The issue of Chinese ‘re-education and re-integration camps’ has once again hit the international headlines with the recent visit of Vladimir Voronkov the head of United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism to Xinjiang in June. Chinese government has been alleged to run these camps with an estimated population of one million Uighur, Kazhaks, Kyrgyz and other Chinese Muslim communities. Western governments led by the United States have repeatedly criticized China for violating the rights of Uighur people. They also accused China of committing human rights abuses and equating these camps to concentration camps for incarcerating political dissidents and civil right workers. The recent visit seems to ascertain Chinese claims of de-radicalizing and re-integrating the inmates. The said visit by head of counter terrorism wing of the UN appeared acknowledging the Chinese stance and denying western allegations and attempting to make it a human rights issue rather a counter terrorism issue.

Chinese government has time and again denied these charges of running such camps rather they termed these as vocational centers for training of individuals with a potential of getting exposed to radical ideologies and radicalized. In such manner the Chinese government defined the exercise as more of a counter terrorism and counter extremism measures. Chinese counter terrorism experts call these training facilities as de-radicalization centers as part of China’s fight against extremists narratives and to impart skills to individuals prone to get attracted to extremist ideologies disseminated by extremist groups like Al-Qaeda linked Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its splinter Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).

The Chinese government considers the de-radicalization program as per Chinese Counter Terrorism Law (article 29, 30) and a matter envisioned in China’s policy document of Counter Terrorism (White Paper on Counter Terrorism). China has been dealing with the menace of terrorism and growing extremism since 1990s in its troubled Uighur Autonomous Region lying in north-western China. The terrorist group ETIM had remained active in recruiting from Chinese Uighur-Muslim community before its relocation to Afghanistan during Afghan Taliban regime (1996-2001) and now its splinter TIP is based in Idlib region of Syria and fighting alongside Al-Qaeda linked groups such as Hayat ut Tahrir wal Sham and Jamaat-e-Haras ud Din. The ETIM and its splinter cells have been able to perpetrate some mass casualty terrorist attacks in both Xinjiang and mainland China resulting in Chinese security policy makers to frame stricter and harsher new laws and reinvigorate security measures in order to counter the threat.

The visit of Mr. Voronkov is slated by the US and other western countries because of its timings. According to US government’s official spokesperson, the US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has talked to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and expressed deep concerns on the visit of Voronkov. The US concerns are based on the assumption that the visit of UNOCT’s chief may allow Chinese government to present the Uighur camps issue as a matter of counter terrorism rather than human rights. The visit is also preceded by upcoming visit of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. The said visit of Voronkov which is to be followed by the Bachelet visit may inadvertently confirm China’s stated stance of considering the issue as a matter of counter terrorism not human rights. It has indeed sparked a debate and sought attention. It is pertinent to mention here that from the beginning the western condemnation of Chinese policies of handling affairs in Xinjiang is about discarding human rights and Chinese government has always defended while signifying and highlighting its counter terrorism concerns. But it appears that the visit of UNOCT chief before human rights commissioner has affirmed Chinese standpoint. The Chinese way of counter terrorism is to focus internally and not allowing any room for the growth of radical and violent narratives. The said centers are indeed part of that policy measure to re-integrate and educate those masses with a potential of getting radicalized and eventually becoming terrorists.

As far as internal security policy measures are concerned the Chinese government is rigid and uncompromising especially when it comes to terrorism. It is also to acknowledge that terrorist attacks masterminded and executed by radical violent groups like ETIM and TIP in recent past have damaged Chinese economy and tourism. Three critical issues made the visit highly important. Firstly the timing of the visit of Mr Voronkov, then the visit seemingly carries weight as the UN CT head has not issued any statements confirming western allegations, and finally the significant changes the Chinese government has brought for de-radicalization purposes. The need is to study Chinese de-radicalization and re-integration model as the programs run by other countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore have been studied in the past. The visit obviously refutes western claims and allegations and confirms the matter as a counter terrorism issue.