The Uyghur Question: Struggling to Monopolize the Narrative
Xinjiang, a province of northwestern China, accounts for 640,000 square miles, equal to two-thirds the size of continental Europe. It is China’s largest region, but mostly desert, and produces a fifth of the world’s cotton. There have been significant recent discoveries of oil and gas. The region accounts for 25% of all known Chinese oil sources and is the country’s second biggest oil producing area behind Heilongjiang province. Additionally, Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) program has elevated Xinjiang to the status of gateway to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Uyghur minority constitute almost half (45%) of Xinjiang’s 25 million inhabitants. The Uyghurs are believed by some historians to be descendants of a white imperialist army marooned in this part of China in the ninth century, who had sided with every invader of China, asking each one to turn Xinjiang into East Turkestan.
The administration of President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act in June 2020, which sanctions Chinese officials over the (alleged) mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, requiring determination as to which Chinese officials are responsible for the “arbitrary detention, torture and harassment” of Uyghurs and other minorities, with a view to freezing any assets the officials hold in the USA and banning their entry into the country.
In January 2021, on the last full day in office of the Trump administration, the US State Department declared that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its wide-scale repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, including in its use of internment camps and forced sterilization. In response, a deputy director of propaganda for Xinjiang, Xu Guixiang, dismissed the US claim as an “utterly untethered fabrication of ‘genocide.” Determination of the “genocide” label was a curious outcome for the departing US president, given that Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, had disclosed in a memoir that at a 2019 summit Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping to keep building internment camps in Xinjiang, “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
The USA, Canada, and the Netherlands, among others, have now all accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghur peoples of Xinjiang. For the USA, recognition of the genocide entails obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent and punish the crime.
In December 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution to condemn China’s actions in Xinjiang and to urge member states to sanction the officials involved. In February 2021 Canada published an “open letter” demanding that China be stripped of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, due to its alleged “genocide” against the country’s Uyghur minority. The letter, as noted by Roger Jordan writing for the World Socialist Web Site, was signed by legislators from all five parties represented in the federal parliament and all four parties in the Quebec National Assembly—from the Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to the nominally “left” New Democrats and Québec Solidaire, and made a series of inflammatory and unsubstantiated allegations that sought to draw equivalency between Beijing’s actions and the Nazi crimes of Hitler’s Germany.
The question of the Uyghurs, a Turkic group, is not one to which Turkey nor any other Muslim nation attaches high priority. Criticism from Turkey (which itself hosts a Uyghur diasporic population of over 40,000) has been low-key, possibly because the Erdogan government attaches greater importance to the country’s collaboration with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Stephen Gowans, a veteran critic of western interventionism, notes that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — a group of 57 nations that has been a vocal defender of the Rohingyas and Palestinians – has praised China for ‘providing care to its Muslim citizens.’ In July 2019, he recalled, a host of Muslim-majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates had signed “a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council praising China’s governance of Xinjiang.”
China has consistently denied human rights violations of ethnic communities in the region although it does acknowledge that it has taken anti-terrorism measures against separatists who seek to join extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. One such group, the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM), has maintained close ties with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Since 2005, ETIM’s leader Abdul Haq has been a member of al-Qaeda’s council of elders, a group of about two dozen individuals who control the organization’s direction. ETIM seeks an independent state called East Turkestan that would cover an area including parts of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
As more Han Chinese (by far the strongest ethnicity in China) have migrated to Xinjiang, many Uyghurs have worried that their culture and livelihoods are under threat. The Han are said to prefer cultural and linguistic homogeneity across China. Chinese speakers tend to get the best jobs and own the most profitable private companies. Anti-Han separatism has flourished since the 1990s and there have been major terrorist incidents and clashes, including the deaths in 2009 of 200 people.
Beijing acknowledges that it maintains camps in Xinjiang as “vocational education and employment training centers,” to tackle underdevelopment and a lack of employment. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, has upbraided the USA for hypocrisy in glossing its own record of rights abuses, asserting that the USA has killed more Muslims in wars and operations than any other country in the world. In recent decades these would include invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2004, and that have torn apart Libya (2011) and, from 2011 to this day, Syria.
