PEKING – High-ranking Chinese officials unexpectedly announced Tuesday that the authorities had released most of the detainees held by the government's mass internment program for ethnic minority Muslims in western China, but did not provide precise figures or details to support her claim.
Alken Tuniaz, Deputy Chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Region, said that 90 percent of the detainees held in government-designated prisons were returned to society. It was a claim that could hardly be independently verified in the strictly controlled region and was blown up in the face of reports of enforced disappearances and detentions assembled by relatives abroad and human rights groups.
The public relations work of the Chinese government was conducted in a press conference with regional officials was the clearest signal that officials are trying to defuse the international criticism of the internment of up to one million Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims in Xinjiang.
"At present, the majority of people who have completed education have returned and returned to their families," Mr. Tuniaz said, using the official description of the camps by the government's "education and training centers."
"Most have already successfully reached employment," he said.
Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang government, also said that up to 90 percent of the inmates employed in the camps were returning to society.
The ambiguous wording of the officials left room for uncertainty about how much freedom can be exercised by released inmates. Although they have not accurately described the circumstances in which inmates were "returned to society," it is very likely that many people allegedly released are still under strict conditions or forced to be forced into factories to work under strict security.  Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist living in Washington, expressed skepticism about the Chinese authorities' proposal that most detainees had been released.
"Uyghurs abroad can still not reach their relatives in the region. No phone calls, no internet communication, "he said. "We are not sure who they released."
Mr. Imin urged the authorities to lift restrictions on the region and allow independent parties to review the situation.
"If the Chinese government is honest and confident about what it says to the media, it should allow people to freely communicate and get out of the country freely and allow independent media to conduct a free inquiry," he said.
He added that many reports of people in the region were still disappearing, including religious leaders, intellectuals, businessmen and farmers.
"We have credible evidence and facts that show that only women, children and the elderly are left behind," he said. "Many young men and fathers are imprisoned."
The Chinese officials refused to say how many people were being held in the camps or how many were released on the grounds that the fluid conditions made it difficult to estimate. They said the program of forced indoctrination, which the government said was aimed at curbing religious extremism.
"These people have become a positive factor in society," said Regional Chairman Zakir.
] Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, and their treatment has become a global human rights dispute under President Xi Jinping. Western governments, United Nations human rights experts, and Uighur self-determination leaders have condemned the mounting restrictions on many Uighurs, especially their detention by hundreds of thousands in reeducation camps across Xinjiang.
James Endold, an associate professor of politics at La Trobe University in Australia, who has investigated the wave of mass arrests in Xinjiang, said there was "sketchy evidence" for a small number of releases from the camps. But he said he was skeptical of mass dismissals, also because evidence of Uyghurs living abroad had not been filtered out.
Instead, according to Professor Leibold, more and more camp inmates could receive work in factories often associated with the camps. They also live under strict surveillance.
"I find it highly unlikely and frankly unimaginable that the Chinese Communist Party would build a vast network of internment camps and simply mop it up a few years later," said Professor Leibold E – Mail.
"Rather, over time, the camp's goals may continue to evolve and shift from education to production, while their compulsive, non-voluntary, and extra-judicial nature remains the same," he wrote.
Mr. Zakir is Xinjiang's senior Uighur official and has repeatedly served as a public figure in defending Chinese government policy in the region, including the reeducation camps, which expanded rapidly from 2017 onwards. In contrast, Chen Quanguo, the more powerful secretary of the Communist Party of the region, remained in the background.
In October party officials began publicly recognizing and defending the camps, many of which are large, prison-like facilities behind walls. In March, Mr. Zakir compared them to boarding schools, where inmates – including some of the best-known Uighur intellectuals – also learned Uighur anti-government attacks learned in Chinese and useful professional skills. However, critics claim that the mass arrests of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities sow an even more dangerous bitterness.
Earlier this month, a group of 22 countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany, issued a statement urging China to stop the mass arrests of Uighurs and other Muslims. China responded with a letter signed by 37 ambassadors from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America and praised its human rights record, including the "de-radicalization" policy in Xinjiang.