China: Xinjiang camps are in fact vocational schools for criminals

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BEIJING — China has disputed claims it held up to a million ethnic Muslim minorities in internment camps, calling them vocational schools instead, in rare comments before a United Nations panel in Geneva.

A senior Chinese official told the UN panel on Monday that the camps, referred to in Chinese government documents as “re-education centers”, were for “criminals involved only in minor crimes” to help them learn skills. professionals and to reintegrate them into society.

He called the widely quoted estimate of one million people “completely wrong”, but declined to give an official Chinese figure on the number of people in the centres.

The camps in China’s northwest Xinjiang province have drawn international attention this year, as university researchers used satellite photos and government construction bids to establish the vast scale of the scheme. . Chinese legal expert Jerome Cohen called these internments the largest scale detentions outside the justice system in China since Mao Zedong’s “anti-right” campaigns in the 1950s.

The Chinese government has for decades fought a sporadically violent separatist movement led by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Chinese officials say the movement is an outgrowth of religious extremism and describe its members as terrorists.

Human rights groups say the violence is a reaction to government-sanctioned discrimination against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities and restrictions on their ability to practice Islam.

Abdurehim Gheni, a Uyghur activist living in exile in Amsterdam, said family members told him in May last year to stop contacting them because the police were harassing them because of his work protesting against the discrimination against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He said he later learned from friends in his hometown of Aksu that one of his brothers had been sent for rehabilitation, but he has not been able to glean any information about his relatives since.

“I believe the Chinese government’s goal is to completely erase the Uyghur ethnic identity,” said Gheni, who traveled to Geneva to attend UN meetings. “If you speak out, your family members will be sent to a re-education camp.”

The US State Department said last month it was “deeply concerned” about the camps and the accompanying campaign against Chinese Muslims, noting there were reports of deaths in the camps.

Beijing’s statements on Monday came during its review by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which takes place every four years in Geneva. Until this week, China has said little about its program in Xinjiang at the national level, although the centers have long been openly discussed by local officials.

Hu Lianhe — deputy director general of the Ninth Bureau of China’s United Front Labor Department, which oversees Xinjiang — on Monday gave China’s most comprehensive defense of the centers to date.

“There is no arbitrary detention” in Xinjiang, he said, adding that criminals have been imprisoned as part of anti-terrorism campaigns and those who have committed lesser crimes are instead sent to a “ professional training”.

Human rights activists criticized the remarks, saying the detention of at least hundreds of thousands of people without formal charge or trial was being framed by Beijing as a form of aid.

“In effect, they are holding people in illegal facilities indefinitely without charge or trial,” said Maya Wang, researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Mr Hu also defended some of China’s other strict policies towards Muslims. He said burqas, or “masked dresses”, were banned in Xinjiang to fight extremism and because they are not traditional clothing for Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group in Central Asia.

Mr Hu referred to the widespread confiscation of Uyghur passports in 2016 – which Uyghurs interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said included women, children and the elderly. Xinjiang “prevents the entry of foreign terrorists and extremists and the exit of domestic terrorists and extremists,” Hu said.

Gay McDougall, a UN independent expert on minority issues, led the committee’s questioning of the Chinese delegation on Monday, repeatedly asking how many people are being held in the camps, the reason for their detention and where are the foreign Uyghur students expelled from Egypt. in China last year.

“I noticed you didn’t quite deny that these re-education or indoctrination programs weren’t happening,” she said.

Gun Kut, another panel member, said in his closing remarks that he was disappointed. “I think most of the responses were very defensive,” he said.

The meeting was closely watched by diplomats and activists as a rare opportunity for foreign experts to question China directly about its policies in Xinjiang. Many of the arguments made by the Chinese delegation were previously made informally through the state-run tabloid Global Times in recent weeks, but were not officially declared until Monday.

Corrections & Amplifications
Hu Lianhe is the deputy director general of the Ninth Bureau of China’s United Front Work Department, which oversees Xinjiang. An earlier version of this article stated that he was deputy director general of the ministry. (8/13)

Write to Eva Dou at [email protected] and Josh Chin at [email protected]

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