Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the eastern region of Xinjiang, state media reported on Friday, for what it believed to be his first visit to the region since launching a crackdown against the Uyghur minority there that has been called a "genocide" by Western countries.
The president inspected the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a supra-governmental organization under US sanctions, and praised its "great progress" in reform and development.
Documents leaked in May, and believed to be credible, put a light on the mass detentions of more than one million Uyghur Muslims in "re-education camps," as well as a litany of other human rights abuses.
Xi last publicly visited the region in 2014 following an attack that killed three people. The crackdown began three years later.
Two-day visit to 'hub' region
The Chinese president was in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi on Tuesday before traveling to the city of Shihezi on Wednesday, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
Xi called the region a "core area and hub" in China's Belt and Road infrastructure and influence initiative that seeks to build ports, railways and power stations to better connect China's economy to Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
The Chinese leader met with XPCC leaders and "learned about the history of the XPCC in cultivating and guarding the frontier areas," Xinhua reported. The XPCC runs its own courts, schools and health systems in Xinjiang.
He also reportedly called for the better preservation of the cultural heritage of minority groups, US news site Bloomberg reported.
His visit comes after a trip to Hong Kong — his first trip outside of mainland China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and his first time in Hong Kong since 2017.
Beijing has also come under fire for its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters following the implementation of a new basic law that overturned the privileges the city had enjoyed since being returned to China from British rule.
Abuses in Xinjiang
China has rejected the accusations of genocide and human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, calling them an attempt by the US and other Western countries to smear China's economic rise.
Documents have shown that millions of Uyghurs have been forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and abandon their cultural traditions. Beijing claims these camps are vocational centers and voluntary training facilities.
Several large companies have pulled out of the region amid international criticism, although the German car giant Volkswagen has defended the continued operations of its joint-venture factory there.
ab/sms (AFP, AP)