No concentration camps in China just 'vocational training centres,' says envoy

Detention camps housing hundreds of thousands, perhaps over one million ethnic Uighurs, in western China are nothing more than vocational training centres, the country’s ambassador to Canada insisted on Wednesday.

Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig being treated fairly under Chinese law, says Cong Peiwu

Ambassador of China to Canada Cong Peiwu speaks as part of a panel at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Detention camps housing perhaps as many as one million ethnic Uighurs in western China are nothing more than "vocational training centres," the country's ambassador to Canada insisted on Wednesday.

Cong Peiwu, speaking at a security and defence conference in Ottawa, was put on the hot seat several times during a panel discussion about the competition between great powers in the Middle East.

He discussed how China could use soft power influence in the troubled region while being asked whether it is detaining a substantial number of Muslim Uighurs against their will in high-tech concentration camps. 

Cong took issue with the characterization.

"There's nothing like concentration camps in China," he said.

Last fall, a leak of internal Chinese government documents to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) painted a stark picture of camps, which have been built across Xinjiang region in the past three years. 

The leaked documents, dubbed "The China Cables" by the ICJI, contain a nine-page 2017 memo, sent from the then deputy-secretary of province's Communist Party to the officials in charge of the camps.

The memo spells out how the camps should be run as high-security prisons, complete with strict discipline and punishments.

The publication of the records by media outlets around the world, including CBC News, caused a sensation and led to condemnation from several governments, including Global Affairs Canada, which said it was concerned about "credible reports of the mass detention, repression and surveillance" in Xinjiang.

Chinese officials, including Cong, have responded by attempting to discredit the reports.

"Some of the western media can be misleading you. So, be careful. There's a lot of fake news," he said  As for the concentration camps, as you call it ... actually it was used to be vocational training centres."

Xinjiang camps are "vocational training centres": Chinese Ambassador to Canada

4 years ago
Duration 0:56
Featured VideoChinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu argues there are no concentration camps in Xinjiang province, only "vocational training centres."

He stuck to Beijing's often-repeated position that the camps were necessary to quell the unrest from a few years ago.

"So, that's why the government had to take preventative measures when it comes to counter-terrorism," he said.

Cong also faced questions about the detention of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been held for over year, an action widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Chinese telecommunication executive Meng Wanzhou by federal authorities.

She is wanted in the U.S. in connection with the alleged violation of Iranian sanctions by her company, Huawei.

Cong insisted Spavor and Kovrig are being treated fairly according to Chinese law, although he would not say when the country will present evidence to back up the claims of security officials that the two men are spies and a threat to national security. 

He faced several questions about the case during the panel discussion and afterward when speaking with journalists. 

The ambassador did suggest the frosty relationship between Canada and China has thawed a bit because of the Liberal government's measured response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

"I would like to commend and appreciate what the Canadian side has done so far in the fight against the outbreak," Cong said. "I think, first, it has adopted a cool-headed approach and an evidence-based manner."

Expressions of "support, solidarity and sympathy" by Canada have been also appreciated, he added.

Chinese Ambassador to Canada talks about Kovrig and Spavor

4 years ago
Duration 0:55
Featured VideoChinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu answers questions about Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.