In Depth

China launches ‘spin campaign’ over internment of Uighur Muslims

Beijing sending ‘positive messages’ to foreign media in bid to quell concerns over mass incarceration camps in Xinjiang

The government of China is ramping up its attempts to “spin positive messages” to foreign reporters amid ongoing criticism of its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province, according to reports.

The region, in the northwest corner of the country, is populated mostly by ethnic Uighur and other Turkic Muslim people.

Over the past two years, authorities have “dramatically stepped up security and surveillance” in the region, introducing “police checkpoints, reeducation centres and mass DNA collection”, according to a Reuters report in August.

That month a UN human rights panel accused China of holding Uighurs without charge or trial in “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy”, where abuse and torture is alleged to be commonplace.

Although, Beijing dismissed the claims as “completely untrue”, the Chinese UN delegation later clarified that the government sees the threat from Islamist militants in the region as sufficient justification for their tight grip on the population.

However, the South China Morning Post now reports that China has changed tack on the issue, kickstarting a PR campaign to “spin positive messages” to foreign journalists.

Chinese government officials claim to be putting some citizens of the region through “vocational” courses in order to “rein in extremism”, Reuters reports.

China’s ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, has also accused his nation’s critics of “deliberately distorting the facts”. In an article entitled “Xinjiang, what a wonderful place” that was published in The Jakarta Post last week, Xiao writes that “the wonders of Xinjiang lie... in the mutual respect, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups, cultures and beliefs and the shared aspiration to build a better home”. This harmony, he says, would not be possible “without the ethnic and religious policy upheld by the Chinese government, especially its policy on freedom of religious belief”.

“Regrettably, a few institutions and people from the West pursue double standards,” he continues, claiming that reports of internment camps are a misrepresentation of the government’s legitimate efforts to “prevent religious extremism and promote deradicalisation”.

Who are the Uighurs?

They are a largely Muslim ethnic minority group based mainly in Xinjiang, an autonomous region.

Uighurs “regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations”, the BBC says.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Uighurs briefly declared independence, but the region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.

What does the UN allege?

Chinese authorities have detained more than one million Uighurs in camps, and forced as many as two million to submit to re-education and indoctrination, according to the UN.

Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said in August that members of the Uighur community and other Muslims were being treated as “enemies of the state” solely on the basis of their ethno-religious identity.

Most of these people have never been properly charged with a crime or tried in court, she added.

Human Rights Watch says there is no legal basis for people to be held in this way.

“The detainees in political education camps are held without any due process rights – neither charged nor put on trial – and have no access to lawyers and family,” according to the New York City-based organisation. “They are held for having links with foreign countries, particularly those on an official list of ‘26 sensitive countries’, and for using foreign communication tools such as WhatsApp, as well as for peacefully expressing their identity and religion, none of which constitute crimes.”

Reports also suggest that violence, torture and brainwashing are common. Deaths in custody have been reported.

The allegations submitted to the UN this year came from multiple sources, including activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Adrian Zenz, a specialist on Xinjiang who lectures at the European School of Culture and Theology in Berlin, described it as a humanitarian emergency.

“This is a very targeted political re-education effort that is seeking to change the core identity and belief system of an entire people,” he told The New York Times. “On that scale it’s pretty unprecedented.”

How has China responded?

Beijing has long denied the existence of such camps, and continues to do so.

But its message is often muddled. In response to the UN report in August, China’s Foreign Ministry said that there is “neither deliberate targeting at a particular ethnic minority, nor suppressing or restricting the rights or the freedom of religious belief of the Uighur people”.

However, just a few days later the deputy director of the ruling Communist Party's United Front Work Department, Hu Lianhe, confirmed the existence of resettlement or re-education programmes in the region.

And despite its insistence that the situation in Xinjiang is mostly peaceful, the Chinese government maintains its stance that the harsh security measures are necessary to tackle religious extremism and terrorism, pointing to Europe’s spike in Islamic terror attacks in recent years.

Last month, Li Xiaojun, publicity director at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office, told reporters that China was “trying to avoid the problems of radicalisation Europe had experienced”.

“Look at Belgium, look at Paris, look at some other European countries,” Li said. “You have failed.”

The Chinese state-owned Global Times newspaper claims such measures have prevented Xinjiang from turning into “China's Syria” or “China's Libya”.

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