At a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China’s ceremonial legislature, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir described extensive reports on conditions in the camps as “pure fabrications”.
On Tuesday, regional authorities said heavily guarded internment camps for Muslims which China calls vocational training centres will gradually disappear if there comes a time that “society does not need” them.
China has faced growing international opprobrium for the mass internment camps in Xinjiang, a vast region bordering central Asia that is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.
Activists say there is a network of mass detention camps there holding more than a million people, part of a crackdown that Beijing says is needed to stem the threat of religious “extremism”.
Former inmates have described harsh conditions in which Muslim minorities are subject to political indoctrination and psychological torture.
Zakir, the Xinjiang governor, said the camps do not target any particular faith, though religious activities are banned in the camps.
Former detainees say the overwhelming majority of those in the camps are Muslim.
“We fully ensure freedom of religion,” including accommodating Muslim “trainees'” desire for halal food, Zakir said, adding that they can request time off and go home on weekends, “like many boarding schools.”
Like his immediate predecessors as Xinjiang governor, Zakir is from the region’s native Uighur ethnic group, providing a public face for the government and its claims that Xinjiang is an autonomous region.
However, the real decision-making power resides with the region’s ruling Communist Party chief, who is most often part of the country’s Han Chinese ethnic majority.
Current Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo is known for hardline policies which he previously enacted while serving in the same capacity in the Buddhist region of Tibet.
Observers say Chen has now brought an even greater degree of heavy security and surveillance to Xinjiang, where police checkpoints and facial recognition-equipped CCTV cameras have become ubiquitous in recent years.
Sam Brownback, US envoy on religion, commented on the “horrific situation” in Xinjiang during a telephone news conference on Tuesday.
He said China has provided “completely unsatisfactory answers” for why the camps exist and held open the possibility of punitive measures such as sanctions “if corrective actions aren’t taken”.
Several Xinjiang officials at the briefing on Tuesday said they welcome visits by journalists to the region to understand realities on the ground.
Yet foreign journalists who have tried to independently report in Xinjiang in recent years have been followed by police, arrested and ordered to delete their footage.
China maintains that the region’s security measures are necessary for combating latent “religious extremism”.
Over the past decade, violence blamed on Uighurs – including riots and a mass stabbing at a train station – have killed hundreds.
Zakir repeated China’s claim that there have been no violent incidents in Xinjiang for more than two years.
He added, however, that there remains a “long fight” ahead for efforts to defeat “extremism”.
“We cannot relax one bit,” Zakir said.