China's latest spin on its mass crackdown on Uyghur Muslims

by Anna Fifield / 28 October, 2018
A protest of Ethnic Uighurs in Brussels in April, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

Ethnic Uyghurs protest in Brussels in April, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - China uyghur muslim

US attention has prompted China to give up trying to deny the existence of camps.

Camps? What camps? Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence – including first-hand testimony and satellite images with clearly visible fences and guard towers – China has been denying for months that it has been rounding up Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang.

The stories of those who have emerged from the camps – thought to hold as many as a million people – are chilling, describing Chinese Government efforts to overwrite Muslim beliefs with single-hearted love for the Communist Party. There are reports of having to eat pork and drink alcohol, of men having to shave off beards, of efforts to cure the “ideological illness” of Islam.

However, this month has seen a remarkable about-turn. Not only has the Chinese Government legalised the camps, it’s come out with a full-throated defence of the system, saying that it has created “vocational and educational training centres” to teach skills to ethnic minorities, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, and stop them falling into “religious extremism”.

It’s all about terrorism, according to the authorities. Nothing to do with religion, of course, a religion that might interfere with the worship of the communist apparatus. These “vocational centres” have been set up “to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening”, a senior regional official, himself ethnically Uyghur, told China’s main state-run news agency. It’s all “people-oriented”, you see.

To hammer home the point, state television ran a documentary showing supposedly happy Uyghurs learning how to bake and build, how to speak the “common language” of China and singing Party songs. They play volleyball in the sunshine in their spare time. Their children get free schooling. There’s free nutritious meals and free lodging – in the same way that prison can be described as free. The footage even showed the numerous security cameras keeping a close watch on the “trainees”. The documentary did not, however, show the barbed wire that’s visible from satellite images.

The Government in Beijing has clearly given up trying to deny the existence of these camps and is now trying to put a spin on them. This latest version is hardly more convincing than the denials. But, it shows that international pressure on the Chinese Government over the camps may just be beginning to have an impact. Human-rights activists have now been joined by US congressional representatives and Vice-President Mike Pence, a man not known for his defence of Muslims. “In Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in Government camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing,” Pence said in a speech earlier this month. “Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”

The inclusion of this issue in Pence’s wide-ranging condemnation of China hints at a broader strategy: in its effort to rein in China and its more nefarious practices, the Trump administration isn’t limiting itself to trade. It’s looking for every opportunity to criticise China. That makes the Xinjiang camps low-hanging fruit.

“As history attests,” Pence continued, “a country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there.”

But, here in China, defenders of the Government see this as just another outside effort to thwart its rightful return to world-superpower status. “The West just cares about finding faults with China and accusing us [of] nonexistent wrongdoings,” said Hu Xijin, the influential editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, which accuses Western countries of trying to put pressure on China on the world stage.

Or, to borrow, a phrase: It’s all just “fake news.”

New Zealander Anna Fifield is Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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