What is really happening in Xinjiang?
Recently, there has been a flood of posts on various other social media platforms, decrying outrage over alleged abuse of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. These posts claim that Uyghur Muslims are being skinned alive, tortured, starved, and raped in Nazi Germany style concentration camps. According to these posts, the camps seek to indoctrinate Uyghur Muslims into abandoning their Uyghur and Muslim culture. Essentially, these posts are stating that China is engaging in a genocide of Uyghur Muslims.
Before we look deeper into these allegations, let us first understand some basic facts and history about Xinjiang. Xinjiang is an autonomous region in northwestern China. It has a long history of settlement from different people, the earliest being the Indo-European Tocharians. Xinjiang was first integrated into China during the Han Dynasty. During the An Lushan Rebellion from 755 to 763 CE, a conflict between the Tang Dynasty and various regional powers, China lost control over Xinjiang. China allied with the Uyghur Khaganate, a state in Mongolia, to combat the An Lushan rebels. The collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 CE trigged Uyghur migration into Xinjiang. During the 900s CE, the Turkic Karakhanids invaded and converted the formerly Buddhist inhabitants of Xinjiang to Islam. In the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty reasserted control over the region.
Xinjiang has historically seen the settlement and migration of many different people, and even today it is still very diverse. It is home to not just the Uyghur Muslims, but a number of different ethnic groups, such as the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Han, Tibetans, and many more. This ethnic diversity is not only found in Xinjiang, but in regions all across China. China has 55 ethnic minorities, and the Uyghurs are in fact not the only Muslims in China. The largest Muslim ethnic group in China are instead the Hui people.
If China were to be engaging in a genocide of Uyghur Muslims with the goal of brainwashing them into deserting their cultural and religious identity, wouldn’t that mean the basis of China’s actions in Xinjiang rests on Islamophobia? If that were the case, why do we not see systemic persecution of Hui Muslims, the largest Muslim ethnic group in China? The reason for this is because the situation in Xinjiang is not one of religion; rather, it is one of separatism. There is a strong presence of Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. Notable Uyghur separatist organizations include the Turkistan Islamic Party — formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement — and notable Uyghur separatist activists include Erkin Alptekin and Rushan Abbas, both diasporic Uyghurs who live in the West.
It is not enough for us to merely know the names of Uyghur separatists. It is crucial to understand their backgrounds and their political interests. The ETIM, for one, is funded by the CIA. Ironically, it is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States. This is seen clearly through its close ties with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Like the ETIM, Alptekin and Abbas are also affiliated with the CIA. Alptekin worked for them as an advisor, and Abbas worked at Guantanamo Bay.
The ETIM is designated a terrorist organization by many countries for good reason. To quote from a report by the United Nations Security Council, “In recent years, ETIM has set up bases outside China to train terrorists and has dispatched its members to China to plot and execute terrorist acts including bombing buses, cinemas, department stores, markets and hotels. ETIM has also undertaken assassinations and arson attacks and has carried out terrorist attacks against Chinese targets abroad. Among the violent acts committed by ETIM members were the blowing up of the warehouse of the Urumqi Train Station on 23 May 1998, the armed looting of 247,000 RMB Yuan in Urumqi on 4 February 1999, an explosion in Hetian City, Xinjiang, on 25 March 1999 and violent resistance against arrest in Xinhe County, Xinjiang, on 18 June 1999. These incidents resulted in the deaths of 140 people and injuries to 371.”
This begs the question, what is the reason for the CIA funding these separatist organizations and working with these separatist activists? Why would the United States want to see an independent Xinjiang? The answer is simple. Xinjiang is rich in various resources, but more importantly, it is a key region connecting China to Pakistan and Central Asia in the Belt and Road Initiative. An independent Xinjiang, backed by American interests, would mean great economic and political destabilization for China.
Separatist and extremist tendencies are not the overarching norm among Uyghur Muslims; however, they do exist, and naturally are heavily influenced by the activities and doctrines of people in organizations like ETIM. The “concentration camps” in Xinjiang are in truth re-education centers meant to combat these tendencies among Uyghur Muslims. 54 countries in the world recognize this, including the majority of the world’s Muslim countries. The only countries that believe China is committing a genocide against Uyghur Muslims are Western countries (and Japan, an ally to Western countries) — all countries that have historically colonized and destabilized majority Muslim countries in the Middle East, and do not even recognize the Palestinian state.
