China's policies in its western region of Xinjiang have sparked much controversy.
While United Nations (UN) ambassadors from more than 20 states have recently submitted a letter condemning Beijing's actions, several more states, including Russia, the Philippines, Myanmar and North Korea, have submitted a letter of their own that supports China.
"Re-education centres" or internment camps?
It comes as no surprise then that multiple narratives exist about the large-scale, detention-like facilities that Beijing has referred to as "re-education centres".
Take the op-ed by national broadsheet The Straits Times on the "re-education" camps in Xinjiang, China, for instance.
At the invitation of state-run English-language newspaper China Daily, Velloor visited a "re-education camp" in the last week of June.
The camp was located at Shule County in the city of Kashgar.
Other foreign media outlets were invited on a tour to one of the camps too, including the British national broadcaster BBC, and Thailand's English-language digital media The Nation.
Op-ed echoes Beijing's narrative on issue?
In describing the inmates as having "undergone a measure of self-radicalisation", the op-ed sounds a tad familiar -- Beijing has repeatedly justified the camps using this explanation.
The Chinese government, having previously referred to the facilities as "vocational training centres" after having consistently denied their existence, say the camps are to "educate and transform" people influenced by "extremism", so as to "help them return to society, and to their family".
Hard to blame China for the camps
Going deeper into his piece, Velloor wrote that while western media reports "vilify" the "re-education centres as concentration camps", it is hard to blame China for setting up these facilities as they do have their indisputable reasons.
"... it is not easy to fault a state that will not tolerate significant sections of its people feeling a stronger loyalty to a transnational ideology that is not only alien to its own laws and culture, but also seeks to influence them into violence against non-believers."
He also described the place as having the "air of a boarding school".
Meeting inmates who swapped a life of jihad for learning new skills
Velloor also gave detailed accounts of meetings with multiple inmates, who responded to questions "in a natural way".
One inmate, who supposedly "tried to live a life of jihad", said he is now learning the Chinese language and law, and even Uighur music and dance "if he so wishes".
Such an account is similar to what the Chinese state media has portrayed.
In an episode of Focus Report, a popular talk show by Chinese state media CCTV, students were shown being happy and grateful to the Chinese government for helping them change for the better.
The episode also made it a point to highlight that the Uighurs are especially susceptible to the ideologies of terrorism and religious extremism.
China isn't suppressing local culture
Additionally, the ST op-ed laid out the view that rather than suppressing local culture, China was emphasising that national language and Constitution had to be given "equal respect" with the local culture.
Velloor made his point by noting that the Uighurs, along with other minorities in China, had not been subjected to the one-child policy, which was done away in 2016.
This view stands in stark contrast with interviews by The Washington Post with former detainees at the camps, who said they had to denounce their Muslim faith, and were even forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.
Op-ed was criticised
Almost unsurprisingly, Velloor's op-ed was met with its fair share of negative feedback.
It was heavily criticised on Twitter by local writer Kirsten Han, who said in a tweet on July 6 that it was "shockingly blatant in justifying the internment of over a million Uighurs in Xinjiang".
This is in spite of "mounting" evidence that these camps are "not just boarding schools".
This op-ed by Ravi Velloor, associate editor (and former foreign editor) of @STcom is shockingly blatant in justifying the internment of over a million Uyghurs in #Xinjiang despite mounting, peer-reviewed evidence that these camps are not just boarding schools. (Highlights mine.) pic.twitter.com/NrshLdnDvO— Kirsten Han 韩俐颖 (@kixes) July 6, 2019
Local writer and playwright Alfian Sa'at joined the conversation as well in a Facebook post published on July 6.
While not referring to the ST op-ed in particular, he made a pointed remark at the piece, saying "some Singaporean newspapers have fallen for the lie" by "uncritically parroting the Chinese government's line that the concentration camps are necessary for security and unity".
Velloor hits back at critics?
Seemingly in response to the criticisms he has received over his commentary, Velloor tweeted a picture of the last few concluding paragraphs of his piece a day after, on July 7.
For those who couldnt access my recent Uighur piece because of the paywall. My concluding paragraphs.. pic.twitter.com/4Eb0Dhrj4I— Ravi Velloor (@RaviVelloor) July 6, 2019
His conclusion was that it would be advantageous to Beijing should it bring about a successful assimilation of its minorities.
This is not only to "project its soft power", but also to "wean its majority people into feeling secure with alien cultures".
He also reserved his judgment for the "vocational centres", saying that "only time will tell" if they will eventually achieve the goal assigned to them.
However, he did mention earlier in his commentary that the camps were effective in deterring terror attacks, given that no such incident had happened in Xinjiang for the last 30 months -- a narrative that was repeated by state-aligned hawkish tabloid Global Times.
