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Facing Criticism Over Muslim Camps, China Says: What’s the Problem?


BEIJING — On Twitter and YouTube, with slick videos and strident editorials, the Chinese government has gone on the offensive to reject mounting evidence that it is detaining Muslims in droves, depicting its critics as players in a Western conspiracy.

China’s aggressive media campaign comes after exposés published by The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists about the government’s drive to detain a million or more members of largely Muslim minority groups in indoctrination camps. The reports, which used leaked official documents to reveal the coercive workings of the camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, sharpened international criticism of China’s ruling Communist Party.

The pushback from China has escalated in recent days after the United States House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly supported a bill that could impose sanctions on Chinese officials overseeing the internment drive.

Chinese officials have accused Western lawmakers, experts and news outlets of maligning the government’s policies and stirring ethnic discord in Xinjiang.

At a news conference in Beijing on Monday, Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of the Xinjiang government, dismissed the congressional bill as “crude meddling in China’s internal affairs.”

He sought to foil the criticism by saying that the facilities — which Beijing calls vocational training centers — were now holding only people who were there voluntarily. Others who were previously in the facilities had “graduated,” he said, providing no specifics and declining to say whether they had been released.

He would not say how many people were currently or previously held. Uighurs and Kazakhs abroad have said they have seen no evidence of large-scale releases.

Beijing’s case appears unlikely to win over experts who include officials from the United Nations. An abundance of evidence shows that the authorities have pursued a sweeping campaign to detain Uighurs and Kazakhs in camps designed to turn them into loyal supporters of the Communist Party.

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch who has closely studied Xinjiang, said the party’s claims lacked credibility. “This comes from a government that pretty much lies about most reports coming from the region,” she said.

“If the Chinese government has indeed released people from the camps,” she added, “then it should allow independent observers, including from the United Nations, to enter the region without any kind of restrictions to see for themselves.”

Beijing has said that its policies in Xinjiang are aimed at curbing extremism and have pulled the region back from bloody anarchy. The latest media campaign reflects the government’s confidence that its narrative could undermine independent Western analysis and news reports on the region, and perhaps blunt the push in some countries to censure China over the hard-line policies.

On Twitter and in Chinese newspapers, Chinese commentators have accused prominent Western scholars of serving as tools of American intelligence agencies regarding Xinjiang. Twitter is banned within China, but that does not stop the government and its supporters from using the platform to make their case that the camps have stamped out attacks in Xinjiang.

The Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, published an interview with a regional government spokesman who said that two prominent foreign experts on Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz and Darren Byler, were cooperating with “anti-China forces in the U.S. to smear China’s Xinjiang policies.”

Mr. Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Mr. Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, said the attack on them seemed to reflect growing anxiety among Chinese officials that they were losing the international argument over the camps.

“Painting me and Darren Byler as intelligence agents is a very poorly done, crude, smearing counterattack,” Mr. Zenz said. “I think it’s very unconvincing. People are not believing them anymore.”

Not all of China’s media offensive has dwelled on the claims of success in Xinjiang. China’s state-run international broadcaster, CGTN, posted several English-language videos on YouTube featuring footage of what it said were earlier attacks by Uighurs swept up in extremism and separatist movements.

The government showed one of the videos to journalists on Monday that included gruesome scenes from a 2014 attack by Uighur militants at a railway station in Kunming, in southwestern China, that killed 31 people and injured 141 others.

“The horrific images and alarming number of violent crimes reveal the seriousness of the security situation in China’s western frontier,” the English-language voice-over says. “Chinese police have identified Xinjiang as a key battlefield.”

Mr. Byler said the videos could help deflect criticism of the detentions by playing on exaggerated fears that Uighurs are susceptible to becoming terrorists. But the videos avoid fundamental questions about whether the scale of the government’s response is appropriate, he said.

“They are missing that point where they go from ‘This handful of people did bad things’ to ‘We need to lock up 1.8 million or however many people are estimated in camps,’” Mr. Byler said.

Former camp detainees who have left China have described numbing, harsh and even brutal treatment inside the facilities. Detainees are subject to constant indoctrination that warns them to renounce religious fervor and support the Communist Party. They are forced to study Chinese, memorize laws, practice marching and learn skills for factory work.

Legal experts have said that even under China’s sweeping powers of detention, there is no sound backing for the camps, which subject inmates to months or years of detention without trial or effective means of appeal. Last month, six experts and officials on United Nations human rights panels also criticized the regulations that China has cited to justify the mass detentions, saying that the rules were “incompatible with China’s obligations under international human rights law.”

China has also continued to put tremendous pressure on former detainees and other Uighurs who have spoken out about the campaign from abroad. Asiye Abdulaheb, a Uighur woman in the Netherlands who said she was involved in the release of the 24 pages of documents published by news outlets last month, has described being harassed and threatened.

“The Chinese police would definitely find us,” she said in an interview on Saturday. She described Chinese security officers as telling her ex-husband: “We know about all your matters. We have a lot of people in the Netherlands.”

Zoe Mou contributed research.



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