In perhaps the strongest condemnation to date, the U.S. accused China of placing more than 1 million minority Muslims into concentration camps in a mass detention of the Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups, Reuters reports.
The comments came from Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department. The remarks are likely to ratchet up tension with Chinese leadership, which is notoriously sensitive to international criticism. According to the Chinese government, the camps are not actually concentration camps, but rather vocational training centers aimed at addressing the threat of Islamic extremism.
"The [Chinese] Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps," Schriver said in a Pentagon briefing, estimating that the number of detained Muslims could be as high as 3 million.
Former residents of the camps have described torture taking place as they live in crowded cells, and are subjected to a brutal daily regimen of indoctrination which reportedly drives many to suicide. The facilities are surrounded by razor wire and watchtowers.
Shriver has received some criticism for the use of the term "concentration camp," which obviously evokes the treatment of Jews under Nazi Germany. He has defended his use of the term as appropriate given the conditions and general nature of the camps.
When pressed on his use of the term, Shriver held fast to his choice of words.
"So a very significant portion of the population, [given] what's happening there, what the goals are of the Chinese government and their own public comments make that a very, I think, appropriate description," he said.In contrast, on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the term "re-education camps" instead of concentration camps, though he did say that what was going on is indeed "reminiscent of the 1930s."
The U.S. government has, in the past, considered sanctions against Chinese officials in Xinjiang, the region bordering central Asia that is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. In response, China has threatened to retaliate against any such sanctions. In March, the governor of Xinjiang expressly dismissed comparisons to concentration camps, saying that the sites were essentially the same as boarding schools.
According to U.S. officials, the Chinese government has made many aspects of religious practice and culture in Xinjiang criminal, including punishment for teaching Muslim texts to children and banning parents from giving their children Uighur names.
Police checkpoints across Xinjiang and mass DNA collection have been identified and reported on by human rights advocates, who describe conditions there akin to martial law.