China’s ambassador to Australia has defended Beijing against accusations of human rights violations in a rare press conference Thursday, saying allegations that one million people had been detained in Xinjiang were “fake news.”
In a carefully-worded series of answers, ambassador Cheng Jingye reiterated the Chinese government’s stance that the massive centers weren’t “detention camps” but vocational training schools that offered deradicalization programs.
Cheng said Thursday that the “trainees” at these schools had now all graduated.
“I understand now the trainees in the centers have all completed their studies and they have, with the assistance of the local government, they have gradually or steadily found their jobs,” the Chinese ambassador said.
China’s mass camps in Xinjiang have become the focus of repeated allegations of human rights abuse over the past two years.
A huge and comparatively sparsely populated region in China’s west, Xinjiang has many diverse Muslim-majority ethnicities. At times, tensions between these groups and the local Han Chinese have spilled over into violence and terrorist attacks.
According to the US State Department, up to two million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been taken to the camps, where they have been subjected to political re-education.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied the centers are being used for anything other than vocational training and deradicalization. Beijing has said that those who are admitted to the centers can leave at any time.
But the Chinese government’s narrative has been undermined in recent months by a series of leaks of official documents published by international media.
Rather than voluntary schools, the documents paint a picture of heavily-fortified detention centers where Uyghurs are forced to learn the Chinese language and are subjected to “ideological” education.
The leaks reinforce allegations from former detainees and human rights organizations of widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Cheng isn’t the first to claim that the detention centers have been effectively emptied. Xinjiang regional government chairman Shohrat Zakir told a Beijing news conference on December 10 that all the original “trainees” had graduated from the centers.
“Xinjiang’s training centers now offer regular vocational training to officials, farmers and herdsmen, and the public who are willing to gain certain skills,” Zakir said. Neither official offered any evidence to support their claims.
It isn’t often that Chinese diplomats overseas hold press conferences for foreign media.
Under repeated questioning by Australian journalists Thursday, Cheng said China’s actions in Xinjiang had “nothing to do with human rights,” and the country’s approach to preventing terrorism was similar to the West’s.
“The freedom of religious belief and the other rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been promoted and protected,” he said.
“The spread of extremism has been effectively curbed and public security has been notably improved in Xinjiang and people of all ethnic groups are able to live and work in peace.”