An E.U. delegation has been given access to China’s far western region of Xinjiang, a rare chance to gather evidence on controversial re-education camps that have drawn harsh criticism from rights groups and Western powers, officials told AFP Monday.
The team was supervised by Chinese officials on the three-day trip this month, but managed to gather information the E.U. said builds on “compelling and mutually consistent” reports of rights abuses in the region.
Up to a million Uighurs and members of other mostly Muslim minority groups are held in extra-judicial detention in camps in the Xinjiang region, according to a group of experts cited by the United Nations.
Former camp inmates have said they were detained for following Islamic customs such as wearing long beards or the veil.
Omir Bekali, a former detainee, told the Associated Press in May that detainees were subjected to political indoctrination and forced to chant, “Thank the party! Thank the motherland!” before meals.
Bekali said he initially refused to follow orders and was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food. The experience lead him to the verge of suicide, he said.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” Bekali told the AP, breaking down in tears. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
Beijing cliams the centers help people drawn to extremism steer clear of terrorism, and allow them to be reintegrated into society.
But the program has faced fierce criticism, notably from Washington and human rights groups.
The officials got the impression that the Chinese authorities had carefully curated the trip to try to give a good impression – a school they visited had been freshly painted and it appeared that surveillance cameras had been removed.
They were left with the impression that the things said by the people they talked to were “scripted.”
The narrative the Chinese authorities were trying to convey is that “we do a lot to make the livelihood of people there better”, the source said.
China says its far western region of Xinjiang is a harmonious area that's open for business.
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) January 25, 2019
An E.U. official confirmed a team of three visited the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar from January 11 to 13, “with the agreement and facilitation of the central and provincial authorities.”
This was the first visit to Xinjiang by a multinational body since Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, which it calls “vocational training centers.”
It followed another trip last month, also led by the Chinese government, by diplomats from Russia and 11 Asian countries, most with large Muslim populations.
Systematic Human Rights Violations
During the trip, the officials were given “extensive supervised access” to sites including mosques, an Islamic teaching institute and one of the controversial “training centers.”
“Whilst the sites that were visited were carefully selected by the authorities to support China’s official narrative, the visit provided useful insight which complements other sources of information (including reports by UN bodies, international media, academic researchers, and NGOs),” the E.U. official said.
“Many of these sources provide compelling, and mutually consistent, evidence of major and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang.”
Critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang’s minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that conflict with Communist ideology and the dominant Han culture.
A source familiar with the E.U. trip said the delegation was shown “more or less” the same sites than diplomats on the earlier visit, including an exhibit of past terror attacks in Xinjiang.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has said her office is seeking access to Xinjiang to check reports about the camps, with Beijing insisting U.N. officials can come on condition they stay out of the country’s internal affairs.
More on the Subject
On state television, the vocational education center 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 in 2018, one of the local government departments in charge of such facilities in Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture made several 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 centers.”