Critics allege that China has detained more than a million Uyghurs over the past few years in “re-education camps,” that there is evidence of Uyghurs being used as forced labor (including the picking of cotton), of women being forcibly sterilized, children being removed from their families, and the detention, even deaths, of Uyghur students returning from study abroad. A pervasive network of surveillance has been reported by Human Rights Watch, who found that police were using a mobile app to micro-monitor peoples’ consumption of electricity and how often they use their front doors. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in August 2018 that it had received many credible reports that more than 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in China were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy” for the purpose of indoctrination.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) claims to have found evidence of more than 380 of these “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. The camps are said to be intended as high security prisons, not educational institutions, with strict discipline and punishments. Escapees had reported physical, mental, and sexual torture. Female witnesses had spoken of mass rape and sexual abuse. On the other hand, account needs to taken of the fact that ASPI is heavily funded by the Australian Department of Defense and other Australian and allied government agencies. Australia, in common with the US and NATO, is increasingly hostile to China. An Australian senior military officer, Major-General Adam Findlay, even told his troops in 2020 that war with China was a high likelihood. NATO-affiliated think tank, the Atlantic Council (a NATO-offshoot funded by the USA and other allied governments, defense industries, and Gulf dictatorships) published an anonymous report early in 2021 recommending that Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea, or an attack on the disputed Senkaku Islands, or moves against Taiwan’s independence, or a North Korean strike on any of its neighbors, should invite military response. Australia has joined India, Japan and the USA as a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”), which the USA would like to see converted into a formal Military alliance, and which stepped up its anti-Chinese rhetoric at its October 2020 meeting. France joined a Quad military exercise in spring 2021. Germany sent a warship through the South China Sea in March.
Humanitarian Pretexts and their Problems
A substantial history of western hyping of alleged humanitarian abuses for the purposes of regime change shenanigans, or other forms of intervention in the sovereignty of other nations, counsels extreme caution in assessing claims of Chinese abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Human rights abuses are even invoked to boost US advantage in trade relations. Stephen Gowans cites President Biden’s argument that China needed to be confronted not because it had engaged in human rights abuses but because confronting China over human rights was an effective way to deal with China as an economic rival. The US goal, says Gowans, is to “counter China’s challenge to a future in which US investors monopolize the profit-making opportunities of tomorrow’s industries.” Gowans questions the moral authority of the USA to determine who is or is not guilty of human rights abuses:
“Its retinue of allies is littered with despots who unabashedly reject democracy and oppress their people, but buy US weapons, preside over friendly foreign investment climates, and accept that the United States must lead the world. As one of numerous examples of tyrants who count themselves as valued US allies, consider Mohammad bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. Doted on by Washington, MBZ, as he is known, ‘has long argued that the Arab world is not ready for democracy.’ In place of democracy, he favors a socially liberal autocracy. MBZ is so vehemently opposed to even the mildest campaign for suffrage, that last year, he arrested ‘five activists for organizing a petition for democratic reforms (signed by only 132 people).’”
One way in which the human rights’ rhetoric works as propaganda is to stress the wrongs inflicted on a repressed group without examination of the reasons for that repression, while misrepresenting the manner of repression. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, jihadist militia across Central Asia advocated violence as the way to advance their agenda against the post-communist states. The first among them was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), affiliated with al-Qaeda. Uyghur militants rushed to join the IMU and similar organizations including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, and the global platform known as Hizb-ut Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Extremists from Xinjiang cut their teeth on jihad in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the Central Asian states with a view to acquiring the fighting skills they would need to press for an independent Turkestan.
In the early 2000s two Uyghur terrorist groups murdered civilians in knife and bombing attacks, in a campaign to bring attention to their calls for the independence of “East Turkestan” (Xinjiang) and the expulsion of Han Chinese. In 2009, in the provincial capital of Urumqi, Uyghurs and Han rioted, leading to clashes that killed 197 people, and injured 1,700. In 2014, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a separatist group that is an offshoot of ETIM, gave its support to the exceptionally brutal attack on civilians at the Kunming railway station that killed thirty-one and injuring 140.
