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Ambassador of China to Canada Cong Peiwu, seen here on March 4, 2020, was asked whether the incarceration of Muslims in detention camps harmed China’s relations with Middle Eastern countries with large Muslim populations.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

China’s ambassador to Canada told an Ottawa security conference Wednesday that years of Western media coverage on how Beijing has locked up Uyghur Muslims in detention camps is “fake news” and he dismissed as “groundless accusations” new reports that thousands are now being moved into forced-labour factory jobs.

Cong Peiwu’s appearance as a speaker at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute event was one of his highest-profile public appearances in Ottawa since taking over the envoy post last fall amid a deep freeze in Canada-China relations. The audience was full of soldiers, security analysts and government officials.

Since 2017, Chinese authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang region have locked up hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim people – most of them Uyghurs, a minority group – as part of a deradicalization campaign.

The United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Western scholars have estimated that China has forcibly re-educated between one and two million people in Xinjiang.

Mr. Cong was asked whether the incarceration of Muslims in detention camps harmed China’s relations with Middle Eastern countries with large Muslim populations.

The ambassador said it hadn’t, but also demonstrated how forcefully he’s prepared to defend Beijing’s record in Canada even at a time when China and Canada are looking for ways to repair relations.

“There is nothing like concentration camps in China or particularly in the Xinjiang autonomous region,” he told the Ottawa audience.

When challenged by an event moderator, who pointed out that leading Western media outlets had been reporting on the Xinjiang camps for years, Mr. Cong continued.

“Some of the Western media can be misleading, you know,” he said. “So be careful. A lot of fake news.”

The Chinese ambassador told the audience that Xinjiang facilities were in fact “vocational training centres" – a comment that elicited mild laughter in the audience.

He said the centres were set up as a counterterrorism initiative and merely teach locals skills they can use to get a job.

“The students not only learn the laws and regulation [but] language and necessary skills,” he said.

“Since 2016 up to now there was no single violent terrorist incidents any more, so that’s good for Xinjiang’s stability and prosperity.”

Alex Neve, the secretary-general for Amnesty International Canada, said it’s disheartening to hear that China’s envoy is denying the repressive nature of the detention camps to Canadian audiences.

“That flies in the face not just of reports from Western media but an extensive body of information from United Nations human-rights bodies, international human-rights organizations and a growing number of governments, including Canada."

Later, Mr. Cong also rejected new reports from a leading Australian think tank that said thousands of Uyghurs and other minority groups are being relocated to factory jobs that bear the appearance of “forced labour.”

In a March 1 report, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said it has identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghur labour transferred from Xinjiang. “Between 2017 and 2019, we estimate that at least 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories through labour transfer programs under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid,’ ” the institute said.

"In addition to constant surveillance, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over minority citizens who refuse their government-sponsored work assignments.”

Mr. Cong denied that these new factory jobs represent forced-labour conditions for Uyghurs.

“With the help of the local governments they have found good jobs, decent jobs. So that is good for the stability in the region,” he said.

Mr. Cong said that in 2019 a group of more 30 countries signed a letter applauding China’s human-rights conduct. The list included countries with significant Muslim populations as well as North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar.

Amnesty’s Mr. Neve noted a November 19 leak of classified Chinese documents “which made it very clear these [Xinjiang camps] are not happy, altruistic places but are in fact being run with an iron hand in a very repressive manner" by authorities.

“All this adds up to something that is not in the slightest fake news but in fact is clear evidence of an extensive, severe human-rights crisis and China needs to stop the denials and bring this to an end and take real action to uphold human rights.”

Separately, Mr. Cong praised Canada’s approach to fighting the novel coronavirus, which has included no restrictions on flights from China. “I would like to commend and appreciate what the Canadian side has done so far in the fight against the outbreak,” Mr. Cong said. “I think, first, it has adopted a cool-headed approach and an evidence-based manner.”