BEIJING: On state television, the vocational education centre in China’s far west looked like a modern school where happy students studied Mandarin, brushed up their job skills, and pursued hobbies such as sports and folk dance.
But earlier this year, one of the local government departments in charge of such facilities in Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture made purchases that had little to do with education: 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.
The shopping list was among over a thousand procurement requests made by local governments in the Xinjiang region since early 2017 related to the construction and management of a sprawling system of “vocational education and training centres”.
The facilities have come under international scrutiny, with rights activists describing them as political re-education camps holding as many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Beijing had previously denied their existence. But a global outcry, including from the UN and the US, sparked a PR counter-offensive.
Government propaganda insisted the centres were aimed at countering the spread of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism through “free” education and job training.
However, an AFP examination of more than 1,500 publicly available government documents – ranging from tenders and budgets to official work reports – shows the centres are run more like jails than schools.
Thousands of guards equipped with tear gas, Tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs keep tight control over “students” in facilities ringed with razor wire and infrared cameras, according to the documents.
The centres should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”, said one document, quoting Xinjiang’s party secretary Chen Quanguo.
To build new, better citizens, another document argued, the centres must first “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins”.
The centre featured on state broadcaster CCTV last week is one of at least 181 such facilities in Xinjiang.
Participation is voluntary, according to CCTV, which showed contented “students” wearing matching uniforms, studying Mandarin and learning trades like knitting, weaving and baking.
The centres first appeared in 2014, the year authorities launched a new “strike hard” campaign against “terrorism” after deadly violence in Xinjiang.
But the buildup began in earnest in early 2017, with local governments in predominantly Uighur southern Xinjiang ordered to speed up the construction of “concentrated educational transformation centres for focus groups” – a euphemism for the religious, the poor, the uneducated, passport holders, and virtually all men of military age.
Shortly after, Xinjiang’s regional government issued regulations on managing “religious extremism”. — AFP