China's embassy in Australia hits back at mounting global pressure over treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang

Human rights groups have accused China of a "cheap propaganda stunt", as officials made a rare appearance before Australia's media.

Chinas Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye at a press conference at his residence in Canberra.

Chinas Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye at a press conference at his residence in Canberra. Source: AAP

Facing mounting pressure, China's embassy in Australia has hit back at accusations of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province during a press briefing in Canberra.

The presentation held on Wednesday - which included highly-choreographed videos and testimony from Xinjiang residents - has been criticised by human rights groups as a "cheap propaganda stunt".

During the press conference, Chinese officials defended the country's treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the northwestern province - which has been roundly condemned by the international community. 

The Chinese government has faced persistent allegations of widespread human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the region, including forced labour, forced sterilisation, sexual abuse and rape. 

It took almost an hour for journalists to be permitted to ask questions on Wednesday, which quickly turned to the alleged human rights abuses. 

Ambassador Cheng Jingye rejected the claims, describing the international response as a smear campaign based on disinformation.

“We reject those allegations which we think is based on fake news on irrelevant stories that are made up by certain anti-China forces,” he told reporters in Canberra.

It comes amid growing international concern over Chinese authorities' treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Last month, over what the nations labelled "credible reports" of severe violations against the ethnic minorities. 

This came after Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union all announced targeted sanctions against Chinese officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses in the region.

Australia has stopped short of imposing coordinated sanctions. Mr Cheng on Wednesday warned China will respond "in kind" if similar action follows suit. 

“We have expressed our firm opposition to those sanctions out of the domestic laws - which is a flagrant violation of international laws,” Mr Cheng said. 

“Any country should not have any illusion that China will swallow the bitter pill of interfering or meddling in China’s internal affairs.

“We will not provoke but if we are provoked, we will respond in kind.” 

In the briefing, Chinese officials, including representatives from Xinjiang, attempted to portray an image of economic development in the region that supported all ethnic minorities. 

But Human Rights Watch Australia researcher Sophie McNeill condemned the display as a “propaganda stunt”. 

“What happened today at the embassy was clearly a cheap propaganda stunt and it should be called out as such,” she said. 

“It’s important to note that people in Xinjiang are regularly coerced by authorities to appear as part of these disinformation efforts.”

The briefing follows similar events to present China’s version of the unfolding situation in Xinjiang.

Researcher Yun Jiangwith from the Australian National University questions the effectiveness of these attempts. 

“It shows that the Chinese government is ramping up external propaganda on Xinjiang," Ms Jiang said. 

“I highly doubt that this form of propaganda is effective.” 

The United Nations has cited credible reports that at least one million Uighurs have been held in political re-education camps in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has attempted to justify its policies in the region as a war against extremism and terrorism. 

In the press briefing, speeches repeated claims of economic prosperity and ethnic harmony after disruption caused by sporadic separatist violence.

However, when questioned about how many people were being held in political re-education camps, Chinese officials refused to provide an answer.

Erkin Tuniyaz, Vice Governor of the Xinjiang autonomous region, instead attempted to undermine the credibility of allegations of human rights violations. 

“These allegations cannot be more preposterous and they are downright lies,” he told reporters.

Uighurs in Australia have also raised concerns over the press briefing, similarly describing it as a “propaganda” attempt to “cover up” human rights violations.  

"Regardless how China describes the situation, it is no longer a simple human rights concern that (Uighurs) are subjected under the pervasive ethnic genocide and other crimes against humanity," the East Turkistan Australian Association said.

Canberra has refrained from calling events in Xinjiang genocide despite the US as well as Canadian and Dutch parliaments taking this action. 

The Chinese ambassador refused to answer broader questions about the China-Australia relationship during the briefing, however he repeated his dismay over criticism of its human rights record.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier on Wednesday said Australia wanted to improve relations with China but not at the expense of its “values”.

“We want a positive relationship,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“But we will have a positive relationship that is consistent with Australia acting in accordance with its values and its national character.”

5 min read
Published 7 April 2021 at 7:51pm
By Tom Stayner