Chinese officials said this week that most of the inmates in its re education camps for Muslim minorities — a vast network of detention centres estimated to have held 1 million people or more — have been released. But the United States, experts on Chinese policies, and ethnic Uighur Muslims abroad quickly contested the claim.
They said there was no evidence of mass releases from the camps across the Xinjiang region in China's northwest and that people who had nominally been freed often effectively remained in captivity, including being forced into labor programs instead.
The State Department and the Pentagon, which have criticized China's policies on Muslims for months, released the same long, forceful statement that said they were "unable to verify the vague claims" and that the Communist Party continued to show "extreme hostility to all religious faiths."
The unexpected announcement in Beijing appeared intended to blunt growing international condemnation of the camps. It was made by two top officials in the regional government of Xinjiang, the northwest region where the Chinese Communist Party has set up the centres to hold Muslims, most of whom are Turkic-speaking Uighurs, and systems of electronic surveillance in towns and cities. The officials indicated that most inmates had "returned to society."
The World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based group that campaigns for self-determination, dismissed the two officials' claims as following "a predictable pattern of dubious statements."
"Although there may be a kernel of truth to what we heard this morning, it's so buried in deception that it becomes unrecognisable," Dolkun Isa, the group's secretary-general, said in a statement.
Western governments have grown increasingly vocal about the sweeping detentions in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China. Members of the Trump administration have taken up the issue and discussed imposing sanctions against officials who are involved, though the Treasury Department has privately recommended against the sanctions for fear of jeopardising trade talks.
This month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who talks about defending religious freedom, called China's internment of Muslims "the stain of the century."
The State Department and Pentagon said Tuesday that China should allow United Nations officials to have unmonitored access to all camps and all detainees, and let Muslims "freely travel away from Xinjiang and China to promote transparency."
The US officials made clear that the camps were far from their only concern regarding China's Muslim policies. They denounced the surveillance systems outside the camps and the well-documented, government-run practice of ethnic Han Chinese, dominant in most of the country, staying uninvited in Uighur homes "to prevent the observance of Islamic practices."
Separately, U.S. officials say they are increasingly concerned about factories with forced Uighur labor that are linked to the detention centres.
Randall Schriver, an assistant secretary of defense, told reporters in May that the centres were "concentration camps" that held "at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens out of a population of about 10 million."
Schriver did not say whether the 3 million referred to Muslims held simultaneously or whether it was an estimate of total detainees over a stretch of time, with some released during that period.
Chinese officials have depicted the camps as benign facilities that offer Chinese-language instruction and vocational training.
Alken Tuniaz, vice chairman of the Xinjiang government, told reporters on Tuesday that "the majority of people who have undergone education and training have returned to society and returned to their families." He used the government's official description of the camps as "education and training" centres and of their inmates as "students."
"Most have already successfully achieved employment," he said. "Over 90 per cent of the students have returned to society and returned to their families and are living happily."
Both he and Shohrat Zakir, the government chairman, refused to say how many people have been held in the camps, which are often large clusters of buildings surrounded by fences and guards.
Official Chinese media accounts of the two officials' comments varied, raising the possibility that they misspoke and their comments had to be drawn back. Some cited Zakir as saying that 90% or more of people from camps had returned to society. Others said, citing him, that 90% of those released had found suitable work.
Growing evidence from government documents shows the Xinjiang government wants to shift camp inmates and many other Uighurs into labor programs where they will work under the watch of the government and compliant factories, said Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher in Germany who studies the camps.
"They are basically now transitioning from internment to society-wide control," Zenz said. "They have a grand scheme now for controlling everybody, not just people in the camps but also putting those outside the camps into coercive labor."
Gathering evidence to test the official claims of releases from the camps is likely to be difficult. Foreign journalists are closely monitored and controlled when they visit Xinjiang, and independent investigators and human rights groups do not have free access.
Uighurs living abroad said they had not found evidence of widespread releases.
on Tuesday, two Uighur-Americans said they still had family members in detention. One woman, Ziba Murat, a resident of Florida, said she still not heard from her ailing mother, Gulshan Abbas, or a great-aunt, both of whom disappeared from their homes in Xinjiang last September.
