China envoy to Australia defends Uighur treatment

Mr Cheng Jingye rejected reports that China has detained more than a million mostly Muslim Uighurs in north-west Xinjiang region as "utterly fake news". PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (AFP) - China's ambassador to Australia held a rare press conference on Thursday (Dec 19) to defend his government against charges of human rights abuses, espionage and political meddling which have frayed relations between the major trade partners.

Mr Cheng Jingye held the press conference at Beijing's embassy in Canberra where he rejected reports that China has detained more than a million mostly Muslim Uighurs in north-west Xinjiang region as "utterly fake news".

He also denied recent allegations from current and former security officials that China has been involved in a vast campaign of espionage and political influence in Australia, saying such charges were "not well-founded".

Australia is reliant on China for trade, by far its biggest market for critical resource and commodities exports.

Mr Cheng pushed back on international charges that China has detained more than a million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in re-education camps in a drive to erase their culture.

"Uighurs in detention is utterly fake news," he said, echoing Beijing's claims the facilities are vocational training schools that have breathed economic life into the poor far-west region.

He said any arrests that have been made were aimed at countering extremism.

"It's nothing to do with human rights, nothing to do with religion. It's about fighting terrorism and taking preventive actions," he said.

Relations with China have been further strained by Beijing's detention of well-known Chinese-Australian author Yang Jun, who goes by the pen name Yang Hengjun, on suspicion of espionage.

Early this month Foreign Minister Marise Payne decried China's treatment of Mr Yang as "unacceptable", saying he was not being allowed access to lawyers and had been interrogated while shackled during his 11 months in detention.

"We do not accept the allegations made by Australia's side," Mr Cheng said.

"The relevant Chinese security department will deal with the case in accordance with Chinese law and his lawful rights are protected. In due time you will know the details."

The envoy acknowledged the rising tensions between China and Australia, saying 2019 had been "a mixed year for bilateral relations".

The press conference came barely two weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a high-level intelligence task force to combat foreign interference in Australia - a move widely seen as targeting China.

China accounts for more than a third of Australian exports and Mr Cheng said the bilateral trade "helped create some 640,000 jobs in this country" and was largely responsible for returning the government's budget to surplus.

"I want to emphasise the importance of pragmatic cooperation and exchange between the two countries and the benefits for both sides," he said.

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