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Shohrat Zakir, right, deputy secretary of the Communist Party committee for China's Xinjiang and chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, speaks next to Alken Tuniaz, vice chairman of Xinjiang, during a news conference, in Beijing, China, on Dec. 9, 2019.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Detainees in China’s forced political indoctrination have “graduated,” a Chinese official said Monday, as the United States turns up the pressure on Beijing over its treatment of Muslims amid renewed efforts to complete a trade deal between the world’s pre-eminent economic powers.

The detainees that China calls “trainees” have all graduated from a “three studies and one go” program, said Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of the government of China’s Xinjiang region, speaking in Beijing. Since 2017, authorities in the northwestern region have locked up hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim people – most of them Uyghurs, a minority group – as part of a deradicalization campaign.

Western critics questioned whether Mr. Zakir’s comments indicated a significant change in the program, which has brought China widespread condemnation for attacking the cultural identity of an ethnic group, or whether officials have simply set out to rebrand the campaign.

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Mr. Zakir provided no evidence for his remarks, and independent verification is difficult in Xinjiang, where journalists and diplomats encounter heavy and invasive surveillance. It’s also not clear how many people have been placed in the “three studies and one go” program – which remains poorly defined, as the terminology was not widely used prior to Monday – and how many are detained in other programs.

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, numbers Mr. Zakir rejected Monday as “pure fabrication,” part of a Washington-backed “smear campaign.”

China has not offered any numbers while defending its coercive program as a tool to battle extremism. Detainees are forced to study Chinese, recite Chinese laws and, according to some who have spoken after their release, pledge allegiance to the Communist Party and its leader, President Xi Jinping.

“Practice has proven that the establishment of vocational education and training centres is a useful move to explore measures for counterterrorism and deradicalization,” Mr. Zakir said.

But going forward, he said, Xinjiang will base its system upon respect for independent choice, individual needs and the freedom to come and go. Such instruction, described by state media as “regular and open education and training” will apply to village officials, rural members of the Communist Party, farmers and herders and “unemployed middle-school graduates who have the willingness and need.”

In a series of white papers, China has said its Xinjiang program protected “the personal freedom of trainees,” including the freedom of religious belief – even as officials confirmed that religious observance was banned among those undergoing indoctrination.

At least one foreign expert said there is reason to believe significant numbers of people have been released from the centres. The possibility of that program being wound down “matches what I’ve heard and seen,” said Gene Bunin, who has tracked indoctrination detentions through the online Database of Xinjiang Victims. He has heard very few reports of people being taken into indoctrination centres in 2019.

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Some, however, are now being incarcerated elsewhere.

”The big issue that people should be talking about is hundreds of thousands of people, including ex-camp detainees, being sentenced without publicly available verdicts,” Mr. Bunin said, meaning they are now being placed in jails.

Former detainees and instructors described widespread mistreatment of people in the indoctrination centres, including poor food and intense pressure to renounce Islam in favour of belief in Communist principles. Many of the facilities were surrounded by high walls and razor wire. At night, floodlights illuminated the grounds.

Still, diplomats who travelled to the region this autumn saw no signs of a mass release. And members of the Uyghur community outside China expressed skepticism about Monday’s announcement.

“No one is leaving,” said Nurgul Sawut, a clinical social worker in Canberra who has surveyed Uyghurs around the world. Instead, “I have every reason to believe this is misleading news,” she said. Mr. Zakir, she believes, ”wants to take away the heat caused by the passing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act bill in the U.S.”

That bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in a 407-to-1 vote on Dec. 3, directs security agencies to conduct ongoing investigations of human-rights violations in Xinjiang and calls for sanctions against individual local leaders suspected of such violations. The bill has yet to pass the U.S. Senate or receive presidential approval, but Beijing has angrily rebuked what it calls a “gross interference” in its domestic affairs.

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Internal Chinese documents obtained by scholars and international media organizations in recent weeks have also provided new evidence of a forcible detention and indoctrination system that, scholars said, provided evidence of an ongoing cultural genocide. Chinese authorities dismissed those reports as “fake news.”

China’s declaration of widespread “graduations” in Xinjiang amount to “another attempt to shift the narrative on China’s horrendous human-rights abuses in the region,” said William Nee, a business and human-rights strategy adviser for Amnesty International.

“If the people really have been released, if the situation really has changed, then the onus is on the Chinese government to prove it” by permitting independent inspections by UN experts or by allowing overseas Uyghurs to communicate freely with relatives in Xinjiang.

Many people in the region have cut off communications with people outside China, citing the threat of incarceration.

China has denied any mistreatment of detainees.

Officials in Xinjiang have, however, publicized targets for moving people for employment purposes. That raises new concerns, Mr. Nee said.

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“There’s now an extremely high risk that people who have supposedly been employed after being subjected to re-education camps are at risk of forced labour,” he said.

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