BEIJING—A senior Chinese official offered the government’s fullest defense so far of its mass detention program for Muslims in China’s far west, saying it formed a bulwark for social stability and suggesting the detentions are voluntary.
In a lengthy interview published Tuesday by the government’s Xinhua News Agency, the chairman of China’s Xinjiang region, Shohrat Zakir, portrayed the camps as generously equipped vocational schools that are vital to a crackdown on religious extremism. He said the clampdown helped bring an end to terrorism and a drop in crime in the region.
“Facts have proven that vocational education and training fits the reality of current efforts in countering terrorism, maintaining stability and eradicating extremism in Xinjiang,” he said, according to Xinhua.
The interview, published in Chinese and English, is part of an evolving strategy by China to explain the campaign. U.S. officials and United Nations experts estimate hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly from the Uighur ethnic group, have been detained in the past two years. While the detentions initially attracted little attention, criticism—from the U.S., Europe and some Muslim groups—has been building in recent months.
Chinese officials equivocated over the mass detentions before a United Nations panel in August, saying minor criminals in Xinjiang had been sent to vocational schools to learn how to reintegrate into society. Revisions to Xinjiang’s counterterrorism regulations, made public last week, acknowledged for the first time that the vocational training centers were being used for “deradicalization” work.
“They clearly want to get out in front of the story after a year of trying to deny it,” said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia. Part of the current effort, he said, is likely aimed at pre-empting further criticism at a U.N. review of China’s human-rights record, scheduled for November.
Reporting by scholars outside China and interviews with former detainees and their relatives by foreign media, including The Wall Street Journal, have documented the expansion of the detention program and the intense political indoctrination those held are subjected to. They described being held against their will, forced to sing patriotic songs and prohibited from praying.
In the Xinhua interview, Mr. Zakir contradicted those accounts, suggesting enrollment in the institutions is voluntary. He said the facilities sign “training agreements” with each trainee.
Chinese law doesn’t allow for indefinite detention without trial, so Xinjiang’s camps can only be legal if they are voluntary, according to Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. If they are, he said, independent experts should be allowed to inspect the facilities—something that authorities have refused to allow thus far.
Offices with Xinjiang’s Communist Party Committee either declined to comment or didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.
China’s resort to mass detentions comes after a yearslong government campaign to suffocate an occasionally violent Uighur separatist movement that Beijing says has links to extremist religious groups abroad. Islamic State has produced videos aimed at recruiting Uighurs, some of whom have left China to fight with the organization in Iraq and Syria.
Human-rights groups and Uighur activists living abroad say the violence is driven by extreme restrictions on Uighur religious and cultural activities and by state-sanctioned policies that ultimately benefit Han Chinese at the expense of minorities in Xinjiang.
In the interview, Mr. Zakir cited several laws and regulations he said justified the campaign. He reiterated earlier government statements that the centers are intended to rehabilitate minor criminals.
He described the vocational centers as resort-like facilities equipped with volleyball courts, ping-pong tables and film-screening rooms, where ethnic customs are respected, nutritious meals are provided “free of charge” and each air-conditioned room comes with its own TV.
According to interviews with former detainees and their family members, conditions in the centers vary widely. While some resemble vocational schools, others seen by the Journal look more like prisons, surrounded by thick walls topped with razor wire and watched over by armed police in guard towers.
Several former detainees told the Journal they were subjected to hours of political indoctrination daily and forced to denounce Islam. One said he was strapped to a chair for hours with his hands shackled behind his back and interrogated about ties to religious groups abroad, which he denied having. Authorities declined to comment.
Mr. Zakir said the training program helps prevent religious extremism by teaching trainees Mandarin, which “gives them a foundation to accept modern scientific knowledge, and recognize China’s history, culture and national conditions.”
Mr. Leibold, the Xinjiang expert, said much of Mr. Zakir’s description seems “aspirational.” He and other critics have said the program is more likely to exacerbate ethnic resentment than promote harmony.
“I think it’s quite dubious that this can be effective in the long term,” Mr. Leibold said.
—Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.
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