On state television, the vocational education centre in China’s far west looked like a modern school where happy students studied Mandarin, brushed up on their job skills, and pursued hobbies such as sports and folk dance.
But earlier this year, one of the local government departments in charge of such facilities in Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture made several purchases that had little to do with education: 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.
The shopping list was among over a thousand procurement requests made by local governments in the Xinjiang region since early 2017 related to the construction and management of a sprawling system of “vocational education and training centres”.
The facilities have come under scrutiny, with rights activists describing them as political re-education camps holding as many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Beijing had previously denied their existence.
But a global outcry, including from the UN and the US, sparked a public relations counter-offensive.
Government propaganda insisted that the centres were aimed at countering the spread of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism through “free” education and job training.
However, an AFP examination of more than 1,500 publicly available government documents – ranging from tenders and budgets to official work reports – shows the centres are run more like jails than schools.
US Senator for Florida Marco Rubio – who has called for sanctions on China over the mass internments – tweeted AFP’s report on Wednesday, expressing scepticism about China’s explanation of the camps.
“China trying to convince the world that the Xinjiang internment camps are vocational training centers. But what kind of vocational training center buys 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs & 2,792 cans of pepper spray?,” he said.
Thousands of guards equipped with tear gas, Tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs keep tight control over “students” in facilities ringed with razor wire and infrared cameras, according to the documents.
The centres should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”, said one document, quoting Xinjiang’s party secretary Chen Quanguo.
To build new, better Chinese citizens, another document argued, the centres must first “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins”.
The centre featured on state broadcaster CCTV last week is one of at least 181 such facilities in Xinjiang, AFP reported.
Participation is voluntary, according to CCTV, which showed contented “students” wearing matching uniforms, studying Mandarin and learning trades like knitting, weaving and baking.
The centres first appeared in 2014, the year that authorities launched a new “strike hard” campaign against “terrorism” after deadly violence in Xinjiang.
But the buildup began in earnest early last year, with local governments in predominantly Uighur, southern Xinjiang ordered to speed up the construction of “concentrated educational transformation centres for focus groups” – a euphemism that includes the religious, the poor, the uneducated and virtually all men of military age.
Shortly after, Xinjiang’s regional government issued regulations on managing “religious extremism”.
Extremists could be hiding anywhere, officials warned, instructing cadres to be on the lookout for 25 illegal religious activities and 75 signs of extremism, including such seemingly innocuous activities as quitting smoking or buying a tent.
“Detain those who should be detained to the greatest extent possible”, cadres were told.
At the end of last year, “higher authorities” issued directions to standardise the facilities’ operations.
New “vocational education and training service management bureaus” were set up, headed by officials experienced in running prisons and detention centres, according to local government websites.
Students would be tested on their knowledge of Mandarin and propaganda on a weekly, monthly and “seasonal” basis, and write regular “self-criticisms”, one bureau wrote in a memo.
They would spend their days “shouting slogans, singing red songs and memorising the Three Character Classic”, it said, referring to an ancient Confucian text.