Reporter Reese Erlich cited Abuduriyimu Haxim Aji, then-vice director of Xinjiang’s public security bureau, as saying the terrorists “are small in number but the religious followers are big in number…They use religion to deceive a small group of people and advocate Holy War.” By 2000, some 5,000 Uyghurs were fighting alongside Islamic extremists from other countries in rebel-controlled Syria. In 2002, the US State Department declared ETIM a terrorist organization. Both the Chinese government and the US State Department found ETIM to be linked to al-Qaeda.
While declaring China guilty of genocide, the Trump administration in its own dying moments removed the terrorist designation from ETIM. Yet only two years previously the USA had been actively at war with ETIM. Trump himself had ordered an escalation of a bombing campaign against them. ETIM is still considered a terrorist organization by the UN, EU, UK, and Russia, among others. China blamed the group for more than two hundred terrorist incidents in Xinjiang between 1990 and 2001. ETIM attempted to sabotage the 2008 Beijing Olympics by carrying out bomb attacks on host cities. An ETIM video featured a burning Olympic flag and warned all Muslims to stay away from the venues. A string of deadly attacks was attributed to ETIM in which terrorists drove vehicles into crowds of pedestrians and then proceeded to carry out stabbing rampages. Some Uyghur extremists have been trained in Pakistan. Other militant Islamist organizations would like to secure the allegiance of the Uyghurs in the XUAR but are probably deterred by the poor prospects of success of such a strategy within China itself.
The USA indirectly supports violent separatism in China. There are separatist US-funded groups such as the right-wing World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an umbrella organization headquartered in Munich, and the Uyghur American Association (UAA) based in Washington and funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). These call for Xinjiang’s complete independence from China. The NED exclusively refers to China’s Xinjiang province as “East Turkestan” and describes China’s administration of Xinjiang as the “Chinese occupation of East Turkestan,” in effect endorsing terrorism aims. An investigation by Ajit Singh for The Grayzone into the WUC and UAA – staunch supporters of Washington’s new Cold War agenda and receiving millions of NED dollars – uncovered a jingoistic, gun-obsessed subculture driven by …right-wing ideology. Its leading figures operate a right-wing gun club known as Altay Defense which drills Uyghurs in advanced combat techniques under the guidance of former members of US special forces who also train private mercenaries and active-duty US service members. In 2020, the UAA organized an “FBI Workshop for Uyghur Community” which aimed to teach Uyghur Americans about the role of the FBI in protecting Uyghurs. A UAA offshoot is the NED-funded Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), established in 2004. This has issued reports alleging that the Chinese government demolishes Uyghur mosques and shrines. The UHRP helped lobby Congress to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019.
The Training Camps
The camps were established in a two-prong preparation by China for the return to China of Uyghurs who had fought for jihadist militia in Syria, in an unsuccessful ten-year war instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood and others and with the support of the US and several Middle East autocracies, to force regime change against President Bashar Assad. The first prong was to improve the economy of Xinjiang to offer a climate of greater prosperity. In 2010, Kashgar was designated as a special economic zone to attract investment, tackle poverty, and rebrand the province as a gateway to Central Asia and Europe. The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012 undertook infrastructural and energy development, linkage to the BRI, and nurture of talent.
The camps were established to provide training that would better enable the population to contribute to that prosperity. Detainees would include people who had participated in terrorist or extremist activities in circumstances that were not serious enough to constitute a crime, or had participated in terrorist or extremist activities that posed a real danger but did not cause actual harm, as well as people who were convicted and had received prison sentences for terrorist or extremist crimes and who after serving their sentences, [were] assessed as still posing a potential threat to society. The curriculum includes standard spoken and written Chinese; understanding of the law, vocational skills, and deradicalization, distinguishing between lawful and unlawful religious activities, and understanding “how religious extremism runs counter to religious doctrine,” with a view to persuading militants to renounce political Islam and violent struggle.