"I think they are lying," she said of the officials announcing mass releases.
Ferkat Jawdat, a resident of Virginia, said an uncle and aunt were still missing. His mother, Minaiwaier Tuersun, was released in May, after being detained since February 2018, and suffers from severe health problems. Her two younger brothers have also been released, he said.
But officials continue to monitor them in Xinjiang — and even Jawdat. He said he was contacted by a Chinese man over a chat app who said he was an official and who warned Jawdat to stay quiet on the Uighurs' plight or his mother would lose her freedom.
Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist based in Washington, said "Uighurs abroad continue to be unable to reach their relatives in the region. No phone calls, no internet communications."
Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million Uighurs, more than the Pentagon's estimate, and their treatment under President Xi Jinping has become a global human rights issue. Western governments, United Nations human rights experts, and advocates of Uighur self-determination have condemned the increasingly harsh restrictions on many Uighurs.
Beyond describing them as vocational training facilities, the Xinjiang officials said the camps offered classes that have effectively inoculated Uighurs against the temptation to embrace religious extremism or terrorism. Until several years ago, Xinjiang had experienced a string of deadly attacks by discontented Uighurs.
But former camp detainees who have left China say they were subjected to a high-pressure indoctrination program with the goal of removing devotion to Islam and instilling loyalty to China and its ruling Communist Party.
The Xinjiang officials' wording Tuesday left room for uncertainty as to how much freedom can be exercised by inmates who have been released. Though they did not detail the circumstances under which detainees were being "returned to society," it is possible that people released in name are in fact still under heavy restrictions.
James Leibold, an associate professor of politics at La Trobe University in Australia who has studied Xinjiang, said that factories are often linked to the camps and that inmates assigned to work there live under heavy guard and monitoring.
"I find it highly unlikely, and frankly inconceivable, that the Chinese Communist Party would build this massive network of internment camps and then simply mothball them a couple of years later," Leibold said. "Rather, the purposes of the camps were perhaps always meant to evolve over time, shifting from education to production, while their coercive, non voluntary and extrajudicial nature remains the same."
At the news conference, Zakir, the regional chairman, also appeared to suggest that people from camps were being assigned factory jobs.
"You could say that maybe 90 per cent or more," he said, "have found suitable work to their liking with an impressive income.
"These people have now become a positive factor in society, leading other ordinary people to create business and employment," he said.
Zakir is Xinjiang's most senior Uighur official and has repeatedly served as the public face defending Chinese government policies in the region, including the re education camps.
In October, party officials began to publicly acknowledge and defend the camps, many of which are large, prisonlike facilities behind walls. In March, Zakir likened them to boarding schools.
Earlier this month, a group of 22 countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany, issued a statement urging China to halt the mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslims. China struck back with a letter signed by 37 ambassadors from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America who praised its human rights record, including the "de-radicalisation" policies applied in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government's assertion that the population in re education camps is shrinking appeared intended to stave off debate about Xinjiang before a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in September as well as sessions of the U.N. Human Rights Council, said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. But she said that there was no reason to believe the assertion.
"They lied about the existence of the camps. They admitted the camps existed and lied about what happens inside them," Richardson said. "So one has to be awfully skeptical about a claim that — oops! — it's all sorted out."
If there have been releases from the camps, that may also reflect the heavy costs on local governments across Xinjiang of operating and guarding the facilities, as well as a desire to put more Uighurs to work so that officials can meet the goals laid down by Xi to eradicate poverty by 2020.
Uighurs abroad continue to report new cases of relatives being detained.
Abdurahman Memet, a Uighur tour guide who lives in the eastern Xinjiang city of Turpan, was detained this month, said his nephew, Muharram Muhammad'ali Baqi, who lives in Japan. The apparent reason for the detention was that he shared a letter from a relative who had been held in a camp with Baqi.
On Monday, Baqi said he received a call from a Chinese security official warning him that unless he stopped speaking publicly about the case, his family's situation would worsen and his father, who is now in prison, would have no chance of release.
"But if I don't do anything," he said, "things may be worse, I think."
Written by: Chris Buckley and Edward Wong
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES