China’s Uyghur detainees have ‘graduated’ and have the ‘freedom to come and go’, Xinjiang Governor says

People held in detention camps in China’s far-north-western territory of Xinjiang have “graduated” and will have the “freedom to come and go”, the territory’s governor says.

Key points:

  • 1 to 2 million people are estimated to have been detained in Xinjiang in “vocational training centres”
  • Xinjiang’s governor did not give details about what “graduation” entails
  • The camps have added to tensions with the United States and other Western nations

The US and some Western nations have issued sharp rebukes after the United Nations and rights groups estimated between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, were detained as part of a sweeping anti-terrorism campaign.

Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, have been locked in political turmoil with China for more than 200 years as Beijing has sought to wrest control of the vast region under various administrations.

The Chinese Communist Party brought it under full control in 1949 and later renamed it the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

China's major religions

PHOTO: Islam dominates the semi-autonomous region of Xinjiang. (Supplied: Purdue University’s Centre on Religion and Chinese Society)

Following deadly riots in 2009 between Han Chinese — the dominant ethnicity within mainland China — and Uyghurs in the territory’s capital, Urumqi, Beijing has cracked down on the ethnic minority, which has led others to conclude this represents a campaign of cultural genocide.

Xinjiang families torn apart

China’s mass internment of its ethnic Uyghur population appears to be the largest imprisonment of people on the basis of religion since the Holocaust.

Recently leaked documents revealed the lengths of the crackdown, where a Uyghur could end up in detention simply for fasting before dawn, wearing a headdress or beard, owning a compass or tent or refusing to hand over a phone to be scanned.

China has claimed these detention camps are simply vocational training centres and Xinjiang’s Governor, Shohrat Zakir, told reporters in Beijing on Monday that detainee estimates published in foreign media were “pure fabrication”, without giving details.

“The US is getting restless and has launched a smear campaign against Xinjiang,” Mr Zakir added.

“But no force can stop Xinjiang’s progress toward stability and development.”

China hits back at US condemnation of Uyghur treatment

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO: ABC Four Corners spoke to those affected by one of the world’s largest internment programs. (ABC News)

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by 407-1, which asks US President Donald Trump to condemn abuses against Muslims and calls for the closure of the camps in Xinjiang.

It also calls on President Donald Trump to impose sanctions for the first time on a member of China’s powerful politburo, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

Mr Zakir said the bill was “a severe violation of international law and gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs 外交部发言人办公室@MFA__China

Have you forgotten native Indians’ tears & blood? @SpeakerPelosi is ignorant & hypocritical when talking about “conscience”. Ethnic minorities in China enjoy equal rights and freedom in religion and culture. China’s ethnic policy is more successful! … YouTube ‎@YouTube1711:08 PM – Dec 4, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacySee Ministry of Foreign Affairs 外交部发言人办公室’s other Tweets

China, which has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uyghurs, has not provided any official figures of those held in the camps.

Tension has flared in recent weeks between China and the United States over issues such as Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and anti-Government protesters in Hong Kong, complicating prospects for a near-term deal to end a 17-month-long trade war.

In July, a Xinjiang official said most people had “returned to society” from the camps.

On Monday, Mr Zakir said Xinjiang would continue with training based on “independent will” and “the freedom to come and go”.

The claims are hard to verify, as China only allows periodic, curated visits to the camps, and there is little transparency into their operations.

Human rights groups and former detainees have said conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse.

The counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang are no different from anti-terrorism measures in the United States, Mr Zakir added.

At his news conference in the Chinese capital, images of past violence were displayed in excerpts from an English-language documentary, Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang, aired on state broadcaster CGTN.

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