These contextual considerations, while very important, are insufficient evidence that – despite what may be the best intentions of Beijing, and despite the fact that in their treatment of Muslims may compare favorably with the worst examples of US patronage of Middle East autocrats and of US inspired or assisted wars in Muslim countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria – the situation in Xinjiang has not deteriorated to the point of ugly abuse of blameless citizens. Yet often-cited evidence of such abuses has often been culled from Roger Jordan has derided as politically motivated research conducted by wealthy Uyghur exiles patronized by Western intelligence agencies, and hard-right anti-communist groups, like the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.
A 2020 Buzzfeed report of Xinjiang training or re-education camps was based on interviews with 28 informants, former detainees who had escaped from China. The experiences that Buzzfeed informants described were decidedly objectionable, to say the least, but hardly in a category that would compare with Nazi death camps. Informants did not generally possess supporting documentation, they feared reprisals either against themselves or family members for speaking out, talked through interpreters, and in some cases requested anonymity. There are plausible reasons for each of these factors, but they do not help constitute robust evidence in a highly charged, politicized context. Many Uyghur “eyewitnesses” of abuses in the camps are said by attorney Patrick Macfarlane to have been procured and groomed through organizations connected to the US State Department and the CIA such as Radio Free Asia, the WUC, and the UHRP. These organizations procured “eyewitnesses” through such institutions as the Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) – a group founded by ethnic Kahzak Serikzhan Bilash to track Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Macfarlane argues that many such witnesses are schooled in the evidence to provide and some constantly change their testimony – especially after contact with organizations linked to the US State Department. The Uyghur Victim Database, a source for atrocity testimony, is said not to fact-check, so that its findings should not be treated as the “cold hard facts.” Many of the victim testimonies appearing on the Uyghur Victim’s Database and on Uyghur Pulse were procured by Atajurt. Information warfare practices from other conflict zones suggest that some human rights organizations may depend on the supply of such evidence for continued funding. Equally, informants may feel obliged to those who have helped them escape and to settle in foreign countries.
Buzzfeed also supplied evidence of satellite photos suggestive of forced labor camps, finding that “at least 135” also had factory buildings. The report admitted that it was impossible to verify that forced labor was occurring in any single site but commented that “when factories are located inside internment compounds — cut off from the world by high walls and barbed wire — it beggars belief to claim workers are there willingly.” The report cited interviews with named sources who had worked in forced labor conditions in Xinjiang, and quoted publicly available documents of which one, from the U.S. Department of Labor (hardly a neutral source) estimated that 100,000 Uyghurs and other ethnic minority ex-detainees in China may be working in conditions of forced labor. Press reports cited evidence of documents showing that Lens Technology, which makes iPhone glass and is owned by China’s richest woman, had received Uyghur Muslim laborers transferred from Xinjiang.
China’s Education and Training Centers aim at convincing Uyghurs not to support extremism. They are supposed to teach Mandarin and job skills. Numerous human rights groups accuse the centers of condoning rape, torture, and forced labor. Erlich’s assessment is that Chinese authorities made mistakes, that some people were sent to the centers without justification while others were held too long. There were beatings. But Washington intentionally exaggerated conditions in the centers and the numbers of detainees involved. The claim by the 2018 report of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2018 report of one million Uyghurs sent to “reeducation camps” was based on interviews with eight Uyghurs. There was no actual count of detainees.
On the question of forced labor, independent journalists Vijay Prashad and Jie Xiong note that much of the high-quality Xinjiang cotton goes to Western apparel companies, such as H&M and Zara, who in 2009 created the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). BCI was upbeat about Xinjiang development, claiming as recently as March 2021 that it had never found a single case of forced labor. Yet shortly thereafter BCI appeared to comply with the US anti-China propaganda campaign (or hybrid warfare). It closed its China page, accused China of “forced labor,” and of other human rights violations, and set up a Task Force on Forced Labor and Decent Work.
