She was tightly focused on a portrait of a man wearing glasses and a blue jacket. As I stepped into the art classroom of Hotan County Vocational Training Center, a beautiful Uygur girl caught my attention. She smiled and spoke softly as I proceeded to interview her.
Kalihinuer Mijiti, 22, told me that she had been at the center for a few months. Why was she admitted to the center? She reported that back in September 2012, she had become fed up with her over-controlling husband, and due to her belief that women should not work outside of the house, the only person she could turn to was her father, who drank and smoked heavily. Influenced by extremist ideologies, she opposed not only the idea of going to work, but even the practice of contraception.
“In those days, I didn’t think of my father as a real Muslim,” admitted Mijiti with tears in her eyes. “I refused to speak to him for some time.” After she married in 2014, she had a daughter who is now three years old and under the care of her family.
A New Choice
At Kashgar Vocational Training Center, I interviewed 23-year-old Mailihaba Yimamu, who began training at the center in April 2018. Influenced by the extremist ideas of her grandmother, she began avoiding non-Muslim communities and refusing to communicate with them. Eventually, she spread the ideas to her younger brother and sister and urged them to do the same.
When asked how long she would stay at the center, Yimamu said she would graduate after passing tests on Mandarin Chinese, law, and vocational skills (“fashion design” in her case).
“I am learning skills from a professional teacher,” she noted with a big smile. “After I leave here, I intend to open a clothing store.”
At the same center I also interviewed 24-year-old Abdukeyumu Wulamu, who was learning e-commerce skills. He intends to sell jade online after graduation. Wulamu began training at the center on April 28, 2018, after becoming involved in illegal religious activities.
“An imam told me that Muslims shouldn’t use official ID cards, so I burned the cards of everyone in my family,” admitted Wulamu. “A neighbor was selling alcohol and cigarettes in his grocery store, so I set his store on fire and beat him.” He expressed regret for his actions as well as a hope that other Muslims would avoid terrorist and extremist activities.
Asked whether his parents were worried about him at the center, Wulamu replied, “Why should they?” He stressed that he was having a good time at the center. On Saturday, he goes home to see his parents and then returns to the center on Sunday.
At the Shule County Vocational Training Center, 25-year-old Ayetula Tursun explained that he had been influenced by extremist ideas shared by a female friend on WeChat.
Tursun illustrated that he had never met this virtual friend who suggested Muslims clearly distinguish between “halal” and “non-halal.” She urged him to take concrete action to defend the rights of Muslims against the local government for its ignorance of the distinction between the two.
“I believed what she said and forwarded the message to my friends,” sighed Tursun. “When the local police learned that I was spreading extremist ideas, they gave me two choices: be punished according to law or receive training at the vocational training center. I chose the center.”
The Chinese government has set up vocational training centers in Xinjiang as a measure to counter terrorist and extremist activities. At the training centers, I saw happy smiles on the trainees’ faces. Tursun insisted he was quite happy with the free education and vocational training there.
‘No Restrictions on Freedom’
Directors of the vocational training centers refuted claims by some Western media that trainees had been imprisoned and oppressed. “There are no restrictions on trainees’ freedom,” stressed Haireti, director of the Atushi Vocational Training Center. “They go home on weekends.”
Haireti illustrated that trainees can stay in touch with their families by phone and videophone. In the videophone room, I saw a trainee chatting face-to-face with her sister.
“During training at the center, trainees are not deprived of freedom,” said Haireti. “They take the time to learn skills, watch TV, interact with friends and participate in sports. With the skills they learn at the center, trainees can start a business or find a job that earns a stable income, which will help their families escape poverty.”
To stress the scale of training, Haireti showed us around the facility, which covers an area of 11,000 square meters.
“Our center is equipped with psychological and legal consultants,” he added. “At least 200 trainees have visited them for consultations so far. The center is also equipped with professional doctors, nurses and medical supplies to provide medical services.”
Not Just for Muslims
A trip to Xinjiang is lacking without a visit to the magnificent mosque in Kashgar.
Aitika’er Mosque, built in 1442, is the largest mosque in China, covering an area of 16,800 square meters. Nearly 10,000 Muslims perform Juma (Friday) prayer there on Fridays. The mosque has been well-maintained and is known for a library for believers to use before and after prayer.
Besides the mosque in Kashgar, we visited other mosques in Xinjiang including the Juma Mosque in Hotan that features a distinct Uygur architectural style.
Most trainees at the centers are Muslims who were involved in terrorist and extremist activities. After touring the facility, I asked Haireti why I hadn’t seen any trainees praying at the center.
“We respect the religious freedom of all the trainees,” he answered. “But according to the law of the People’s Republic of China, religious activities are not allowed in public places such as hospitals, railway stations, bus stations, shopping centers and schools. The law also applies to the training center.”
Although most trainees are Uygur Muslims, non-Muslim trainees are also found at the centers. At the Shule County center, I met 36-year-old Paher Tursun, a non-Muslim father of two, who had disseminated terrorist videos on the internet.
“I downloaded a video and forwarded it to my friends with no idea that it was wrong,” recounted Paher Tursun. He had previously sold used cars online, and his wife had owned a restaurant.
At the same training center, trainee Mahmati Ali told me that China’s counter-terrorism law is not tailored for any religion or ethnic group.
“From the outset, we sign an agreement with trainees on the purpose, mode and program of training,” explained Mahmuti Mamuti, director of the Hotan County Vocational Training Center, “Standard Chinese language training helps them communicate with others in society. Law training helps them improve their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Vocational skills training helps them get employed and earn a stable income.”
Ali stressed that trainees were not interrogated before being admitted to the training center and that they had chosen their training program voluntarily. He also noted that China’s current counter-terrorism measures and assessments of trainees follow laws and regulations.
In addressing terrorist activities, the Chinese government has learned from experience of the international community and considered the actual situation in Xinjiang.
Mamuti said that the purpose of the measures is to ensure that the younger generation complies with laws and regulations. He considers the training a great success so far, as affirmed by the families and relatives of the trainees.
“Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of training in countering terrorist and extremist activities,” he concluded.