Alternative reports on the camps
In contrast to ST's op-ed, the BBC gave a wildly differing take on the "re-education camps".
While its journalist, John Sudworth, talked to the Uighurs in the camp, he also interviewed an Uighur woman who said she lived in such a camp for more than a year, but who has since moved to Kazakhstan.
She told him that while she was there, minders warned them that they would go to a "worse place than this" should any of them speak out.
This is why they did what they were told.
The BBC also used satellite imagery to show the extent of the camps, noting that they were surrounded by "high walls, barbed wire and watchtowers".
It also pointed out that shortly before the tour for journalists began, internal security fencing and "what looked like watchtowers" were taken down, while empty exercise yards were transformed into sports facilities like basketball courts.
This was observed by Velloor, who said that he has "little doubt that there was significant window-dressing in the centre I was allowed into".
Although Vice News did not cover the guided tour per se, it offered a similar view of the situation in Xinjiang as well.
In a video that was published 11 days after BBC published theirs, Vice captured footage of how heavy the area seemed to be scrutinised, both by armed security personnel regularly patrolling the area, and by surveillance cameras.
Also, like BBC, it interviewed Uighurs outside of the camps, one of whom said in hushed tones for fear of getting "locked up", that the facilities are more like a "prison", and that the police forced the Uighurs to enter the camps without giving them a choice.
It also made use of satellite images to provide a better understanding of the construction of the camps over time.
On the other hand, The Nation gave an account of the camp that was far less critical than the one given by the BBC and Vice.
Its journalist, Jintana Panyaarvudh, gave a straight account of what she observed at the camp, which was presumably the same one that Velloor visited -- it was also in Shule County in Kashgar Prefecture.
However, she failed to give further comments on the camps beyond official records.
Similar to Velloor's op-ed, the piece was criticised for its lack of depth and narrow reporting.
This is not the first time China has invited the foreign media to the Xinjiang "re-education centres".
China Daily wrote that foreign dignitaries from countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal approved of what they saw.
In addition, it claimed that while dignitaries previously thought it was easy to misunderstand Xinjiang just by reading western news reports, the trip allowed them to see the efforts that the Chinese Communist Party had put in to develop Xinjiang to where it is today.
It also wrote in English of the positive experiences received by foreign journalists at a "vocational training centre" back in January this year.
Similarly, China's official state-run media Xinhua wrote on July 29, 2018 that a "five-day tour" across Xinjiang has "deeply impressed senior editors of 23 media outlets from 18 countries".
PR campaign aided by the lure of money
Thus far, it would appear that Beijing's intensive PR campaign has had some sort of success -- coupled with the undeniable appeal of economic prowess.
Among Muslim countries, Turkey is one of the few countries that has openly criticised China over the issue.
Back in February this year, the Turkish government issued a strongly worded statement that called China's "systematic assimilation of Uighurs through internment camps a "great shame for humanity".
China responded by threatening damage to economic ties with Turkey.
Turkey then struck a conciliatory tone after its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Beijing on July 2.
Xinhua said Erdogan stressed that "residents of various ethnicities living happily in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region thanks to China's prosperity" is a hard fact.
Why go to so much trouble for Xinjiang?
Internal stability overrides everything else
According to The Diplomat, part of the rationale behind China's Xinjiang policies has to with domestic politics.
In this regard, the idea of a “stable” Xinjiang overrides everything else for the ruling party, even at the expense of its international reputation.
It is also important for them to be seen in control of the situation by the targeted audience, which is the majority Han Chinese.
The crackdown on Uighurs is, therefore, part of its attempt to get the region under its ironclad control, which has seen separatist sentiments emerge after China's annexation of the region in 1949.
Key to Belt & Road Initiative
What's more, there are also the reasons of economics and geography, Bloomberg reported.
Xinjiang is considered as a key region within China's Belt and Road initiative.
It is strategically located, bordering seven other countries such as Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India, according to China Daily.
It is a region well placed to connect the industrialised provinces of China to the rest of Central Asia, the China-Pakistan Economic corridor, and Siberia.
Rich oil & coal resources
Xinjiang is rich in crude oil and coal.
In fact, it has the largest coal reserves in the entire country, according to The New York Times.
The NYT report also said the region is set to be one of China's five "energy bases" in its next five-year economic plan.
China has invested heavily in the region in order to boost oil extraction and refining, as well as coal production.
Considering the potential economic costs involved, Beijing cannot afford to lose access to such natural resources in the event of another separatist attempt, even at the expense of the Uighur people's human rights and freedom.
Top image screenshot from BBC/YouTube