Charges of forced labor regularly issue from partial sources and have motivated numerous US clothing companies to boycott factories in Xinjiang and to reject cotton sourced from the area. The anti-China Washington lobby thus appears to want to destroy jobs in Xinjiang that could only have the result of making lives for the Uyghurs more difficult. Reporter Max Blumenthal for the GrayZone wrote in May 2021 of the Worker Rights Consortium that had successfully campaigned to persuade US apparel companies to leave Xinjiang. Charges compiled by WRC against one company in 2019 of profiting from supposedly forced labor mainly comprised claims by a tightly coordinated network of US-backed Uyghur activists, US state media outlets, US-funded think tank pundits, and Human Rights Watch. The WRC disinvestment campaign began in December 2018, just as the US State Department started formally accusing China of subjecting Uyghur Muslims in the region to forced labor and mass internment. Campaigning alongside the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) were members of the AFL-CIO labor federation, Uyghur exile organizations, Hong Kong-based separatist activists, and Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz of the right-wing Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Many of the organizations on the steering committee of the WRC-led Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region had one funder in common: the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. Blumenthal notes that among the Uyghurs interviewed by AP about allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang was Rushan Abbas, director of the Campaign For Uyghurs, a major separatist organization funded by the US government which lobbies aggressively for sanctions on China, and who has boasted in her bio of “extensive experience working with US government agencies, including Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of State, and various US intelligence agencies.”
The work of the WRC presaged tough new Washington sanctions on Xinjiang. In January 2021, the US government announced a sweeping ban on imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, citing alleged human rights violations and the widespread use of forced labor in the region. The textile and apparel industry employs at least 8 million. Closures in Xinjiang would negatively impact the supply of cotton to textile plants throughout China and require them to import. After the US banned cotton imports from Xinjiang, it became the largest source of Chinese cotton imports, overtaking both Brazil and Australia. US-grown cotton accounted for 45 per cent of all Chinese cotton imports in 2020, up from 20 per cent in 2019.
A 2020 BBC report claimed its reporters had seen evidence that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were being forced to pick cotton (some of this work has actually been mechanized). The BBC, a form of “public” broadcasting (i.e., significantly State regulated, with a tradition of know-towing to the official views of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) said its reporters had been consistently followed and obstructed throughout their visit to the region. This was rebutted by Chinese state media. China Daily objected to BBC claims about government officials obstructing their reporting. For example, it claimed that one man pictured waving his hands in front of his face was a private security guard who did not want his picture taken. Unmarked cars that the BBC said were following them, according to China Daily, were in fact officials from the local information office who had been sent to help the team. Further, satellite images showing a re-education center next to a factory were misleading, it said, because the former closed before the latter opened. Global Times took issue with an ASPI study which used satellite images to identify what it said were detention facilities in the region. The newspaper said many of these facilities performed other functions, such as schools or elderly care centers. The ASPI rebutted this claim.
Independent investigative reports Gareth Porter and Max Blumenthal have challenged the dominant political and media narrative of Chinese repression of the Uyghurs. They found that some influential claims relied heavily on the 2020 work of Adrian Zenz, a right-wing German researcher and Christian fundamentalist affiliated with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (linked to Ukrainian right-wing nationalists) and the neoconservative Jamestown Foundation in Washington, and who in March 2021 was subject to a lawsuit by the Chinese government. “A careful review of Zenz’s research reveals flagrant data abuse, fraudulent claims, and cherry-picking of source material, and propagandistic misrepresentations” they concluded.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had credited Zenz for revelations of coercive sterilization, abortion, and family planning. Yet while there may be evidence of repression of the Uyghurs, the term genocide appeared wildly inappropriate. For example, birth control programs do not of themselves constitute genocide. Zens found that between 2005 to 2015, the Uyghur population growth in Xinjiang was 2.6 times higher than that for Han Chinese. A subsequent decline in the Uyghur rate of growth relative to the Han could easily be attributed to the fact that Uyghur families had been exempted from the then reigning one-child policy, but that the policy for urban Han was relaxed only in 2015, accounting for a more equal rate of growth thereafter, while the regional government introduced more equal treatment of both groups. Zenz was a peer reviewer for an ASPI paper corroborating his claims.
