BEIJING -- Heavily guarded internment camps for Muslims which China calls vocational training centers will gradually disappear if there comes a time that "society does not need" them, regional authorities said Tuesday.
The camps in the far-west Xinjiang region have elicited an international outcry, with former inmates describing harsh conditions in which Muslim minorities are subject to political indoctrination and psychological torture. Human rights groups, researchers and the U.S. government estimate around 1 million people from the predominantly Muslim Uighur and Kazakh ethnic groups are held in a network of compounds spread throughout the vast region.
At a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's ceremonial legislature, Xinjiang Gov. Shohrat Zakir declined to disclose the number of what he called "trainees." But he said the figure is "far less" than 1 million and described extensive reports on conditions in the camps as "pure fabrications."
While China initially denied the existence of the system of internment camps, in the face of growing global condemnation it now says it has established "vocational training centers" where people vulnerable to the lure of religious extremism are enrolled in free legal and language classes and can learn practical work skills.
Zakir said the camps do not target any particular faith, though religious activities are banned in the camps. Ex-detainees say the overwhelming majority of those in the camps are Muslim.
"We fully ensure freedom of religion," including accommodating Muslim "trainees'" desire for halal food, Zakir said, adding that they can request time off and go home on weekends, "like many boarding schools."
Like his immediate predecessors as Xinjiang governor, Zakir is from the region's native Uighur ethnic group, providing a public face for the government and its claims that Xinjiang is an autonomous region. However, the real decision-making power resides with the region's ruling Communist Party chief, who is most often part of the country's Han Chinese ethnic majority.
Current Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo is known for hard-line policies which he previously enacted while serving in the same capacity in the Buddhist region of Tibet. Observers say Chen has now brought an even greater degree of heavy security and surveillance to Xinjiang, where police checkpoints and facial recognition-equipped CCTV cameras have become ubiquitous in recent years.
U.S. envoy on religion Sam Brownback commented on the "horrific situation" in Xinjiang during a telephone news conference Tuesday. He said China has provided "completely unsatisfactory answers" for why the camps exist, and held open the possibility of punitive measures such as sanctions "if corrective actions aren't taken."
Several Xinjiang officials at the briefing Tuesday said they welcome visits by journalists to the region to understand realities on the ground. Yet foreign journalists who have tried to independently report in Xinjiang in recent years have been followed by police, detained and ordered to delete their footage.
China maintains that the region's security measures are necessary for combating latent religious extremism. Over the past decade, violence blamed on Uighur radicals — including riots and a mass stabbing at a train station — have killed hundreds.
Zakir repeated China's claim that there have been no violent incidents in Xinjiang for more than two years. He added, however, that there remains a "long fight" ahead for efforts to defeat extremism.
"We cannot relax one bit," Zakir said.
This story has been corrected to show that the mass stabbing was at a train station, not a bus stop.