BEIJING – Authorities in China have arrested almost 13,000 “terrorists” in the restive far western region of Xinjiang since 2014, the government said Monday, in a lengthy policy paper again defending its controversial Islamic de-radicalization measures.
China has faced growing international opprobrium for setting up facilities that United Nations experts describe as detention centers holding more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims. Beijing says it needs the measures to stem the threat of Islamist militancy, and calls them vocational training centers.
Legal authorities have adopted a policy that “strikes the right balance between compassion and severity,” the government said in its white paper.
The report said the government’s efforts have curbed religious extremism but as in past statements, gave little evidence of what crimes had occurred. The region is closed to outsiders, but former residents and activists abroad say Muslim identity itself is punished.
Since 2014, Xinjiang has “destroyed 1,588 violent and terrorist gangs, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities, and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials,” it added.
Only a small minority of people face strict punishment, such as ringleaders of terrorist groups, while those influenced by extremist thinking receive education and training to teach them the error of their ways, the paper said.
The main exiled group, the World Uyghur Congress, swiftly denounced the white paper.
“China is deliberately distorting the truth,” spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an emailed statement.
“Counterterrorism is a political excuse to suppress the Uighurs. The real aim of the so-called de-radicalization is to eliminate faith and thoroughly carry out Sinification.”
The white paper said Xinjiang has faced a particular challenge since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, as East Turkestan extremists ramped up activities in China, referring to China’s term for extremists and separatists it says operate in Xinjiang.
“They screamed the evil words of ‘getting into heaven by martyrdom with jihad,’ turning some people into extremists and terrorists who have been completely mind-controlled, and even turned into murderous devils.”
Religious extremism under the banner of Islam runs counter to Islamic doctrines, and is not Islam, it added.
In addition to addressing concerns about violence, experts and Uighur activists believe the camps are part of an aggressive government campaign to erode the identities of the Central Asian groups who called the region home long before waves of migrants from China’s Han majority arrived in recent decades.
Monday’s paper sought to underplay Islam’s role in the region’s historical makeup, saying that while it “cannot be denied that Xinjiang received the influence of Islamic culture,” that did not change the “objective fact” that Xinjiang’s culture is merely a facet of Chinese culture.
“Islam is not the natural faith of the Uighurs and other ethnicities, nor is it their only faith,” the report said.
Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory, and the Uighur ethnic group evolved from a long process of migration and ethnic integration, the paper said.
“They are not descendants of the Turks.”
Turkey is the only Islamic country that has regularly expressed concern about the situation in Xinjiang, due to close cultural links with the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language.
China has denounced Turkish concern as unwarranted and interference in its internal affairs.