“Terrorism is the common enemy of humanity, and the target of joint action by the international community.” This is the first line of the white paper released by the Chinese government on 18th March, titled “The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang”. The 29-page document, published by the State Council Information Office, is widely available online in English, and appears to be intended for a foreign audience. The paper provides a brief history of Western China in general and events relating to Xinjiang province in particular, in an attempt to show that the region is, and always has been, an “inseparable part of Chinese territory”.
The paper further makes clear that the ethnic minority who have long been associated with Xinjiang, the Uyghurs, are “not descendants of the Turks”. This is in spite of strong cultural and linguistic ties with the Central Asian republics. The purpose of the paper is clearly to demonstrate the legitimacy of Chinese rule in the region. Additionally, it also underscores that Islam is “neither an indigenous belief of the Uygurs and other ethnic groups, nor the sole one of the Uygur people.” Presumably this is also part of the effort to undermine diasporic and transnational ties in the region, particularly with the sphere of the Uygurs’ Islamic neighbors.
Responses to the paper’s contents were predictable. In addressing the UN Human Rights Council, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng maintained that the centers would become redundant as the situation improves and that without them “violent terrorist attacks would have escalated”. CGTN and Xinhua News, both state-backed media outlets, disseminated the essential messages of the document and reiterated the legality of policy in Xinjiang province. Conversely, World Uyghur Congress spokesperson Dilxat Raxit stated that “counter-terrorism is a political excuse to suppress the Uyghurs” in an attempt to “eliminate faith” and “carry out Sinification”. “Ordinary people should not be labelled as terrorists or extremists and forced to be sent to the camps for re-education,” said Patrick Poon of Amnesty International, adding that it was an act of authoritarian brainwashing.
What is taking place in Xinjiang province at the moment amounts to a concerted effort of cultural cleansing. Xinjiang is home to several recognized Chinese minority groups, most notably the Uyghurs, who speak a Turkic language as well as Mandarin Chinese. According to the document, those interned in the centers “have realized that only by mastering standard Chinese language can they better adapt to contemporary society.” The implication is that local and minority languages are do not go hand in hand with modern Chinese life. Throughout this paper, the focus is on bringing the people of Xinjiang into the ethnic majority, maintaining that “a stronger sense of identity with Chinese culture is essential to the prosperity and development of ethnic cultures” in the province. “Counterterrorism does not target any specific ethnic group or religion”, it is claimed. Yet “trainees”, as detainees are euphemistically called in the document, “may not organize and participate in religious activities at the centers”. Separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism are conflated in the name of protecting civil society, justifying the internment of a huge segment of the population.
This document comes at a time when there is increased publicity around the mistreatment of Muslims and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It constitutes another play in the conflict over the international image of the People’s Republic of China, which has a problematic relationship with several of its border regions. This paper highlights the inconsistencies of Chinese policy regarding ethnic minorities; even though the government condemns those who exaggerate cultural differences and incite ethnic tension, it is exactly the government’s denial of such difference that fuels discontent. We should be wise, however, not to turn human rights in Xinjiang into a proxy between China and the West, as the latter has been quick to condemn abuses while having its own history of abuse in the country. Nevertheless, it is imperative to read and reproduce the many histories of Xinjiang, and not allow a document like this to gloss over the oppression taking place in China’s borderlands.