basketball court and a stage where programmes can be hosted. The journalists were also taken to a small room where young Uygur men and women practise dance and songs.
A plethora of surveillance cameras monitor every activity at the centre.
Ilxat Tursun, 28, was caught watching “illegal” videos on “believers and non-believers” of Islam, and since February 2018 he has been lodged at the centre.
While Tursun was using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to watch videos, he came under the scanner of the “online police”.
“One day, the online (cyber) police called me saying I was watching illegal videos. I was given the option to go the court and accept the punishment, or join the vocational centre. Now, I am willing to stay here,” he said through an interpreter arranged by the Chinese officials.
Tursun, who is learning horticulture at the centre, said the videos revolved around the idea that those who did not believe in beliefs of Islam would not go to heaven.
He said he often visits his family over the weekend but does not know when he can be out permanently.
Requtela said those lodged inside are taught about de-radicalisation and laws, Chinese language and vocational skills ranging from horticulture to electrical works.
Timorjong Eqbal, 22, who hails from Kashgar, said he was “influenced by extremist ideas”. He has been at the Kashgar Vocational Training Centre, larger than the Wensu centre, since September 2018.
“I was heavily influenced by extremist and wrong ideas like I avoided interacting with non-Muslims. My mother talked to the village officials, who informed the local authorities,” Eqbal said. China has justified these centres citing the violent attacks by extremists.
A document titled ‘Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang, released by China’s State Council Information Office, states that for some time Xinjiang, especially the prefectures of Kashgar, Hotan, Aksu, the Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous prefecture, where religious extremism has had a long and widespread presence, suffered badly from “frequent acts of terrorism”.
Xu Guixiang, Deputy Director of the publicity department and deputy director of Works Department of United Front Work Department of the Party Committee of Xinjinag Uygur Autonomous Region, scoffed off the criticism against such centres.
He said, since 1990s the “extremist and terrorist force” have played into each others hands to “instigate” thousands terror incidents, causing great losses of masses of various ethnic group.
“Their crimes are numerous to record and make people boil with anger,” he said.
A White Paper on the centres, published by the Chinese government, said Xinjiang is a “key battlefield” in the fight against extremism in China.
The purpose is “to curb religious extremism, help trainees acquire a better education and vocational skills, find employment, and increase their incomes, and most of all, to safeguard social stability and long term peace in Xinjiang,” it states.