China faced calls on Tuesday from Western government to end its mass detention of Uighur Muslims, but brusquely rebuffed the concerns as “not factual” and “politically driven.”
“China is here to seek cooperation,” said its vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng, at the opening of a review by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He pointed to China’s achievements in lifting millions of people from poverty, largely skirting its treatment of ethnic minorities.
The focus and tone changed after North American and European diplomats expressed concern over deteriorating human rights and a crackdown in the western region of Xinjiang that has swept upwards of a million people into indefinite detention in re-education camps. The Muslim detainees are told that they are infected with an “ideological virus,” and are indoctrinated in devotion to the state and the Communist Party.
Representatives of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and other countries called for an end to the detention of Uighurs and members of other minority groups, and urged respect for freedom of religion, expression and association.
The issue has emerged as a point of tension in Chinese-American relations, with tough statements by Nikki R. Haley, the outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, and more recently by Vice President Mike Pence. Congress increased the pressure last month by threatening sanctions against those involved in the program.
Mr. Le said called China’s re-education camps a preventive measure to deter people from terrorism and enable them to fit into society. Courses offered by European schools had even provided some of the inspiration for China’s approach, he added.
Mr. Le, heading a delegation of more than 60 officials, brushed aside concerns about China’s crackdown on human rights activists under President Xi Jinping. “Everybody is equal before the law,” he maintained. “Why are these criminals being praised as good people or human rights defenders?”
In August, a United Nations panel reported that China had turned Xinjiang into “a massive internment camp” and questioned the fate of Uighur students who disappeared after returning from abroad.
In the ensuing weeks, China launched a sophisticated propaganda campaign, including a television documentary presenting images of classroom studies far removed from the harsh conditions in re-education camps. In an interview published by the official Xinhua news agency, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of Xinjiang’s government and the country’s highest-ranking Uighur, said the camps had “won widespread acceptance and wholehearted support of the public in Xinjiang.”
Independent reports have shown that China continues to expand the internment centers in Xinjiang.
The country’s stance at Tuesday’s hearing, which came ahead of a visit to China this month by representatives of the Security Council, signaled an evolution from the blanket denials offered in August in reponse to questions about the internment camps.
“The threat of terrorism was quite serious,” said Yasheng Sidike, a member of the Chinese delegation at the hearing and the mayor of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. “With these measures, the space for terrorism has been reduced.”
There have been no violent episodes in Xinjiang for 22 consecutive months, he said, and the people he described as “attendees” of the camps “never thought life could be so colorful and meaningful.”
But Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview that “China did not earn itself a shred of credibility today.”
“China has failed utterly to respond to factual questions about why people are being held against their will in huge numbers and how long they are being held for,” she said.
Criticism of China on Tuesday came almost exclusively from Western governments, while those from Africa and the Middle East praised China’s economic progress — a split that some analysts said would give China some satisfaction.
“China is trying to develop a response that can at least keep allies at the U.N. comfortable or deflect international criticism,” James Leibold, a China expert at La Trobe University in Australia. “What they probably fear the most is if this was to become one which Muslim countries start to think this is unacceptable. That would be far more damaging.”
By Nick Cumming-Bruce