Spacious, organised, full of vitality and hope. That was Muhammad Asghar’s first impression of a vocational and education training centre he visited in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2019. As a journalist, he has been reading Western media outlets’ reports on such centres, but the horrific and desperate “internment camps” the Western media described are totally different from what he saw with his own eyes.
“Before my visit, I thought the so-called ‘training camp’ was a cramped place stuffed with people. It must be enclosed with barbed wire with horrific living conditions, while the gates must be surrounded by guards holding guns,” Asghar told People’s Daily Online.
To his surprise, the centre he saw was more like a university campus than a training camp. There were five five-storey dormitory buildings, with each room accommodating two trainees. A spacious cafeteria that can seat more than 500 people provides varied and delicious food for the trainees, while for Muslims, halal food is offered everyday.
“I went into a music classroom, where more than 30 students, both young women and men, performed in front of us excitedly. Outside of the classroom, I saw trainees playing football and other games on a spacious playground. Everyone seemed to be very happy and excited to me,” recalled Asghar.
Asghar, along with four other journalists from the UK, Russia, Kazakhstan and Indonesia, visited two centres in Hotan, which he said are more or less the same.
Talking to some Uyghur trainees who were previously influenced by religious extremism or unemployed due to a lack of skills, Asghar learned that they had joined the training program voluntarily in an effort to build better lives for themselves. The trainees can visit their families or friends on weekends or during holidays, while at the centre they are offered free courses such as cooking, sewing, beautician classes, Mandarin, religion, and law, all of which are totally free of charge.
Adila, a previously unemployed woman who only has a primary school education, learned about the centre from a member of the CPC village committee. She applied to enter the centre and is now learning catering. She told Asghar that she was happy as all the facilities are free, and she hoped to learn Mandarin and gain other skills so that she can find a good job in the future.
Abdullah, a former farmer who hoped to run a business upon completing his training, told Asghar that he had learned a great deal and was satisfied with the training, facilities, and treatment. He joined the centre voluntarily and can go back home to see his parents once a week.
“For those who want to believe these trainees may have been coerced or their actions are staged, it would be a miracle if the Chinese government could find so many amazing actors. I say you cannot fake happiness, and happiness is exactly what I saw,” said Asghar, who added that the visit had fundamentally changed his impression of the training centre, which he believed is a great idea for tackling terrorism, as well as bringing benefits to ethnic minority groups.
Asghar’s conclusion is supported by statistics and facts. According to a White Paper released by the Chinese government in 2019, no terrorist incidents have occurred in Xinjiang since the education and training campaign started. In 2018, tourism in Xinjiang grew rapidly: the number of tourists coming from inside and outside China totaled over 150 million, a year-on-year increase of 40 percent. Foreign tourist numbers came to 2.6 million, a year-on-year increase of nearly 12 percent. Xinjiang received more than 200 million visits from tourists in 2019, up 41.6 percent year-on-year.
“The training centre has helped people integrate into the society, making them useful citizens, offering them promising future and better life, what is wrong with that? The idea is marvellous, and it’s truly in the benefit of the Uyghur,” he added.
Tremendous changes in Xinjiang over the decades
It has been 28 years since Muhammad Asghar first visited Kashgar, Xinjiang. Over the past few decades, he has visited Xinjiang five times, sometimes as a tourist, sometimes as a member of the Pakistani parliamentary delegation, but mostly as a special correspondent of Associated Press of Pakistan in China.
When Asghar first visited Kashgar in 1993 as a tourist, the gap between Xinjiang and the rest of China seemed far wider than anything that could be measured in terms of economy or security. To the world, Xinjiang appeared primitive and backward – the glories of Uyghur culture, its natural beauty and folk art were unknown, ignored or despised.
Xinjiang’s soaring ambitions of becoming China’s northwest economic hub were constantly thwarted by the region’s rampant religious extremism and terrorism. Between 1990 and the end of 2016, separatists, religious extremists and terrorists plotted and carried out thousands of acts of terrorism such as bombings, assassinations, poisoning, arson, assaults and riots across Xinjiang. Several hundred police officers died in the line of duty, and countless innocent citizens were killed. The property losses incurred were enormous.
As Asghar remembers it, Kashgar in 1993 was a backwater with no vitality or order. Grumpy vendors sat behind their shabby stalls, and their merchandise was strewn chaotically over the muddy ground. Donkey-drawn carts smashed their way through crowds, stirring up dust all over the city. Vagabonds carrying knives were scattered in all corners of the city, sizing up passersby with an evil leer.
A decade later, when Asghar visited Kashgar again, he was stunned by the changes the city had undergone. The donkey-drawn carts were replaced by modern cars and robust transportation systems, the Chini Bagh Hotel, the small three-storey hotel where Asghar lived in in 1993, was now a five-star hotel with over 30 floors. Prosperity and development seemed to have spread to all parts of the city.
