They are schools, not prison camps for Muslim Uighurs


ALL right, people, I was there.

You might have heard that China has imprisoned one million Muslim Uighurs in prison camps in Xinjiang. But they are not camps.

They are vocational training schools where minor offenders are sent there instead of prisons, say the Chinese in dismay, adding: If you don’t believe it, come and see for yourself.

Xinjiang is China’s North-Western province, an area where native Chinese and about 130 other nationalities are living side by side for at least 25 centuries. Uighurs, Turkic people from Mongolia and other areas, have settled there since eighth-10th century AD and now constitute around 10 million of Xinjiang’s 25 million population.

That area that links China with Central Asia is the ancient Silk Route, which gives the name to China’s foreign policy initiative to create a global trading partnership.

So, I visited these schools. And it is not a big deal. These facilities had been visited by about 1,000 international groups since 2017 when they were established.

What you see there is dozens of lively young people, sitting in their classrooms or getting professional training on cooking and gardening to interior design (light green walls with lilac curtains, anyone?).

You won’t find barbed wire or iron grills, or wardens with dogs and guns.

I asked Jebigul Jemutulla, an ex-teacher and now the school director of any escapes from there. Why would they run away, was the answer, since they go home every Saturday and Sunday.

But if you are a Westerner, you will see the schools as camps. It’s all smoke and mirrors, they’ll tell you. The young people who are staying there will tell you lies, or else they’ll be tortured. The facilities are established to camouflage the real facts that somewhere else, there are real horrible camps with thousands of suffering Muslims. Or else why do the Chinese willingly pay for the media trip to these sham facilities?

The Chinese organisers of such trips, seemingly, are resigned to the fact that Westerners will not believe what you see. Then again look at the nations who were represented in the delegation. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Turkey and two Indians and one Russian (me).

It looks like China is offering its Muslim partners in the Belt and Road Initiative its experience in preventing jihadisation and extremism in a large community. That offer presumes discussion and disagreement.

There is no doubt that the Uighur nation has fallen victim to a concerted effort to distort its formerly moderate Islam. There were underground cells and madrasas, there were campaigns to refuse education and registered marriage, and how about your five year-old son coming home and saying, “I won’t eat your food, Mother, they told me it’s unclean.”

Ignoring these disturbing trends for years was China’s terrible mistake. It resulted in a series of murderous attacks all over Xinjiang and the rest of the country in 2014.

Before that, in 2009, there was the night of July 5 in Urumqi. Several thousands Uighur youngsters went out to the streets with axes and knives, attacking passersby and murdering 197 people.

About 2,000 armed underground cells have been destroyed after the incident.

Xinjiang suddenly discovered that there had been no new attacks for the last 30 months.

However, there is a grey area in that effort with no foreign experience as reference. Simple logic will tell you that you must jail murderers.

But what do you do with those who have not murdered anyone, but are obvious radicals? What do you do with youngsters who do not understand that what they are doing is wrong?

What do you do with these kids who some have been studying for five years in a village, but can’t write their name in any language?

These are the lost generation who do not have the chance to find their place in a nation that has overtaken the US by gross national product, became a global industrial and technological leader, and is the only one to offer the world some prospects of the future.

China’s answer — give these minor offenders basic education and understanding about the world, and then train them and help them to find jobs.

But in such cases it’s the details that matter, which even the 1.4 billion Chinese could have been mistaken.

“They used to be radicals, but now some of them told us they are unbelievers. So, how about normal Islam?” That’s what the Saudis were saying after visiting two training schools in Xinjiang.

“We need such education for at least 22 million of our 35 million population, so how do we do it?” said the Afghans.

But the basic Chinese idea is worthwhile.

They are, essentially, saying that extremism thrives in ignorance, so enlightenment is the answer.