Uighur security personnel patrolled near a mosque in Kashgar in northwestern China's Xinjiang region in November.

BEIJING—China has retroactively changed the law to legitimize its detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in a campaign that has sparked an international outcry over human rights abuses against the ethnic minority.

The amended counterterrorism regulations, adopted Tuesday in the northwest Xinjiang region where most Uighurs live, say that authorities can use “vocational skills training centers” to “deradicalize” people suspected of extremism. The previous rules made no reference to vocational centers.

The new rules appear to mark the first time China has acknowledged its use of vocational centers to detain Xinjiang residents for “transformation through education.” Senior Chinese officials have maintained—including before a United Nations panel in August—that the centers taught vocational skills to petty criminals. It had disputed reports the centers were used for “political re-education.”

The new regulations “establish a much more direct link between re-education and vocational skills training,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher on the Xinjiang camps at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany.

Criticism is growing over China’s mass detention of Uighurs. A U.S. Congressional reportreleased on Wednesday warned of a “dire human rights situation” in China, particularly the country’s mass internment of Uighurs and other minorities. The U.N. panel in August found that Uighurs were being held for extended periods without charge or trial “under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”

The U.S. State Department is considering sanctions against China over the issue.

The Xinjiang Communist Party Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

China began the mass detentions about two years ago as part of a drive to snuff out an occasionally violent Uighur separatist movement that Beijing says has links to foreign jihadists. Some Uighurs have joined Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Rights groups and Uighur activists abroad say unrest in Xinjiang is driven mainly by heavy-handed policing, tight restrictions on religious activities and one of the world’s most intensive electronic surveillance systems. They say China paints a broad brush to define extremists, including people engaged in religious activities.

The campaign has swept up elderly Uighurs in poor health and residents with no criminal record, say family members interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Some people have died in the camps, these people have said. China has declined to say how many people are in the centers. Human rights groups estimate that up to one million have been detained.

The amendments also appear partly aimed at reining in the worst excesses of the re-education campaign. A new rules say education-center operators are responsible for running them safely, with a goal of reintegrating the detainees into society—though no mechanism is laid out for holding officials accountable for breaches.

Human rights activists said the revision was a retroactive attempt to legally justify the camps.

“If there is a claim this is lawful, however thin a claim, I’m afraid that can only encourage more detentions and an expansion of these centers,” said Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law and human rights at King’s College London.

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the detentions were arbitrary and without due process. “Xinjiang’s regional government is not empowered under China’s constitution to legalize detention in the political education centers,” she said.

Mr. Zenz, the researcher, said the newly detailed explanation of how to carry out re-education suggests the Chinese government plans to stay the course, despite the international backlash.

“Overall, this clearly strengthens the legal basis for the type of re-education that has essentially been admitted by the state, indicating that the state is determined to proceed with the current campaign,” he said.

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