WASHINGTON/NEW YORK -- The U.S. is ratcheting up pressure on the Chinese government regarding human rights, hoping to hit Beijing where it hurts as bilateral tensions ripple beyond trade. But China steadfastly maintains that there is no religious persecution within its borders.
America has "spoken out against religious persecution in the People's Republic of China, and we do so again today," Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday at the State Department's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom event in Washington.
"In Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uighurs, in internment camps, where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing," Pence said.
The vice president also called out China's "oppression" of Tibetan Buddhists and its "persecution" of the rapidly growing ranks of Christians.
"The United States is engaged in ongoing negotiations and discussions over our trading relationship with China, and those will continue," Pence said. "But whatever comes of our negotiations with Beijing, you can be assured the American people will stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People's Republic of China."
A major Pence speech on China's human rights record had been planned for June, the month of the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. It was postponed because of progress in conversations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the White House told the Wilson Center, where the event was to take place.
About 20 victims of religious persecution were invited to the White House on Wednesday. A Uighur woman, one of four attendees listed as from China, told Trump that her father has been detained five years and is serving a life sentence.
The event was "sheer interference in China's internal affairs," Foreign Minister Lu Kang told reporters Thursday. "We deplore and strongly oppose that."
"There is no so-called religious persecution in China at all," Lu said. "The Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief in accordance with law."
Uighurs declared independence in the 1930s and '40s but ultimately came under the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region established by China in 1955. About 10 million Uighurs now live in the region. Beijing has tightened its grip since the Urumqi riots of 2009 and is believed to run reeducation camps there, ostensibly to curb terrorism.
The State Department said in a June report that China had possibly detained more than 2 million Muslims, including Uighurs, since April 2017. The U.S. and Germany also urged China to stop infringing on Uighurs' freedoms at a closed United Nations Security Council meeting July 2.
With a U.S. presidential election coming up in 2020, Trump could be increasing the pressure on China in hopes of scoring trade concessions. He may also be trying to appeal to right-wing supporters extremely sensitive on the religious-freedom issue.
China is working to counter these claims. It invited former Russian diplomat Vladimir Voronkov, the U.N. undersecretary-general for counterterrorism, to visit Xinjiang in mid-June. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they reached a broad understanding on the threat of terrorism.
Countries need to "stop politicizing the issue of human rights and interfering in China's internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters July 11 in response to a letter sent to the U.N. Human Rights Council by 22 countries, including Japan and the U.K.
Thirty-seven of China's friends, including Russia, North Korea and Cuba, sent their own joint letter supporting its policies on Uighurs. Countries in Africa and along the Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative were on the list as well.
Xi does not want to inflame ethnic tensions ahead of the 70th anniversary of modern China's founding Oct. 1. He held a conference to discuss assistance to the region this week as he pursued a carrot-and-stick approach to keep the region in line.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke out against China on Thursday, calling its Xinjiang camps "one of the worst human rights crises of our time" and "the stain of the century."
Tsukasa Hadano in Beijing contributed to this report.