By Jintana Panyaarvudh
Tears flow as Patima* explains how her marriage almost fell apart when she fell under the spell of religious extremism.
The 35-year-old Uighur woman from Ukirki village in Kashgar tells of bitter quarrels with her husband, who tried to reverse the “brainwashing” but only succeeded in driving her back to her parents’ house.
Undaunted, she pressured others to adopt her fierce religious loyalty, while boycotting products that came from outside of her Muslim-majority homeland of Xinjiang.
Customers of her small grocery shop who refused to follow her path were treated badly.
“I refused to sell things to them or sometimes sold them at very expensive prices,” she told a group of foreign journalists during a recent visit to her home.
The visit took place amid an international outcry from the United Nations and others that China has imprisoned about 1 million Uighurs and fellow Muslims as part of moves to suppress religion that amount to “massive human rights abuses” in Xinjiang.
China has not given any figures but insists the detainees constitute a potential terrorist threat.
Patima said her behaviour was reported to the village headman, who warned it could lead her to committing a crime.
She said she remained defiant, but after the headman reasoned that her behaviour might have a harmful influence on her family, she began to worry about possible legal punishment.
He told her not to worry, and introduced her to a “sanctuary” that would help her escape the grip of extremism.
A law lecturer teaches trainees in a legal studies class at Shule vocational education and training centre in Kashgar, Xinjiang. /Photo by Noel Pabalate
After talking it through with her husband, she decided to take the headman’s advice and apply at a vocational training and education centre in Shule county, south of Kashgar city in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The Chinese government initially denied the existence of “re-education camps” before defending them as “vocational education and training centres”.
Quoting independent research for international political risk analysis and consulting firm Corr Analytics, the South China Morning Post recently reported that, “Numerous [Chinese] government documents … make clear that these ‘trainees’ are in fact in detention, despite propaganda efforts to paint them as attending ‘voluntarily’.”
After spending 10 months at the institution, Patima emerged in April with a fair knowledge of Mandarin and a “better” understanding of the law. She “majored” in dancing and now earns 2,750 yuan or Bt12,000 a month as a professional dancer.
“The centre helped me become more open and dragged me back from the wrong path. Had I not studied there, I don’t know how my life would be. I am very happy now,” said the mother of two daughters, her eyes brimming with tears.
Patima is one purported success story from an institute founded by China’s government with the aim of eradicating a breeding ground for terrorism in Xinjiang.
The goal, says an official white paper titled “The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang”, is to rescue those who have fallen prey to terrorist or extremist ideologies and give them the knowledge and skills that will enable them to lead normal lives.
International media and rights activists have called the centres “concentration camps”, but Chinese officials defend them as part of a highly successful de-radicalisation programme in the region.
“If we don’t get help them to eradicate the extremist thought, it could develop into terrorism,” Wang Qiubin, deputy director of the Work Committee of the People’s Congress of Kashgar Prefecture, told the visiting journalists.
A school by all appearances
From the outside, the Shule education and training centre looks like a school – with classrooms, dormitory, canteen and playground. Minimal security was apparent on a recent visit by foreign reporters.
Trainees interviewed by the journalists, speaking through translators, gave the same answers -- that they had voluntarily chosen to take the courses, and they had come to the centre to get rid of extremist ideology.
Chinese authorities claim that trainees had previously been influenced by terrorism or religious extremism.
Yazin* avoided eye contact as he recounted how he was once obsessed with “jihad” or holy war.
Foreign journalists interview Yazin (red shirt) at Shule vocational education and training centre in Kashgar, Xinjiang. /Photo by Noel Pabalate
A few years ago, the 36-year-old Uighur farmer was convinced by a book’s message that “a real Muslim must practise jihad”. After failing to convince two friends to accept that “truth”, he headed into the Shule desert to begin training.
However, he said his new extremist zeal was noticed by officials in his village, who warned him about the possible consequences.
“I wanted to get rid of the thoughts so I decided to come here and apply for the courses,” said Yazin, who is studying Mandarin, law and vocational skills at the centre.
A year after entering with no knowledge of Mandarin, he can now communicate in the language and knows around 2,000 characters.
He said he had also developed a knowledge of the law and could distinguish between right and wrong actions.
“I also learn about e-commerce and hope to find a job after graduating,” said Yazin, his two hands clasped tightly together as he spoke in fluent Mandarin.
A man learns how to do e-commorce. /Photo by Jintana Panyaarvudh
Attending a law class, fellow Uighur Adila* said she too had read a book about extremism and passed its message on to others.
She said she applied to the centre after deciding to rid herself of the extremist mentality, which she found constricting.
For example, she was not able to wear makeup, while religious strictures barred her brother from marrying outside the faith.
Adila said she believed at the time that violating the rules would bring punishment from God.
“But now I know that the law [not extremist rules] is supreme. Everybody has an obligation to abide by the constitution and laws,” she said, after attending courses at the centre for the past 10 months.
Now clad in makeup, Adila said she was more confident about her appearance.
The Shule centre’s president, Muhammad Ali, said the centres adopt a boarding school management system, providing free education, training, clothes, food and accommodation.
A female trainee draws and measures a design for a dress. /Photo by Noel Pabalate
The so-called trainees graduate when authorities judge they have reached a certain level of knowledge.
Ali claims the trainees are allowed to go home regularly, ask for leave at any time and receive visits from relatives.
By law, they cannot organise and participate in religious activities at the centres.
This echoes a wider clampdown in Xinjiang, where visible signs of religious identity such as long beards, headscarves and fasting are restricted or banned.
Open in January last year, the Shule centre currently has around 1,000 occupants undergoing training, one quarter of which are female.
The curriculum consists of standard spoken and written Chinese language, law, vocational skills, and courses on the eradication of extremism.
Trainees choose from four vocational courses – e-commerce, electrician skills, cooking and dress-making – designed to help them get jobs after graduation.
The centre also provides facilities for recreation.
In one classroom, a group dressed in colourful traditional costumes sang and danced for the journalists.
In the playground near the canteen, meanwhile, others played basketball and table tennis.
Trainees play table tennis under the sun./Photo by Noel Pabalate
Engaging in such activities would deter them from joining terrorist activity, said Ali.
As he led an inspection of dormitories, the president explained proudly how the behaviour of trainees had changed after attending the programme, with the men now dutifully making their beds and taking daily showers.
A dormitory at Shule vocational education and training centre. /Photo by Jintana Panyaarvudh
A State Council Information Office white paper described how areas in Xinjiang had suffered terrorism, and religious extremism had infiltrated people’s work and daily life causing great damage and threatening social stability, economic development and security.
The white paper says that between 1990 and the end of 2016, separatist, terrorist and extremist forces launched thousands of attacks in Xinjiang, killing large numbers of innocent people and hundreds of police officers.
Major terrorist attacks in Xinjiang are captured in graphic images and videos at an exhibition in Urumqi, the regional capital. Huge caches of seized explosives, knives and guns are also on display to show how authorities are fighting hard to combat terrorism.
A huge cache of explosives, knives and guns seized in the wake of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang are on display at an exhibition in Urumqi. /Photo by Jintana Panyaarvudh
But since 2016, there has been a sharp fall in terrorist activity throughout the region.
“Xinjiang has suffered no violent terrorist attacks over the past 30 months,” said Tian Wen, head of Xinjiang’s Publicity Department.
*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.
The writer travelled to Xinjiang at the invitation of China Daily