Zenz also overlooked the role of population aging and greater availability of contraception in helping explain why China’s overall birthrate had fallen precipitously in recent years even while a $5.2 billion healthcare investment in Xinjiang halved maternal and infant mortality rates in 2018 and average life expectancy rose. Zenz cited an August 2019 document from Xinjiang’s Wenquan County government office as evidence of “greater pressure to implement intrusive birth control methods” and singled out a single mention of 468 “birth control surgeries,” which could equally as well have translated as “family planning operations,” and he provided no evidence that the operations were coercive. He did not show how a massive investment in better healthcare for the rural poor could be reconciled with a policy of genocide. Zenz radically overestimated the proportion of Chinese IUD placements that had been performed in Xinjiang. Absurdly, Zenz asserted that the Chinese government inserted between 800 and 1400 IUDs per capita each year in Xinjiang. Zenz appealed to supportive testimony from US-based Uyghur exiles who had been cultivated by the US State Department, and whose narratives have been vehemently challenged by family members in Xinjiang, as well as by vocational center graduates and local doctors. Additionally, Zenz framed an article about a government program providing Uyghur women with free childcare, as evidence of forced family separation.
Detailed accounts of abuse, rich with biographical detail, have been highlighted in the journalism of Ben Mauk and others in a four-part series from February 2021 for the New Yorker. In addition, the news outlet The Intercept issued a report by noted critical journalist Jeremy Scahill in February 2021, based on what it said was a cache of government documents “from China” that it claimed exposed a litany of abuses. These included: a pervasive surveillance state operated by the Chinese government to repress Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, sweeping internment of Muslims in the city of Ürümqi, along with child separation and carceral re-education, installation of surveillance cameras inside private homes and mosques, immense detention centers, frequent police stops, widespread collection of electronic and biometric data, demolition of Uyghur cemeteries, and the forced abortion and sterilization of women. The Intercept report was endorsed by US University of Colorado anthropologist Darren Byler who spoke of tens of thousands of unique police files from the city of Ürümqi between 2017 up into 2019. He put this in a broader context of a:
“settler colonial project of Han settlers moving into the Uyghur region, taking the resources and then beginning, eventually, a process of eliminating and replacing Uyghur identity — trying to sort of assimilate them into the body politic of China. This settler colonialism in this case is, at least so far, less violent, in some ways, than American settler colonialism, you know, which produced a genocide. We haven’t seen a genocide in terms of mass killing of Uyghurs yet, but it is a similar dynamic that’s going on at this time. The technology, I think, is helping that project by sort of extending the scale and the intensity of the project to make it happen more quickly. It’s a marriage of global war on terror and settler colonialism brought together to produce this new kind of contemporary colonization”.
On the other hand, Darren Byler, as noted by Dan Cohen for Mint Press News a month later, is a fellow at the Wilson Center, which is funded by the US government and a host of other NATO governments, big banks and corporations. Cohen shows why the narrative of the Uyghur genocide has been eagerly adopted by right-wing agitators anxious to portray socialism as a totalitarian system akin to Nazism. The reason behind the migration of Han to Xinjiang was to benefit from Xinjiang’s economic growth. Han have been charged by Uyghurs with taking jobs, including cotton-picking, that otherwise would have been undertaken by Uyghurs. Yet there appears to be plenty of work for both groups. Many Han labor migrants from eastern China have been replaced by local ethnic minority laborers mobilized through labor transfer schemes. In 2018, of 250,000 cotton pickers in Kashgar Prefecture, 210,900 were locals (via labor transfer policies), 39,100 came from other regions of Xinjiang, and only 6,219 or 2.5 percent hailed from other parts of China. The ‘labor transfer policies’ are in fact state sponsored local recruitment campaigns for well-paid seasonal work.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, head of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, has argued that while there are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uyghurs, those do not per se constitute genocide. China’s crackdown in Xinjiang is comparable to America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks. Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang see the extremist jihadists as their primary worry, not government forces.
