Repression in Xinjiang Garners International Attention

In the third quarter of 2019, the ongoing deterioration of the situation in Xinjiang continued to make waves on the international stage. According to the Xinhua News Agency, on 2 July, during a trip to China, Turkish President Erdogan told Xi Jinping that ‘residents of all ethnicities in China’s Xinjiang are living happily’, though Turkish officials later claimed this to be a translation error. On the opposite front, in an unprecedented display of unity, on 11 July, 22 states co-signed a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang. The signatories included Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In response, ambassadors of 37 other countries—including states with controversial human rights records such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Qatar (which later withdrew its signature)—retorted by penning a letter praising China’s ‘achievements in the field of human rights’. In the midst of these controversies, China’s State Council Information Office—the arm of government responsible for propaganda—published two white papers. The first, released on 21 July, presented a revisionist account of Uyghur history, positing that the minority was enslaved and forced to convert to Islam. The report claimed that Xinjiang has been an ‘integral part of China’ for a long time and ensured the current Chinese government protects ‘the Muslims’ right to their beliefs’. The second white paper, released on 16 August, focuses on the vocational education and training centres in Xinjiang, detailing their necessity and effectiveness in China’s counterterrorism efforts (see Byler’s essay in the present issue). Later on, some officials in China claimed that up to 90 percent of Uyghurs had been released from the centres and ‘returned to society’, but these claims were met by widespread scepticism. The US government has also taken steps to address the situation in Xinjiang. In August, Uyghur-American Elnigar Iltebir was appointed as the United States National Security Council’s director for China. As the Harvard-educated daughter of a prominent Uyghur intellectual, analysts have suggested that Iltebir’s appointment may reflect a new attention to Xinjiang in the Trump administration. On 23 August, the US government also criticised a loan of 50 million USD from the World Bank for the so-called ‘Xinjiang Technical and Vocational Education and Training Project’. There are worries the loan, approved in May 2015, was used to fund internment camps in Xinjiang. Since then, increasingly heated discussions of the inhumane treatment of the detained Uyghurs have been sparked by the emergence of a video showing dozens of blindfolded and bound men during what is believed to be a mass transfer at a train station in Xinjiang. At the same time, there have been international calls to halt the execution of Tashpolat Tiyip, a renowned Uyghur academic who was abducted and sentenced to death following a secret trial in 2017, while at the end of September jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was awarded the Vaclav Havel Prize, which honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights. Facing this barrage of criticisms, at an event on the sidelines of the latest United Nations summit in late September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that China has not seen a single case of violent terrorism in the past three years, and defended the camps on the grounds that they ‘are schools that help the people free themselves from terrorism and extremism and acquire useful skills’. In a further escalation, in early October the Trump administration imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials implicated in repression in Xinjiang and blacklisted 28 tech companies ostensibly for their role in violating human rights in Xinjiang. TS

(Sources: ABC News 1; ABC News 2; Business Insider; CNN; Foreign Policy; Global Times; The Guardian; Human Rights Watch; Radio Free Asia 1; Radio Free Asia 2; SBS News; South China Morning Post 1; South China Morning Post 2; State Council 1; State Council 2; SupChina; The Times; Wired)

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