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China has detained an estimated hundreds of thousands of Muslims inside what it calls vocational training centers in its northwest region of Xinjiang. Those who've been released describe them as concentration camps and tell NPR they're places where authorities brainwash detainees with communist doctrine and where some claim they were tortured.
Last weekend, China's government took NPR's Rob Schmitz on a rare media tour of two of these camps. As Rob reports, it was a choreographed attempt to change a narrative that is spinning out of China's control.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: China's government is eager to show journalists the bright side of its network of detention facilities housing Muslim ethnic minorities. And this is how they're doing it.
UNIDENTIFIED DETAINEES: (Singing) If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.
SCHMITZ: Uighur detainees at a detention facility in China's far-western city of Kashgar led into a song that seems tailored for a visiting group of journalists skeptical about everything they're seeing. This is a government-paid media trip. And according to the government, this facility is here to erase what it calls extremist thoughts among Muslims and refocus them on learning skills they can use in the workforce.
Mejit Mahmut, the principal of what authorities call the Kashgar Vocational Education and Training Center, insist that 1,500 Uighur students under his watch are treated well and are free to go home on weekends.
MEJIT MAHMUT: (Through interpreter) People here have been infected by extremist thoughts. They broke the relevant laws, but their crimes are so minor that they are exempted from criminal punishment. The government wants to save and educate them, converting them here at this center.
SCHMITZ: Mahmut says detainees spend their days taking classes in Mandarin - many of them don't speak Chinese - Chinese law, to understand the laws they allegedly broke, and vocational skills that can lead them into careers as tour guides, online retailers or electricians. He says students are here for an average of eight months and can leave after doing well on exams.
AYIGUYI ABDEL-RAHMAN: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: (Speaking Chinese).
ABDEL-RAHMAN: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: But none of the several detainees the government made available to NPR said it was clear when they could return home. Ayiguyi Abdel-Rahman, a 30-year-old mother of two, said she's been at the center for 10 months. She doesn't know when she'll get out. When I ask her why she's here, her answer begins the same way as everyone else I spoke to.
ABDEL-RAHMAN: (Through interpreter) I have serious extremist thoughts. I made my children participate in religious activities from a young age, and I didn't let them sing and dance in a cultural entertainment activity. I interfered with their personal freedom.
SCHMITZ: Abdel-Rahman says she also sent government welfare checks back to the government because she didn't think they were halal, or allowed under Islamic law. She didn't allow her children to watch TV cartoons for the same reason. Her 25-year-old classmate, Yusu Pujiang, has been here eight months and had to quit his job as a salesman to live here.
YUSU PUJIANG: (Through interpreter) I forced my wife to stay home and not work. I didn't think the money women earned was halal. My neighbors reported me to the authorities.
SCHMITZ: Pujiang says police also looked through his phone and saw that he had viewed some online videos showing Osama bin Laden training al-Qaida members. Like all of the detainees NPR spoke to, Pujiang says he didn't know what he was doing was against the law and didn't understand that his thoughts were extremist. Hei Lili, a teacher at another detention facility in the city of Atush (ph), explains.
HEI LILI: (Through interpreter) When the students arrive here, they don't know what extremist thoughts are. Most people in southern Xinjiang don't understand Chinese. They don't know much about China's laws either.
SCHMITZ: This raises the question many human rights advocates are asking. Why is it fair to detain Muslims for acting on what the state considers extremist thoughts if they themselves don't know what that means? This question is posed to the only Chinese government official on the media tour willing to speak on the record. His answer sounds like something out of a science fiction film.
DU BIN: (Through interpreter) If we take the appropriate actions and stop the attacker before he makes his move, we save the lives of the attacker, his family and, at the same time, we ensure the safety of victims.
SCHMITZ: Du Bin is division chief of the information office of China's State Council. And he made it clear his opinions are his own, not of the government agency he works for.
DU: (Through interpreter) Take the Sri Lanka and 9/11 attacks as examples. What's the point of ensuring justice after due process when all the victims have been killed? That's why I'm emphasizing the preventative measures the Chinese government takes. It's proven that this measure is the key to fight terrorism.
SCHMITZ: When asked if he's saying the Chinese government is detaining those who are about to commit crimes, Du hedges a little. But he reiterates that if people are showing signs of breaking the law, local authorities will decide whether they need to be detained under the region's so-called de-extremification laws.
Du says detaining and educating them with job skills is necessary to help the region achieve a national goal of eradicating poverty by 2020. When pressed on the exact number of people inside Xinjiang's network of detention facilities, Du explains why he won't.
DU: (Through interpreter) If the Chinese government gives you an exact number that can endure the test of time after conducting a strict census, other countries would say we detained too many people in concentration camps. If we give you a small number, you would say the Chinese government is lying, right? We're in a dilemma.
SCHMITZ: So, too, are the Muslims inside the detention camps, says Serikjan Bilash (ph), director of the Kazakh human rights group Atajurt, which has collected more than 1,000 testimonies from families of those who have been detained. NPR interviewed Bilash last October.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SERIKJAN BILASH: (Through interpreter) These so-called study centers are prisons. They're hell. I feel bad for Uighurs. It's we in Kazakhstan who are disclosing what is happening in Xinjiang. We aren't afraid to speak up because Kazakhstan is more democratic than China.
SCHMITZ: Bilash may have spoken too soon. In March, Kazakh authorities detained him on suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred. He remains under house arrest. Kazakhstan's government is a Beijing ally that's positioned itself as the buckle in China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road trade and investment campaign.
UNIDENTIFIED DETENTION CENTER AUTHORITY #1: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED DETENTION CENTER AUTHORITY #2: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: Back in Kashgar, authorities finish up their tour of a detention facility, offering media a look inside a student dormitory. The detainees have told me they sleep six to a room in comfortable accommodations. But in one corner of the complex, I noticed writing etched into a wall. It looks like someone tried to paint over it, but the message is still legible. The first line quips sarcastically, this room is excellent. Then, underneath that, it continues, bear with it, my heart. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Kashgar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.