BEIJING (AP) — In a statement of incredible chutzpah, China said Monday that all the people at vocational training centers in China’s far west Xinjiang have “graduated” and are living happy lives. But Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities from the region say their family members continue to be arbitrarily detained in camps and prisons.
Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s Uighur governor, made the remarks during a press briefing as part of a strident propaganda campaign after the U.S. Congress last week approved the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act.
“When the lives of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang were seriously threatened by terrorism, the U.S. turned a deaf ear,” Zakir said at a news briefing. “On the contrary, now that Xinjiang society is steadily developing and people of all ethnicities are living and working in peace, the U.S. feels uneasy, and attacks and smears Xinjiang.”
The U.S. legislation condemns the mass detentions of more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and others. It also raises possible sanctions against Chinese government officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Former detainees and their relatives have told The Associated Press that the centers for “re-education” were prisons where they were forced to renounce Islam and express gratitude to the ruling Communist Party. They were subject to indoctrination and torture, the detainees said.
While Chinese authorities have described the detentions as a form of vocational training, classified documents leaked to a consortium of news organizations revealed a deliberate strategy to lock up ethnic minorities who had not committed any crimes.
Xu Hairong, the Communist Party chief of Urumqi city, Xinjiang’s capital, did not dispute the documents’ authenticity. He said, however, that there was no such thing as “detention camps.”
“The reports by The New York Times, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other foreign media organizations are purely malicious attempts to smear and discredit Xinjiang’s vocational education centers and its counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts,” Xu said.
Officials have repeatedly declined to say how many people are in the centers but insist the figure is far less than 1 million. Zakir said Monday the number is “dynamic.”
All those in the centers who were studying Mandarin Chinese, law, vocational skills and deradicalization have “graduated” and found stable employment, Zakir said, and others such as village officials, farmers and unemployed high school graduates continue to enroll on a rolling basis in programs that allow them to “come and go freely.”
Some former detainees have told AP they were forced to sign job contracts and barred from leaving factory grounds during weekdays, working long hours for low pay. Many Uighurs abroad say their relatives are in prison, not camps, after being sentenced on vague charges of extremism.
Monday’s briefing was the latest in a slew of public rebuttals from the Chinese government in response to the U.S. Uighur human rights bill, which Beijing has called a violation of international law and interference in China’s internal affairs. The legislation further muddied U.S.-China ties, which were already strained by a trade war and pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
During the briefing, officials played a clip from a documentary released on Friday by CGTN, the international branch of state broadcaster CCTV. The documentary, called “Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang,” showed old footage of terrorist attacks from the past decade, including bombings and stabbings such as the knife attack that killed 31 people outside a railway station in southern Kunming city in 2014.