The US has refuted Beijing’s defense of its mass internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a day after the Communist Party said it was running “boarding schools” instead of detention camps.
In its annual human rights report on Wednesday, the State Department condemned China’s systematic internment and possible abuse and torture of Muslim minorities in the western border region.
The report was released on the same day that the US co-hosted an event in Geneva, alongside Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, calling for an end of the alleged abuses in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to propagate outright falsehoods regarding the situation in Xinjiang,” said US Ambassador Kelley Currie in Geneva, where the United Nations human rights bodies are based.
“China’s conflation of religious and ethnic identity with terrorism and so-called extremism is likely to fuel the very resentment, recruitment, and radicalization to violence that it claims it is seeking to avoid.”
Despite mounting international pressure, the Communist Party has defended what it calls vocational training centers in Xinjiang, arguing the internment program is necessary to eradicate Islamist extremism.
Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir, the region’s second-highest ranked official, on Tuesday told reporters in Beijing the detention facilities were the same as boarding schools, claiming that the occupants in the fortified facilities are free to go if they wished.
He said the program would eventually be phased out “if one day society no longer needs them.”
Zakir said fewer than one million people were living in the facilities, but declined to reveal the exact number of people held.
Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Xinjiang, told the Geneva event that 1.5 million people were estimated to be held in the camps, based on satellite images, public spending records and witness accounts, according to Reuters.
The State Department said between 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims could be in the camps “designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”
China has denied human rights abuses in the facilities, but former detainees have told international media about being tortured, denied access to families and forced to receive political indoctrination in the camps.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers has been pushing for sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the detention program, although the Trump administration has not commented on if such measures will be taken.
UN human rights officials and several governments have also been seeking to visit Xinjiang to conduct an independent assessment of the situation.
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