Yet there are grounds for considerable concern because for as long as there is doubt about charges of the kind there can be no excuse for complacency. Either the Chinese government has not responded with the necessary transparency, urgency, and conviction to charges that widescale abuses occur in its network of training camps in Xinjiang, or it does do so but is unable to make its voice heard through a din of western political and media propaganda and hysteria, which surely exists.
Clearly, it is not enough for the Chinese government merely to repeat the formal justifications for such camps, even assuming that these in themselves are not reprehensible. It must either take much more energetic and convincing steps to expose western propaganda for what it is, or it must demonstrate that while there is some substance in the charges of abuse, it is now taking the necessary measures to ensure that this will stop and that it will not happen ever again.
The numbers of citizens who are believed to have been swept into the training camps, and in particular the substantial presence among them of women, in themselves raise worrying questions as to whether or not the Chinese government has reacted with proportionate and adequately supervised force to what is a real and demonstrable threat of Xinjiang-based separatist and jihadist terrorism – threat, that is, for the Han population of Xinjiang, for China more generally, and for areas of the world – as in the case of jihadist militia rebels fighting the government of Syria – in which jihadist terrorist forces are pitted against established and legitimate governments.
Yet it is important to treat claims of abuse with appropriate caution and distrust until they are proven correct beyond doubt. The charge of genocide is demonstrably false: the population of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is approximately 12 million and there is no evidence of any dramatic decline in this population that could remotely qualify as genocide in any serious sense. From 2010 to 2018, the Uyghur population increased by 24.9 percent, far more than might be expected of a population experiencing genocide and sterilization, while the Han population in Xinjiang grew by only 2.2 percent. Additionally, an important aspect of the Xinjiang story in recent decades and one which mainstream media typically overlook is that of economic growth, which is the attraction of Xinjiang to the Han people from other areas of China. The fact that China has succeeded in lifting 1.85 million Uyghur Muslims out of poverty between 2014 and 2017, while investing heavily in health and education facilities (which propagandists have unreasonably smeared as attempts to control the Uyghur population or coerce children) is something to be celebrated. Of the 6.1% of the province’s population who were experiencing absolute poverty in 2018 most have been lifted up, with the poverty level falling to 1.2% of Xinjiang’s population in 2019. Programs that have relocated tens of thousands of impoverished nomadic and indigenous people into the cities and that provide jobs, free housing, and health should not be recklessly trashed as “ethnic cleansing” without a much more nuanced examination of the facts.
The history of western exploitation or manufacture of human rights pretexts for the achievement of imperialistic goals more than justifies such a stance of skepticism in the face of claims emanating from what has become an industry of human rights lobbying. Some of the evidence for charges of abuse in Xinjiang does not stand up to scrutiny. Other evidence is promoted from dubious, pro-Western even if prestigious think tanks and media or anti-Chinese media in the USA such as the Epoch Times, China Uncensored or New Times Dynasty (NTD), some associated with the Falun Gong. But nowhere near all sources share these characteristics.
There is ample evidence of western hypocrisy in such matters, especially when account is taken of western responsibility for wars against predominantly Muslim nations that have left these territories soaked in the blood of millions, and of western double standards in the tolerance that the west extends to those autocratic leaders with whom it affiliates, while excoriating those with whom it is in competition for wealth and influence. Expert propagandists with almost limitless resource must know the characteristics of effective persuasion on such matters and seek to create their simulacrum: these include multiple “authoritative” sources (including intelligence and humanitarian organizations) apparently saying the same thing, the provision of “data” by numerous apparently independent non-government organizations, the distribution of rewards – contracts, for example, or escape – to those whose narrative is correct, a near monopoly over the mainstream media narrative, and stories that excite strong emotions such as anger or pity. Time and again we have witnessed the success of such operations, as in the big WMD lie that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the spread of disinformation about Ghadaffy’s intended massacre of rebels in Libya that preceded NATO’s bombing of Libya in 2011, or the carefully cultivated impression that CrowdStrike had incontestable evidence of Russian hacking of DNC/DCCC emails in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is an expert on international media, news, and propaganda. His writings can be accessed by subscription at Substack at https://oliverboydbarrett.substack.com.