The two main sources that are pushing the narrative of these centers being torture sites include Radio Free Asia, which is unsurprisingly also funded by the CIA, and a man named Adrien Zenz. Adrien Zenz is one of the most frequently cited people in articles on Xinjiang. However, he is not just an innocent scholar who happens to be very knowledgeable on China. He is a far right Christian fundamentalist who opposes LGTBQ+ and women’s rights and believes he is “ordered by god on a mission against China.” This claim is extremely chilling for colonized people: religious excuses have been historically used to justify colonization of nonwhite countries. In addition, Zenz is a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Such an organization is hardly an objective source of information. To put into perspective how ridiculous the bias at VOC is, it considers deaths under COVID-19 as deaths caused by communism.
The same people who are parroting lies about Xinjiang disseminated by Radio Free Asia and Adrien Zenz under a guise of “wokeness” are the same people who seem to care about the Black Lives Matter movement. The irony of this contradiction is that Zenz openly rejected support for the uprisings in Minneapolis. In response to a tweet that said, “It’s time to stand with Minneapolis”, Zenz said: “No thanks. Minneapolis has an accountable government, a free press, open debate about racism, and a state governor who profusely apologized for this. Don’t kid yourself.” If Zenz so callously dismisses the reality of structural antiblack racism in the United States, why would he have a genuine interest in human rights in China? Most Americans who are apparently for social justice would not be ok with a far right bigot like Zenz being the primary source of information on the Black Lives Matter movement. If that is the case, why is it acceptable for him to be the primary source of information on China?
This double standard is indicative of a deeply ingrained sinophobia (anti-Chinese discrimination) in the United States. Sinophobia has existed in the United States since the beginning of Chinese immigration, and has been used to portray Chinese people as dirty, backward barbarians who were going to steal jobs from American citizens. Chinese culture was seen as antithetical to American “democracy”; therefore, Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to American ways of life. This notion of Chinese people being a danger to American society is articulated by the term yellow peril. During the Cold War, yellow peril sentiments merged with red scare sentiments to justify containment policies and imperialist violence in Vietnam and Korea.
Nowadays, yellow peril with red scare characteristics is still used by the government and mainstream media to push racist and anticommunist portrayals of China. A recent document published by the National Security Council wrote, “The CCP’s expanding use of economic, political, and military power to compel acquiescence from nation states harms vital American interests and undermines the sovereignty and dignity of countries and individuals around the world.” For Americans to be outraged at China “undermining the sovereignty and dignity of countries and individuals around the world”, they must first believe that the United States is morally superior and does not engage in such actions. A quick glance at American vs Chinese history will show us this is simply not the case. It is the United States that was built on stolen land and stolen labor, not China. It is the United States that has staged coups and waged wars in countries around the world, not China. It is the United States destabilizing countries and triggering waves of immigrants who are consequently treated horribly, not China. It is the United States that still today has military bases all around the world, not China. This is not to present a whataboutist argument; instead, it is to point out the sheer hypocrisy of the American government and the American people for believing China is the country threatening peace around the world.
The National Security Council’s document may have utilized false notions of American exceptionalism — the idea that harming American interests must mean harming the sovereignty and dignity of countries around the world — but it did raise one correct point. China is indeed expanding in power, and this is indeed threatening American interests. With the spread of COVID-19, we have seen how China is rising as a global leader. China is the country that sent aid and doctors to countries around the world, including countries choking under American sanctions. Meanwhile, the United States’s response to COVID-19 has proven once again that it does not care at all about its people, and will let its citizens die for the economy. At the root of the United States’ aggression against China is fear at the fact that China has been presenting to the world an alternative system that does not rely on capitalist exploitation, but socialist solidarity. At the root of the United States’ aggression against China is the fear that China will topple American hegemony.
And that is why we are seeing an increase in anti-China propaganda. It is not a coincidence, either, that we are seeing a surge in Xinjiang propaganda right around when China passed a bill that prohibits foreign countries from funding the Hong Kong protests, which forced the United States to admit that it has been supplying Hong Kong protestors with millions of dollars. In this moment of increasing geopolitical tension between the United States and China, the United States needs to create propaganda stories to manufacture public consent for looming violence against China. Notions of American exceptionalism might have convinced people that the United States is a beacon of light and truth and that American media is objective and unbiased, but that is not the case. Both left leaning and right leaning mainstream media outlets publish red scare sinophobic stories to stoke anti-China and anti-communist sentiments, ultimately seeking to protect American capitalist, imperialist and racist interests that are shared by both parties.
