Police patrolling a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region © AFP

China has denied allegations from a UN committee that it is detaining millions of Muslim Uighur citizens in the western province of Xinjiang, as pressure mounted to acknowledge what the Geneva-based group called “many credible reports” of the existence of internment centres.

A UN panel on racial discrimination said on Friday that it was “deeply concerned” by reports that China “has turned the [Xinjiang] Uyghur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.

“There are estimates that upwards of 1m people are being held in so-called counter-extremism centres and another 2m have been forced into so-called re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination,” said Gay McDougall, vice-chairwoman of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Since 2016, China has intensified a crackdown in the name of combating terrorism that has disproportionately targeted the Xinjiang region’s approximately 11m Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority that has long pushed back against Chinese Communist party rule.

China on Monday rejected the UN committee’s assertions and reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom. 

Ethnic Uighur women at a beauty supplies shop in the old town of Kashgar © Getty

“The argument that a million Uighurs are detained in re-education centres is completely untrue,” according to a statement by the Chinese delegation to the UN committee. “Xinjiang guarantees citizens freedom of religious belief in accordance of law and protects normal religious activities.”

The delegation added: “Xinjiang as an autonomous region of ethnic minorities is entitled to formulate its own local regulations in light of local conditions.” 

The Geneva panel’s review comes as an increasing number of media reports and rights groups have detailed the internment of millions of Muslim Uighurs — a practice China has never formally acknowledged. 

The FT in November reported that Xinjiang authorities were sending Uighurs suspected of extremist activity to unmarked internment centres, where internees were subjected to daily propaganda classes and made to denounce their religious and ethnic identities. 

Xinjiang residents in areas most affected estimated that as many as 80 per cent of Uighur adults have been detained in some form since then. Young children, whose parents have both been detained, have been sent to de facto state orphanages, against the wishes of family members.

Paramilitary police board a plane as they head for an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Kashgar. Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang is spreading to the wider Uighur diaspora in Central Asia © Reuters

However, the number of detainees cited by the UN far exceeds previous estimates. A US bipartisan Congressional-executive commission on China in April placed detentions at around 500,000 to 1m. 

In its comments on Monday the Chinese delegation described its counter-terrorism policies as no different than those adopted by other UN member countries. 

“It is important to remember Xinjiang as a victim of terrorism,” the delegation stated. "There is no de-Islamisation and there is no suppression of ethnic minorities or violation of freedom of religious belief in the name of counter-terrorism.”

According to two senior western diplomats, Chinese delegations have routinely deflected questions about internments and have declined or ignored diplomatic requests to visit the Xinjiang region.

Follow Emily Feng on Twitter @emilyzfeng

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