DALIAN -- China updated legislation this week to officially permit "re-education" camps for minority Uighur Muslims, establishing a legal basis for mass detentions condemned by much of the international community.
The addition to an "anti-radicalization" law enacted last year in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region officially lets local governments establish "vocational training centers." These facilities aim to "correct" the thoughts and actions of Uighurs deemed to be influenced by Islamic extremism.
Uighurs have a different ethnicity, culture and religion from China's Han majority. Beijing forces ethnic minorities to receive education in standard Mandarin Chinese and tightly controls cultural expression, such as clothing and hairstyles. Detainees at the "vocational centers" are banned from using the Uighur language.
Uighurs have protested this harsh treatment. But Beijing has used dissent to justify cracking down further, chalking it up to "extremist influence."
China's treatment of Uighurs has been widely denounced by the international community as an abuse of human rights. A U.S. congressional committee issued a report this week stating that as many as 1.1 million ethnic minority people, chiefly Uighurs and other Muslim groups, have been arbitrarily detained at re-education camps in Xinjiang since April 2017.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday that China firmly opposes any misinformation or false rumors about what he called legitimate actions to prevent and root out terrorism. The move to make the "vocational centers" legal seems meant to defuse some of the foreign criticism.
The Uighur issue further sparked international tensions this week when Malaysia released 11 detained Uighurs against China's wishes. The country defied pressure from Beijing to have the men deported back to China, instead flying them to Turkey, according to Reuters, which spoke with their lawyer on Thursday.
The Uighurs were arrested in Thailand last November as part of a much larger group. They broke out of prison and traveled to Malaysia, where they were rearrested for entering the country illegally. Prosecutors dropped the charges on humanitarian grounds, the lawyer told Reuters.
China in February pressed the pro-Beijing government of then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to have the Uighurs sent to China. His successor Mahathir Mohamad, who took office in May, has shown himself less friendly, canceling a major China-led rail project.
Beijing has faced international criticism over human rights issues numerous times, including over its treatment of Tibetans. The death of imprisoned pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo after he failed to receive proper medical treatment sparked an international outcry.