Washington/New York – The Chinese government has turned its western Xinjiang province into essentially an “open-air prison,” a U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday as the department published a report that criticized China’s persecution of religious minorities.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January said that China’s actions in Xinjiang constitute crimes against humanity and genocide, a verdict his successor, Antony Blinken, has said he agrees with.
China rejects the claim and says it is countering extremism in Xinjiang.
Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the State Department’s Office of International Freedom, said the situation has shifted from the use of what China calls “vocational education and training centers” to detain ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims, to the use of surveillance “to essentially turn the entire region into an open-air prison.”
“People’s movements are closely tracked. You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uyghurs to keep tabs on them. You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall,” he said at a press briefing.
The oppression of Muslims was “the culmination of decades of repression of religious adherents” in China, Nadel added.
The State Department report, an annual update on religious freedom around the world, also detailed China’s persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group.
Blinken announced that he was also imposing a visa ban on Chinese official Yu Hui and his family for Yu Hui’s involvement in arbitrary detentions of Falun Gong followers.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S., Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.
“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.
“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.
In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”
While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.
“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”
The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.
British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”
She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.
“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.
Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet — who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access — was unable to participate.
“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”
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