The great changes in Kashgar has intrigued Asghar, who visited other cities and regions in Xinjiang on three more occasions in 2014, 2015 and 2019. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, his sixth trip to Xinjiang was postponed, but he is keen to visit more places in Xinjiang to observe the region’s development.
“There was one time we traveled from Urumqi to Turpan by road, then from Turpan to the famous Flaming Mountain. The trip took a whole day, covering a large part of Xinjiang. What amazed me the most is that during the whole trip, whether it was industrial hubs in Urumqi, or grape plantations in Turpan, every place we visited seemed to be full of vitality and opportunities. Everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed by the locals,” said Asghar.
“Over the past 28 years, I’ve seen Xinjiang’s development with my own eyes. I’ve visited many places and talked to many locals. Everywhere I went, I saw peace and harmony, everybody I communicated with was happy. The abundant job opportunities, the prosperity and development have all benefited the ethnic groups, such as the Uyghurs. Unlike some Western media outlets’ reports, I have seen nothing disturbing at all during all my trips in Xinjiang,” he added.
As a Pakistani, Asghar understands the importance of peace and security, as his country has also been ravaged by terrorism and religious extremism, which has led to economic losses and great suffering for the people. He believes that a peaceful and stable Xinjiang is not only beneficial for China, but also the rest of the world.
“If there is no peace and security, then there is no development. The Chinese government has done a marvellous job to secure Xinjiang’s development and the public’s safety. It has also launched different development plans to lift Xinjiang out of poverty. I saw that a subway system was established in Urumqi in 2019, while the road infrastructure has become better and better across Xinjiang. These are facts that no one can deny,” said Asghar.
“Xinjiang borders several countries, it is a vital point for connecting China and the rest of the world. Xinjiang’s prosperity and security will also bring a positive impact on neighbouring nations and regions, like my country, Pakistan, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In the future, a stable Xinjiang will not only be beneficial for China, but also Pakistan and other neighbouring countries,” he added.
Conscientious reports vs ill-intentioned lies
Travelling in Xinjiang and seeing the region’s development with his own eyes, Asghar finds that some Western media outlets’ reports on Xinjiang are totally different from what he personally experienced there.
As a Muslim himself, Asghar has read countless reports from Western media outlets claiming that the Uyghurs’ religious rights are denied in Xinjiang. To find out the truth, he visited different parts of Xinjiang, talking to imams from different mosques, as well as Uyghur people in the vocational education and training centres.
“I’ve talked to an imam of a mosque in Hotan, and another imam from Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar. They all expressed satisfaction with local religious freedom. If a Muslim wants to go to a mosque, he is totally free. Even in the vocational training centre, the trainees told me they can pray with no restriction, and their religious beliefs are totally respected,” said Asghar.
“I myself joined several religious events in Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar and the Islamic Centre in Urumqi. Foreign Muslims like me and locals were praying together. It was quite an experience and a good memory for me. I believe the allegations against China’s Xinjiang religious policies are merely rumours,” he added.
As for Western media accusations that China is destroying Uyghur culture, forcing Uyghurs to study Mandarin and carrying out genocide in the vocational training centres, Asghar said such claims are groundless.
“When I was at the main bazaar in Urumqi, it was full of people from different ethnic groups, and there was so much enthusiasm for life. In the market, one can see signboards in both Chinese Mandarin and Uyghur languages, while bilingual schools have been set up across Xinjiang and the local culture is well kept, which is contrary to the picture of Xinjiang portrayed by Western media,” said Asghar.
Talking to trainees in the training centres, Asghar learned that many of them were previously influenced by religious extremism, and their lack of knowledge of the law led to them unintentionally committing crimes. Without knowing Mandarin and with little educational background, most of them were jobless before entering the training centres.
“I cannot help but ask this question: If a Chinese citizen cannot speak Chinese in his own country, how can he get a good job? How can he go to other provinces and communicate with other people? How can he run a business with people living in other provinces? Learning the national language and knowing basic laws are quite useful. After completing their study, they can blend in with society, join the mainstream to have a better life. What is wrong with that?” Asghar said.
“Nobody wants terrorism. In Pakistan, we have seen terrorism, which has caused pain to our people and a negative impact on our economy. It is in our nature to want peace and prosperity, I think the trainees I met expressed their true feelings and wish for a better life. Through their expressions and body language, I can see they are happy,” he added.
As a professional journalist, Asghar believes that delivering factual reports on Xinjiang’s current situation is the best way to help the world understand the development of this once poverty and crime-stricken region. He suggested that Western media go and have a look at what is really happening in Xinjiang if they have any doubts and questions.
“The Chinese government has offered chances for journalists worldwide to enter the vocational centres and other places in Xinjiang, while the organizers who accompanied me on my trip did not even once interfere with my interviews. On the contrary, they have offered us confidence and great help,” he said.
“The training centre has helped people integrate into society, making them useful citizens, offering them a promising future and better lives. What is wrong with that? The idea is marvelous, and it’s truly to the benefit of the Uyghurs,” he added.