By Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) - Vocational training is being used "to the greatest extent" in China's far-western Xinjiang region to ensure militant activities are "eliminated before they occur," a senior Communist Party official said.
The state media interview with Shohrat Zakir, the number two party official and most senior ethnic Uighur in Xinjiang, is China's most detailed defense yet of its policies in the region, which is home to a large Muslim population.
Reports of mass detentions and strict surveillance of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have prompted the United States to consider sanctions against officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses.
After initially issuing blanket denials, Chinese officials have in recent weeks said they were not enforcing arbitrary detention and political re-education across a network of secret camps, but rather some citizens guilty of minor offences were sent to vocational centers to provide employment opportunities.
The measures had helped to prevent violent militant attacks in Xinjiang for the past 21 months, Zakir said in an interview published by the Xinhua news agency.
Trainees signed "education agreements" to receive "concentrated training" and undergo "live-in study", Zakir said.
They received Chinese language lessons and lectures on the constitution and laws, he said, without specifying how many people were receiving such training. Skills training included food processing, assembling electronic products, hairdressing, clothes making and e-commerce.
"Through vocational training, most trainees have been able to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism," Zakir was quoted as saying.
"They have also been able to better tell right from wrong and resist the infiltration of extremist thought," he said.
Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, scholars, foreign governments and U.N. rights experts over what they say are mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups who call Xinjiang home.
Human rights groups and former detainees have said that conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse. They said detainees did not receive any vocational training.
In response, Beijing has mounted a sophisticated counterattack to criticism of its policies, courting foreign media and running opinion pieces abroad as its seeks to spin a more positive message.
On Tuesday night, state broadcaster China Central Television aired a 20-minute current affairs program purportedly showing footage inside vocational training facilities in the southern oasis city of Hotan.
Clothed in bright school-like uniforms, dozens of students were shown at their desks learning Chinese and law. In another scene, students were shown at various workshops and factories in front of sewing machines, working with wood, weaving carpets or baking bread.
"If I hadn't been learning here I can't bear to imagine the consequences. I may have continued to follow those religious extremists onto a path of crime," one young female student told the program.
China says Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist militants and separatists. It rejects all accusations of mistreatment in an area where hundreds have been killed in unrest between Uighurs and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
The interview with Zakir comes a week after Xinjiang inserted into its anti-extremism regulations new clauses that prescribe the use of "vocational training centers" to "educate and transform" people influenced by extremism.
James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said China was increasingly seeking to deflect international criticism by attempting to retrospectively justify the mass detention camps.
"International criticism is clearly biting and China's decided to get out in front of the story," he said.
(Reporting by Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd; editing by Darren Schuettler)