A claim made Tuesday by China’s two top ethnic Uyghur officials in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) that Uyghurs have been released from internment camps and found jobs was swiftly and roundly rejected by human rights experts and by people with relatives in the camp system.
At a news conference in Beijing, Shohrat Zakir, the XUAR government chairman, and Erkin Tuniyaz, the vice chairman, told reporters that the Uyghurs had completed their training and been reunited with their families.
“The majority of people who have undergone education and training have returned to society and returned to their families,” said Tuniyaz, according to The New York Times.
“Most have already successfully achieved employment,” he said. “Over 90 percent of the students have returned to society and returned to their families and are living happily.”
Authorities in the XUAR have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China this year changed tack and started describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
The mass incarcerations of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kirgiz have prompted increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region, and Tuesday’s XUAR news conference was seen as an effort to blunt that criticism.
In interviews with RFA, human rights and Uyghur exile groups, as well as Uyghurs with relatives missing or detained in the camps, swiftly rejected the XUAR officials’ claims, with one exile group noting that Zakir’s own relatives have taken political asylum in Western countries.
“My sister has been missing since September 2018,” Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“More than 25 of my in-laws are missing. If it is true that 90 percent of the people have been released, then where are my sister and the entire family of my husband?” she asked.
'A predictable pattern of dubious statements'
The Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said “Zakir’s remarks follow a predictable pattern of dubious statements that began with the outright denial of the camp system for more than a year and a half.”
“When confronted by an independent UN Committee in August 2018, party leaders launched a propaganda drive to reframe them as vocational training facilities, despite numerous mysterious deaths and widespread reports of torture,” the WUC said in a statement.
“Moreover, the sister and several other relatives of Shorhat Zakir actually fled China to Germany, the United States and elsewhere to seek political asylum, openly contradicting his claims that the region is a peaceful, stable and safe place to live for Uyghurs,” the statement noted.
WUC President Dolkun Isa told RFA in an interview that “The claims made today by Shohret Zakir and Erkin Tuniyaz are completely distorted and aimed at confusing the international community."
"There is no such a thing as 90 percent of Uyghur detainees being released from the concentration camps. In light of recent international pressure, especially after the U.N. showdown, China is using deception and disinformation to cover up its crimes against humanity in East Turkestan," he said, using the Uyghurs' name for the XUAR.
China clashed early in July with Western countries who condemned the camps at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“The Chinese government’s statements are simply devoid of credibility,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told RFA.
“It’s been profoundly dishonest about its policies and practices in the region for decades” said.
“The only way for its claims to have any credibility is to allow independent international monitors into the region to talk to people, to be able to go where they want freely without anyone being afraid of reprisals for having talked to such investigators, and make and independent assessment,” she said.
Nicole Morgret, project coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, also rejected the Chinese claims on Tuesday. But she suggested the assertions might point to a more ominous development.
Factories with forced labor feared
The claims by the XUAR’s top Uyghur officials could end up “meaning that they’re possibly being sent into what we believe is a forced-labor situation.”
“There’s been a lot of reports both from witnesses and victims who say that they were sent and forced to work in factories after they were ‘released’ from the camps,” she told RFA.
“There’s also evidence that they’re building a large system of factories where people are being sent, which is not really releasing them,” said Morgret, adding that some released inmates were ending up under house arrest, also a far cry from freedom.
“Basically every Uyghur who’s living abroad has friends and relatives who have disappeared or whose detention has been confirmed,” she said, explaining why China's assertions on Tuesday lacked credibility with Uyghurs.
The mass incarcerations in the XUAR have joined trade, cyber security and maritime security in the South China Sea as major points of contention between Beijing and Washington.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is on the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”
This month, Pompeo called the incarcerations “the stain of the century.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network, and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written by Paul Eckert.