A high-ranking Chinese diplomat has publicly denied the existence of concentration camps in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region, pushing back against mounting global criticism of widely reported rights abuses—including allegations of ethnic cleansing—carried out against the area’s predominantly Muslim population.
Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K., made an appearance on Sunday on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show, where he was grilled about China’s mistreatment of Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population, which he steadfastly denied.
“Xinjiang is regarded as one of the most beautiful places in China. There is no such concentration camp in Xinjiang,” Liu said.
It is believed that more than one million ethnic minorities, most of them Uighurs, are currently being held in detention without trial in what has been characterized as a broad campaign of forced assimilation into Chinese culture. Chinese authorities have been accused of separating families and indoctrinating their children, spying on Uighurs abroad, launching a campaign of forced birth control and sterilization to lower birth rates among the minority group, and compelling them to take part in forced labor schemes.
The abuses recently prompted the U.S. to level sanctions against Chinese officials believed to be involved in the mass internment.
The Chinese government has previously defending the Uighur internment camps as a “necessary measure against terrorism,” saying that they offer “voluntary education and training,” though leaked documents have revealed them to be more akin to massive prisons.
When presented with shocking drone footage from Xinjiang of people being handcuffed, blindfolded, shaved, and detained, Liu remained on the defensive, saying he “did not know” what the video was showing, adding that it could be “a transfer of prisoners.”
He also maintained that the Uighur population in the country had “doubled.”
Liu’s remarks garnered massive attention on Twitter—one clip of his exchange with host Andrew Marr was viewed more than 4.3 million times.
Liu, meanwhile, doubled down on his denial in a tweet of his own, saying: “There is no such a concentration camp in #Xinjiang. People in Xinjiang enjoy happy life. China is strongly opposed to any torture, persecution and discrimination of people of any ethnic group.”
Alip Erkin, a Sydney-based Uighur activist condemned Liu's media appearance, saying others in the community felt the same way.
“It is angering and disturbing how the Chinese ambassador could beat around the bush like that when he was shown footage that horrific and then asked to explain,” Alip told VICE News. “China can deny its genocidal atrocities all it wants. But the rest of the world is waking up and there is more awareness of what’s happening. If Chinese authorities were truly innocent, they should allow family members and loved ones a chance to speak out and see if Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang are really well and truly living happily.”
Liu’s point-blank denials, meanwhile, came the same day as an investigation by the New York Times alleging that several Chinese companies were using Uighur labor under a government program to produce face masks and personal protective equipment to meet surging demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The investigation found masks from companies taking advantage of the Uighur labor scheme were being sold as far afield as the U.S. and Brazil.