Officials say allegations about “vocational training centres” are “made up, they are lies and they are very ridiculous”.
The governor of Xinjiang, the Chinese region where the United Nations says up to a million people are being detained, has denied that “vocational training centres” are actually concentration camps.
Shohrat Zakir told Sky News: “Some foreign voices talking about Xinjiang, they have said that Xinjiang has ‘concentration camps’, or ‘education camps’, and so on.
“These statements are made up, they are lies and they are very ridiculous.”
“Vocational training centres” is China’s official label for the detention facilities.
In February, however, the Turkish foreign ministry described them as concentration camps where detainees face torture.
At a rare news conference, Sky News asked Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, and Mr Zakir, how many people were being held in the centres.
Mr Zakir refused to give a figure, saying the number of people entering and leaving the centres is constantly changing.
“It’s not like some have been saying, that there are several million people in the centres,” he said.
“No, it’s not true.”
Mr Zakir’s reply to Sky News was the first time a senior Xinjiang official has answered a question from a Western news organisation.
The news conference, at the Great Hall of the People next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, was tightly controlled.
Authorities required reporters’ questions to be submitted in advance.
Mr Zakir appeared to refer to a script for much of his 15-minute reply.
China has faced international criticism for its repressive measures in Xinjiang.
The region, in the far west of the country, is home to the Uighur people, a Muslim minority, who make up 45% of the population.
The UN previously said it had “credible reports” that around a million Muslim prisoners had been detained in the centres.
Last year, Amnesty International spoke of an “intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups”.
The United States has considered imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, a powerful politician who is a member of the politburo – the group of the 25 most senior officials in China.
China argues that its measures in Xinjiang are necessary to fight terrorism and eradicate extremism.
The region has experienced violent protests and clashes with police, as well as terrorist attacks, that have cost hundreds of lives.
Beijing has been increasingly assertive over the last six months, moving from denying the existence of the centres to defending them vigorously as a model for anti-extremism.
Mr Zakir said the centres were “the same as boarding schools”.
He added the camps could eventually be closed. “Overall, the number of people in our centres will be fewer and fewer,” he said.
“And one day, when society has no need for them, the centres will disappear.”