The Chinese Communist party government has defended its system of internment camps for Uighur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, in a white paper that also revealed some details of the breadth of its labour program.
In the document published on Thursday, Beijing called them “vocational training centres” , saying: “Through its proactive labor and employment policies, Xinjiang has continuously improved the people’s material and cultural lives, and guaranteed and developed their human rights in every field.”
Figures included in the report hinted at the scope of the program. It said an average of 1.29 million workers, including 415,400 from southern Xinjiang, had gone through “vocational training” ever year between 2014 and 2019, although it didn’t clarify if – or how many times – people had gone through the camps.
Adrian Zenz, an academic and author focusing on Xinjiang, said the number instead “gives us a possible scope of coercive labor through the centralized, militarized training of rural surplus laborers”.
China has faced consistent accusations, backed by mounting evidence, of mass internment of minorities in the Xinjiang region for re-education, as well as surveillance, restrictions on religious and cultural beliefs, and forced sterilisation of women. Experts say the practices amount to cultural genocide.
The accusations are strenuously denied by Beijing, which claims its policies are to counter terrorism and alleviate poverty. However, journalists and human rights groups are heavily restricted from inspecting the highly secretive camps.
There is increasing international pressure on China to end its practices against minority Muslims in the region. They include sanctions, US bans on Xinjiang imports, and companies such as clothing giant H&M cutting ties with the region’s producers.
Peter Irwin at the Uyghur Human Rights Project said China often released white papers “when they feel threatened by increased reporting on issues they deem sensitive”, noting there had been seven focused on Uighurs since 2015.
The paper said the average annual “relocation of surplus rural labor” was more than 2.76 million people, more than 60% of whom were in southern Xinjiang.
From 2018 to 2019 there were 155,000 people from registered poor households in southern Xinjiang and nearby areas who “found employment outside their home towns and subsequently emerged from poverty”, which Zenz said would include “a significant share of persons released from vocational internment camps”. Another 135,000 from Kashgar and Hotan prefectures “found work outside their homes”.
“Rural south Xinjiang poor households are core target of the internment campaign,” said Zenz. Many of them at least initially are placed into jobs near the internment camps, often within the same industrial parks. Some can then return home.
Earlier this year the Guardian reported on findings that tens of thousands of people had been transferred out of Xinjiang, some directly from detention camps, to factories across China where conditions “strongly suggest forced labour”, the report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said.
Zumretay Arkin from the World Uyghur Congress, told the Guardian the white paper was “just another attempt by the CCP [Chinese Communist party] to lie and shirk responsibility for its atrocities, just as they lied about the existence of the internment camps for over a year”.
“The white paper reference poverty and joblessness in the region, but this exists to a large extent due to discrimination from the CCP in its hiring. Han Chinese settlers are awarded all high-profile jobs in big companies, while Uighurs are being forced to work in menial jobs for little or no pay,” said Arkin.
“It’s interesting to note that this white paper is translated into at least five languages … which implies that it’s not only for internal propaganda purposes, but a state response to use internationally on the Uighur forced labour issue.”
The international community is increasingly pushing back on China’s actions in Xinjiang, and also Hong Kong, with Magnitsky style sanctions and cutting of trade ties.
In July a coalition of human rights groups said as many as one in five cotton products sold around the world were connected with the Xinjiang forced labor programs. On Tuesday, the Swedish clothing giant H&M said it was phasing out of its business deals with Xinjiang producers “until we get more clarity around allegations of forced labour”.