China has vociferously defended its human rights record at the United Nations, after accusations were made that more than a million Uyghur Muslims have been imprisoned in political reeducation camps.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has been hearing testimony on the Chinese government’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority, among other issues.
In their submission to the committee, the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said they estimated at least one million Uyghurs were being held in political indoctrination camps as of July 2018.
“Detentions are extra-legal, with no legal representation allowed throughout the process of arrest and incarceration,” the submission said, adding there were “widespread” reports of torture.
Responding to questions Monday, a representative of the Chinese government called the accusations of mass imprisonment “completely untrue.”
“Xinjiang citizens including the Uyghurs enjoy equal freedoms and rights,” Hu Lianhe, a spokesman for China’s United Front Work Department, told the UN panel. “There is no arbitrary detention, or lack of freedom of religion and belief.”
He said there is “no such thing as re-education centers,” but added criminals convicted of “minor offenses” have been assigned to “vocational educational and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation.”
“They are not subject to any arbitrary detention or ill treatment there,” Hu said.
In a tweet following China’s statement, the WUC said China “continues to deny reality, but it cannot continue to hide this crime against humanity.”
China Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based NGO, said the “body of evidence of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment is overwhelming.”
Speaking after China’s presentation, Gay McDougall, vice chairwoman of the UN committee, said “we have to have more than a denial of allegations,” and asked for more evidence from China to counter the claims of rights groups.
For months the Chinese government has allegedly been secretly cracking down on the Muslim residents of Xinjiang, a province in far western China on the borders of central Asia, according to reports leaking out of the heavily-policed region cited in presentations to the UN hearing last week.
The latest alleged crackdown follows a spate of largely small scale incidents of violence, including protests and attacks on police officers, which the Chinese authorities have blamed on Muslim Uyghur separatists seeking to establish an independent state.
A Human Rights Watch report in December claimed millions of Xinjiang residents were having their DNA, fingerprints and retinal scans collected; earlier in 2017, the region’s Muslims were banned from wearing long beards or veils in public.
According to a since deleted document posted on a Xinjiang government website, the main goal of the scheme was “to fully and accurately verify the real number of Xinjiang’s population, to collect the images, fingerprints, iris scans, blood types, and DNA biometrics of those between the age of 12 and 65.”
In February, the World Uyghur Congress accused the Chinese government of imprisoning thousands of Xinjiang Muslims in giant political education camps. Xinjiang authorities have not responded to repeated requests for information from CNN on the political education camps or responses to activists’ allegations, but state media outlets have covered these facilities and touted their effectiveness in de-radicalizing the locals.
Information in Xinjiang is tightly controlled – the province was cut off entirely from the internet for 10 months in 2009 and is still subject to greater censorship and surveillance than other parts of China.
Despite this, details of an alleged political indoctrination program and ongoing crackdown have spread out via diaspora networks and through Chinese media.
In May, pictures were spread on social media of Uyghur Muslims being forced to welcome Communist Party officials into their homes, to “maintain social stability and achieve lasting security.”
China has consistently denied discriminating against Uyghurs and Muslims more broadly, pointing to laws which prohibit the oppression of any ethnic groups. For years, China has justified its policies in Xinjiang on fears of terrorism and separatist violence, tying in the threat from radical Islam in the region to Washington’s “war on terror” and the spread of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond.
Those arrested by the authorities however have included moderates and academics with no links to radical organizations, including Ilham Tohti, a researcher on Uyghur-Han relations who was jailed for life in 2014 on charges of “separatism.”
In an editorial Sunday in the nationalist, state-run tabloid Global Times, the paper said Xinjiang had been “salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil” by the “strong leadership” of the Communist Party.
“It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’,” the state media editorial said.
The paper claimed the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang had “saved countless lives” and blamed the West for “smearing” their efforts.
“We must hold onto our belief that keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang is the greatest human right,” the article said.
But speaking to a United States congressional hearing on Xinjiang in July, US Representative to the UN Economic and Social Council Kelley Currie said detainees were being told to renounce their “ethnic identities, religious beliefs, and mainstream cultural and religious practices.”
“There are even disturbing reports that young children have been sent to state-run orphanages if even one of their parents is detained in the internment camps,” she said.