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China says Xinjiang trips very successful, slams U.S. 'slander'

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BEIJING (Reuters) – Trips organised by China’s government to the western region of Xinjiang for diplomats and reporters have been very successful at showing people the true situation there, the foreign ministry said on Monday, denouncing U.S. criticism as “slander”.

China has been stepping up a push to counter growing criticism in the West and among rights groups about a controversial de-radicalization programme in heavily Muslim Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.

Critics say China is operating internment camps for Uighurs and other Muslim peoples who live in Xinjiang, though the government calls them vocational training centres and says it has a genuine need to prevent extremist thinking and violence.

A U.S. official told Reuters that “highly choreographed” tours to Xinjiang organised by the Chinese government were misleading and propagated false narratives about the troubled region.

Speaking at a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said such trips were to raise the international community’s understanding about Xinjiang’s social and economic development.

“The people who have been on the trips felt for themselves the real situation Xinjiang’s calm and order and the happy lives and jobs of all the people’s there, and all positively appraised China’s policy governing Xinjiang,” Geng said.

The U.S. criticism “does not accord with the facts”, he added. “It is purely rumour starting and slander.”

China resolutely opposes the United States interfering in its internal affairs using the Xinjiang issue, Geng said.

“At present Xinjiang is politically stable, the economy is developing and society is harmonious.”

The foreign ministry said late last week it would invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit soon. Sources have told Reuters the invitation was made to European Union ambassadors based in Beijing.

Geng said talks were ongoing about that trip. He did not elaborate.

There have been two visits by groups including European diplomats to Xinjiang this year. One was a small group of EU diplomats, and the other by a group of diplomats from a broader mix of countries, including missions from Greece, Hungary and North African and Southeast Asian states.

A Reuters journalist visited on a government-organised trip in January.

Late last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries, including France, Britain, Germany and the EU’s top envoy in Beijing, wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Xinjiang’s top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, including Chen.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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