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China defends detention of Uighur Muslims at UN

Le Yucheng, right, spoke on behalf of the Chinese delegation at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Getty Images

China faced calls on Tuesday from Western governments 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.

During the review, UN member states singled out China's policies in Xinjiang and Tibet and its treatment of human rights defenders. They called on Beijing to release detained Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, protect religious freedoms in Tibet, and stop harassing and detaining human rights lawyers.

Activists say as many as a million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, where they are forced to undergo political indoctrination.

The issue has emerged as a point of tension in Chinese-American relations, with tough statements by Nikki Haley, the outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, and more recently by Vice President Mike Pence. US charge d'affaires Mark Cassayre urged China to "immediately release the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals" arbitrarily detained in the region.

"We will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases, with total disregard for facts," said Le. "No country shall dictate the definition of democracy and human rights," he said.

Le 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.

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 that 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.

Yasim Sadiq, the Uighur mayor of Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi, told the session in Geneva that current policies are in line with the people's wishes. He repeated China's frequently cited claim that no terrorist attacks have occurred in the region for 21 months, and that "trainees" who were previously "controlled by extremist ideology" have since immersed themselves in cultural and athletic activities at the centers.

Sadiq said that visitors are always welcome in Xinjiang, but he did not address requests from several countries to allow independent UN observers inside the region.

In recent years, Xinjiang has been outfitted with a high-tech security network, making police checkpoints and surveillance cameras ubiquitous throughout the region.

Human Rights Watch said that the UN review showed the contrast between Beijing's view of its human rights records and "the grim realities."

"China's efforts to whitewash its record have failed to convince a growing number of states who recognize China's deliberate and systemic abuses, and suppression of dissenting voices, can no longer be ignored," John Fisher, the organization's Geneva director, said in an emailed statement.

Tuesday's half-day UN panel, which included brief comments from more than 100 UN member states and responses from China, highlighted the range of human rights issues raised by advocates. While some states praised Beijing's progress on human rights, others issued harsher statements.

"Overall, we are concerned about the broader deterioration of human rights in China since the last universal periodic review," said Tamara Mawhinney, Canada's deputy permanent representative at the UN.

Germany called on China to "end all unlawful detentions in Xinjiang," while Iceland and Japan expressed concern about the rights of minorities in Xinjiang. Several states urged China to allow UN observers into Xinjiang. The United States called on China to abolish all internment camps in the far western territory and release the "possibly millions" detained there.

Chinese delegates said that the internment centers were not re-education camps but vocational centers that offered free training in the law, language, and workplace skills.

Trainees sign agreements and receive diplomas after their course, according to Yasheng Sidkie, the vice mayor of Urumqi. "Xinjiang is a nice place. I'd like to say, welcome to Xinjiang," he said

In response to criticism about the treatment of human rights lawyers, the Chinese delegation said that the law protected lawyers, but those who break the law must be held accountable. The arrests did not constitute the "repression of so-called human rights lawyers", one delegate 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 UN 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."

Outside the UN headquarters in Geneva, protesters organized by the World Uyghur Congress and other NGOs demonstrated against China's policies in Xinjiang.

Chanting "Shame on China" and accusing its government of tyranny and "terrorist" repression, the demonstrators waved light-blue flags representing East Turkistan - some Uighurs' preferred name for Xinjiang - and held aloft photos of loved ones who have gone missing or were taken into custody by Chinese authorities.

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