or the first time on the international stage, China has denied that it is arbitrarily detaining 1 million Uyghurs in political “re-education centers,” a denial that appears to mostly boil down to semantics.
“There are no such thing as ‘re-education centers’ or ‘counter-extremism training centers’ in Xinjiang,” Hu Lianhe, a spokesman for China’s United Front Work Department told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) at a hearing on Monday into Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities, Muslim Uyghurs in particular.
After calling the northwestern region of Xinjiang a “victim of terrorism” and mentioning the Chinese government’s “special campaigns to crack down on violent terrorist activities” there and imprison “criminals involved in severe offenses,” Hu explained what happened to those individuals charged with more “minor offenses.”
With respect to criminals involved only in minor offenses, the authority provides them with assistance and education by assigning them to vocational education and employment training centers to acquire employment skills and legal knowledge, with a view in assisting in their rehabilitation and reintegration.
The legal rights of the offenders assigned to vocational education and employment training centers are duly protected and are not subject to any arbitrary detention, let alone ill-treatment there.
The Chinese delegations turned down multiple requests to say exactly how many people are in these “vocational education and employment training centers” in Xinjiang.
Non-government sources say that more than a million Uyghurs are currently being held, without any kind of trial, at camps in Xinjiang, with entire villages and neighborhoods in cities like Urumqi turned to ghost towns. The entire Uyghur population of Xinjiang is estimated at around 10 million.
Over the past few months, former inmates at these camps have started to tell their stories, saying that inside they were subject to endless brainwashing, humiliation, and torture, forced to chant slogans praising Xi Jinping or else be waterboarded.
For years, stories have leaked out of Xinjiang, detailing how China was experimenting with increasingly more expansive and oppressive policies and measures, from the banning of long beards to the collection of Uyghurs’ DNA, turning Xinjiang into the world’s most heavily surveillanced state.
While these reports have drawn numerous comparisons to dystopian fiction like 1984, they have resulted in little international condemnation. However, the alleged mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in what critics call “21st century concentration camps” does appear like it could at least have the potential to upset business as usual for Beijing.
On Friday, CERD said that there were “credible reports” of two million Uyghur and Muslim minorities being held in secret internment camps in China, causing Beijing to step forward, deny the accusations, and defend its human rights record. “Most of the answers were very defensive,” said Gay McDouglass, vice chairwoman of the committee at the end of the session. “We need more than a denial of allegations.”
An hour ago I was up on @BBCWorld TV talking about the Chinese government denial at the UN that it’s running a network of political indoctrination camps for ethnic Uighur Muslims. The latest hour the censors quicker off the mark and screens across #China sent to black. pic.twitter.com/hBY3P9iaBq
— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) August 13, 2018
China has consistently argued that its methods in Xinjiang are necessary in order to prevent terrorist attacks. On Sunday, the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times neatly spelled out this defense again in an editorial. The key paragraph reads:
“Xinjiang is at a special stage of development where there is no room for destructive Western public opinions. Peace and stability must come above all else. With this as the goal, all measures can be tried. We must hold onto our belief that keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang is the greatest human right.”