WASHINGTON – The World Bank announced Monday it was cutting back a vocational education project in China’s Xinjiang province, even though an internal investigation did not back up claims the program was linked to the mistreatment of minority Muslim Uighurs.
The Washington-based development lender launched a review of the program in late August after Foreign Policy magazine reported that a school that benefited from a tranche of the $50 million loan to China bought “barbed wire, gas launchers, and body armor.”
The examination also follows an August letter to World Bank President David Malpass from U.S. Rep. James McGovern and Sen. Marco Rubio, chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, raising concerns about a possible overlap between the bank’s vocational efforts in the region and the country’s internment of minorities in its far west.
The World Bank said in a statement released Monday in Washington that its review of the Xinjiang Technical and Vocational Education and Training Project did not substantiate the allegations. The lender approved the loan in 2015 to support five public vocational colleges in the region.
“The team conducted a thorough review of project documents, engaged in discussions with project staff, and visited schools directly financed by the project, as well as their partner schools that were the subject of allegations,” the bank said in the statement.
Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure, it said it was cutting funding to the project’s “partner schools” throughout Xinjiang province that were the target of the allegations.
“In light of the risks associated with the partner schools, which are widely dispersed and difficult to monitor, the scope and footprint of the project is being reduced,” the World Bank said in a statement.
“Specifically, the project component that involves the partner schools in Xinjiang is being closed.”
World Bank funding to the five schools directly supported by the project will continue, under “enhanced supervision.”
The bank said its support includes helping to set the curriculum, developing teaching teams, and better matching student training and skills with the needs of local employers. Partner schools under the project benefited from less than 1 percent of the bank’s financing, according to the statement.
McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Florida Republican Rubio said in their Aug. 13 letter that their concern “stems from the fact that the Chinese government is interning over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslims in an expanding system of mass internment camps.”
China’s treatment of the Turkic-speaking minorities concentrated in the tightly-controlled northwestern Xinjiang region has come under growing scrutiny. Rights groups and experts say the internees in re-education camps are being tortured and forced to renounce their religion.
China initially denied the existence of the camps before admitting to running what it called “vocational education centers,” which it presented as necessary to combat religious extremism and boost employment.