BEIJING (Reuters) - China is taking an increasingly strident tone as it defends its de-radicalization program in western Xinjiang, telling foreign diplomats recently that “absurd preachings” from Islamist extremists there had turned some people into “murderous devils”.
Beijing has faced growing international opprobrium about camps it has set up in Xinjiang - strategically located on the borders of Central Asia - which China calls education and training centers and many Western countries and rights groups view as internment facilities for ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim peoples.
China has stepped up its diplomatic efforts as it seeks to fend off censure of the camps, especially following criticism from Turkey and at the United Nations, inviting waves of foreign envoys to tour the camps. Last Friday, it briefed representatives from some 80 countries in Beijing.
Xinjiang Deputy Governor Erkin Tuniyaz, an ethnic Uighur, told the envoys gathered at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing that violence perpetrated by fanatics was “once rampant” in Xinjiang, according to a copy of his speech seen by Reuters.
“The terrorists, extremists and separatists have been preaching that ‘killing a pagan is better than 10 years of prayers, and those who do so can go directly to heaven’, and that ‘jihad is to kill, and martyrdom is to sacrifice one’s own life’,” he said.
“These and other absurd preachings have turned some ordinary people into murderous devils, who eventually committed crimes,” the deputy governor said in unusually strong language.
China has repeatedly rejected all accusations of mistreatment in the camps and accused Western countries in particular of political bias with their criticisms, pointing out that Xinjiang has won stability with its tough policies.
Erkin Tuniyaz said China’s re-education centers fully respect and protect residents’ rights, and offer vocational training and halal food, though religious activities are not permitted.
“They ensure that the trainees’ personal dignity is not violated, and strictly prohibits any form of insult or abuse against the trainees,” he said.
Criticism of the camps is “nothing but ill-intentioned smearing aimed at confounding right from wrong”, Erkin Tuniyaz said.
Four diplomatic sources told Reuters that the meeting also included a presentation by two former camp residents who told of how they had been saved from extremism.
One diplomat said the presentation was obviously choreographed. A second diplomat described it simply as a “show” and wondered if they were actors.
The Xinjiang government did not responded to a request for comment.
In a faxed response to Reuters questions, China’s Foreign Ministry said there was “full interaction and exchanges” with those present at last Friday’s meeting, where it said those present were invited to visit Xinjiang to get a rounded understanding of people’s aspirations for peace.
“You can never wake up those who are pretending to be asleep,” it added, without elaborating.
The ministry’s account of the meeting, released on Sunday on its website, cited Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui as telling the diplomats that China should be applauded for creating a new method of tackling extremism.
One of the diplomats said China appeared to be trying to apply domestic propaganda to the international community, as well as hoping that the issue would go away if they made their point often, loudly and forcefully enough.
“China can’t see that it lacks credibility. It would be hard to believe that anyone present would have found the case being made compelling,” the diplomat said.
However, China has won support for its policies in Xinjiang from allies such as Russia, Cambodia and Venezuela.
Some envoys asked about the number of camps and detainees but got no direct answers, the four diplomatic sources said.
The diplomats spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Multiple diplomatic sources have told Reuters about private visits made to Xinjiang by China-based diplomats in recent months, some of whom said they were followed by state security or found residents too scared to talk to foreigners.
The government took a small group of foreign reporters, including Reuters, on a tightly controlled trip to the camps in January.
Reuters reported last year on conditions inside the camps and took pictures of guard towers and barbed wire surrounding some. (tinyurl.com/y9zzouss)
Erkin Tuniyaz said the government welcomed everyone to visit to “see for yourself what Xinjiang is really like”.
“People in Xinjiang are hospitable. A stable and developing Xinjiang in harmony welcomes your visit with openness and confidence,” he said. “May our friendship last forever!”
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait