Ambassadors representing 37 countries praised China for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,” just a day after a group of 22 other countries formally condemned Beijing for the mass detention of ethnic and religious minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region.
The Thursday letter was the first major collective international challenge to China’s ongoing policy in its far western border region, where experts estimate up to 2 million people have been detained in vast re-education style camps. Many of those detained are ethnic Uyghurs and Muslims.
Beijing denies any allegations of torture or political indoctrination, and says the camps are “vocational training centers” designed to fight terrorism and combat Islamic extremism.
China’s partners backed that claim in their Friday letter, claiming the signatories to the Thursday statement were politicizing human rights issues, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
In their letter, the 37 envoys commended China’s efforts in “protecting human and promoting human rights through development,” echoing a common refrain used in Chinese state media.
“The past three consecutive years has seen not a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang and people there enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security,” the envoys said.
The countries backing China included several accused of human rights violations. Among those listed are Saudi Arabia, accused of jailing and executing dissidents and critics of the regime; Russia, accused of cracking down on individual freedoms and killing critics of President Vladimir Putin; Myanmar, accused of carrying out crimes against humanity targeting the minority Rohingya community inside the country; Syria, where the Bashar al Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians; and North Korea, which is accused of detaining more than 100,000 political prisoners in a gulag-like facilities.
“The pro-China signatories include a rogues’ gallery of rights abusing countries that have zero credibility when it comes to human rights,” Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Pearson said it appears the letter criticizing China “touched a nerve.”
“Clearly the Chinese government is feeling so insecure that it needs to issue a statement praising itself,” she said.
‘Sensitive and concerned’
The reports, however, have been difficult to independently corroborate. Though the Chinese government has provided limited access to journalists and foreign diplomats in strictly guided tours of the facilities, access to Xinjiang is tightly controlled, amid growing surveillance and a prominent police presence.
Top UN officials including Michelle Bachelet have called for the global body to be given access to the camps to investigate allegations of human rights abuses.
James Leibold, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University who specializes in modern Chinese history and society, said Beijing is likely seeking help from its international partners in order to bolster its arguments
“They’ve always been sensitive and concerned about how they are viewed internationally, and I think the entire Xinjiang story and the amount of press it’s gotten internationally has really disturbed policy makers in Beijing,” Leibold said.
“It’s not enough for them to say it themselves, they want to get their allies and supporters internationally to also back that claim … particularly in the Muslim world, where I think they need to make sure that the wider Islamic community doesn’t start to question what’s happening in Xinjiang, to see China as anti-Islam.”
The Thursday letter expressing concern about “credible reports of arbitrary detention … as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions” was co-signed by mostly Western and European countries.
The 37 countries who signed the letter backing China included several Muslim majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Pakistan.
CNN’s Yong Xiong, Jadyn Sham and Ben Westcott contributed reporting