BEIJING — China said on Tuesday that most of the inmates in its re-education camps for Muslim minorities — a vast network of detention centers estimated to have held one million people or more — have been released.
The announcement appeared intended to blunt growing international condemnation of the camps. But experts and members of targeted Muslim minority groups who have fled 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.
At a news conference in Beijing, two of Xinjiang’s top leaders indicated that the majority of inmates had “returned to society.” The unexpected announcement came after persistent international criticism of the camps, which experts say have come to hold a million or more Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims since expanding rapidly in 2017.
Western governments have grown increasingly vocal about the sweeping detentions in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China. Members of the Trump administration have threatened to impose sanctions against officials who are involved. This month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s internment of Muslims “the stain of the century.”
Chinese officials have depicted the camps as benign centers that offer Chinese-language instruction and vocational training. Alken Tuniaz, the vice chairman of the Xinjiang government, told reporters 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” centers and of their inmates as “students.”
“Most have already successfully achieved employment,” he said. “Over 90 percent 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 Mr. Zakir as saying that 90 percent or more of people from camps had returned to society. Others said, citing him, that 90 percent 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,” Mr. 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.
“Uighurs abroad continue to be unable to reach their relatives in the region. No phone calls, no internet communications,” said Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist based in Washington.
“If the Chinese government is honest and confident in what it’s saying to the media, it should allow people to communicate freely and go out of the country freely and allow independent media to visit and investigate freely,” he said.
Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority, and their treatment has become a global human rights controversy under President Xi Jinping. Western governments, United Nations human rights experts, and advocates of Uighur self-determination have condemned the increasingly harsh restrictions on many Uighurs, especially the re-education camps.
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 on 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 the wave of mass detentions in 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,” Professor Leibold said by email. “Rather, the purposes of the camps were perhaps always meant to evolve over time, shifting from education to production, while their coercive, nonvoluntary and extrajudicial nature remains the same.”
At the news conference, Mr. Zakir, the regional chairman, also appeared to suggest that people from camps were being assigned factory jobs.
“You could say that maybe 90 percent 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.
Mr. 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.
The Chinese government says the camps and other sweeping security measures have extinguished bloody antigovernment attacks by Uighurs. But critics say the mass detentions of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups are sowing bitterness that could ultimately prove to be even more dangerous.
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-radicalization” 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 ahead of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September, as well as sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, said Sophie Richardson, the 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,” Ms. 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 centers, as well as a desire to put more Uighurs to work so that officials can meet the goals set by Mr. Xi, China’s leader, to eradicate poverty by 2020.
But while Chinese officials say most of the Xinjiang detainees have been released, 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 Mr. Baqi.
On Monday, Mr. 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, things may be worse, I think,” Mr. Baqi said.