The United States is not incapable of sensationalizing or completely fabricating lies to build a certain narrative. The Iraq War was justified by a blatant lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The United States has lied before, and it will lie again. And the elephant in the room is that why would the United States — the country that bombed majority Muslim countries in the Middle East into oblivion, the country that implemented the Muslim Ban, the country that is supplying Saudi Arabia with the weapons to slaughter Yemenis — genuinely care about how Uyghur Muslims are treated in China?
That brings us back to the big question: what exactly is happening in Xinjiang? As established previously, the camps in Xinjiang are re-education centers meant to address separatist or extremist tendencies among people. But how are these camps really like? Even if one were to watch Western videos on these camps, one could clearly see they are not torture sites at all. The centers are furnished nicely, with rooms and outdoor spaces where people can engage in different activities, such as dancing, learning Mandarin, and exercising.
As a general rule, the diaspora of any certain community can have very different political interests than the people actually living in a certain place. And when diasporic people are literally living on a CIA paycheck, non-diasporic people are a much more trustworthy source of information. CGTN conducted various interviews with Uyghur Muslims who were in the centers, and they all explain how they were affected by extremist thoughts before going to the centers and how they were able to learn new skills at the centers. One interviewer speaks with a couple who were restaurant owners. Religious extremists harassed them into segregating the restaurant into areas for Muslims and non-Muslims, and even went as far as to convincing them to forbid non-Muslims from entering the restaurant. Other interviewees explain how they were convinced by extremists to commit minor offenses. At these centers, people learn new skills that help them find jobs in the future. One woman, Guzailinuer Aishan, became a cosmetic expert at such a center and said she wants to open a beauty salon when she leaves. She explained that before going to the camp, she was unwillingly forced to wear conservative clothing. Here it is important to note that one lie which has been spreading around is that in these camps, Uyghur women are forbidden from wearing hijabs. In reality, hijabs were never a part of the traditional clothing of Central Asian Turkic Muslims.
The United States is the country with the highest incarceration rates in the world, where concentrated poverty in communities of color causes predominantly Black and Latinx people to be disproportionately vulnerable to incarceration. The horrific conditions in American prisons and the exploitation of prison labor is well documented. The United States is in no position to make false criticisms on these vocational centers in Xinjiang.
Along with having these centers educate people who had extremist tendencies and offer them the opportunities to learn new skills, Islam has also been flourishing in Xinjiang. In 2019, 11,000 Muslims went to Saudi Arabia on the Hajj pilgrimage. The Nation, an English-language daily newspaper based in Lahore, Pakistan, talked with Abdul Raqib, the president of the China Islamic Association and head of the Islamic Institute in Urumqi. Raqib says, “The Chinese government always protects freedom of religious beliefs of people in Xinjiang as well as other parts of the country while the constitution and regulations relating to religious affairs protect rights of the people with religious beliefs.” The article details that “there were over 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang and all the Muslims were free to offer five times prayers and recite Holy Quran besides observing fasting in the month of Ramadan.” The article also briefly introduces the Islamic Institute, explaining that it has over 1,500 students, and has been offering religious classes since 2014, where students can study the Quran, Hadith and other Islamic teachings.
In addition to protecting religious rights in Xinjiang, China has also focused its poverty alleviation policies heavily in the region, and many other underdeveloped regions with predominant ethnic minority populations. the United States has never done the same for poor communities of color.
Historically, ethnic minorities in China have been exempt from the one child policy. This goes against the claim that Uyghurs are being mass sterilized in the centers. The Global Times also found that Uyghurs who allegedly went missing, such as Ruzi Memet Atawulla, are living normal lives. Other claims — such as Han men being sent to rape Uyghur women, Uyghur women forcibly having their hair shaven off, and Uyghurs being skinned alive — are simply so incredibly ludicrous that any logical person should recognize them as blatant lies. A while ago, one video of a man beating up someone went viral; supposedly, it was a Han Chinese guard beating up a Uyghur person at a center. In reality, it was an Indonesian policeman beating up another Indonesian person. Many accounts on social media take videos of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and claim that the person is a Uyghur being mistreated. Americans’ inability to see through these overt lies, and the ability of false stories about Uyghurs to become so viral, speak to how systemic and successful sinophobia is.
The next time you see someone spreading propaganda about Xinjiang, ask them this: “What are you trying to achieve with this ‘awareness’? Are you advocating for the United States to ‘do something’ about Xinjiang?” If they are, they are unknowingly advocating for American intervention in China. American intervention is inherently imperialist, and has historically caused devastating violence. We must staunchly stand against the United States’s campaign of propaganda against China, and oppose any sort of American aggression against China.