China released a white paper on Thursday claiming that its far western Xinjiang region has provided “vocational training” to nearly 1.3 million workers every year on average from 2014 to 2019.
It comes as Beijing is facing mounting criticism from Western countries and human rights groups over its policies in the region, where it is believed to have detained at least 1 million Uygurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in internment camps.
China has been accused of subjecting detainees to political indoctrination and forced labour in the camps, but it has denied the allegations and insisted they are “vocational training centres” where people learn language and job skills.
Two observers said the white paper from the State Council, China’s cabinet, could be the first time the authorities had “indirectly” confirmed the scale of the camps.
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Titled “Employment and Labour Rights in Xinjiang”, the white paper said the regional government had organised “employment-oriented training on standard spoken and written Chinese, legal knowledge, general know-how for urban life and labour skills” to improve the structure of the workforce and combat poverty.
It had provided vocational training to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers every year from 2014 to 2019, the white paper said, apparently not using the Chinese government’s five-year planning period as the reporting time frame.
Of those workers, about 451,400 were from southern Xinjiang – an area it said struggled with extreme poverty, poor access to education and a lack of job skills because residents were influenced by “extremist thoughts”.
That period was also when regional authorities introduced a “systemic de-extremification” campaign to counter terrorism and extreme religious thoughts, according to mainland media reports.
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A mainland-based academic who studies Xinjiang issues said it appeared to be the first time Beijing had “indirectly acknowledged” the number of ethnic Muslim minorities receiving “vocational training” under the “de-extremification” programme.
“If you take into account the timing of China’s de-extremification measures that began in 2014, the ‘1.3 million people being trained per year from 2014 to 2019’ is very close to the number [in the camps] estimated by Western critics,” said the academic, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“But China does not see these training facilities as internment camps, and what it is really trying to highlight [through the white paper] – to counter Western criticism – is that the ‘vocational training’ they provide is actually a social service to improve people’s livelihoods and alleviate poverty.”
Shih Chien-yu, a lecturer on Central Asian relations at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, also said the white paper had given a number for the first time on the re-education programme in Xinjiang.
He added that it was likely Beijing’s response to the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act that is going through the US Congress.
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The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Representative James McGovern, calls for an import ban on goods produced in Xinjiang unless it can be proven that the products were not made by convict, forced or indentured labour.
It follows the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act that was passed three months ago, as well as recent sanctions imposed on entities and Communist Party officials alleged to be involved in repression in Xinjiang.
“I think the tone of this white paper is really weak. It’s basically trying to explain to the US that ‘I didn’t do anything, there’s been some misunderstanding’,” Shih said.
“But it doesn’t address the important points – there have been anti-Muslim issues. The over 1 million people estimated to have been sent for political re-education cannot be explained away by ‘labour’ and ‘employment’,” he said.
The white paper also did not give a definition of “vocational training” or say how the numbers were calculated, nor did it respond to claims that people had been subjected to forced labour, Shih said.