Ever since the U.S. almost single-handedly inspired the rise of global jihadism through its funding of the mujahideen in 1979, Salafi extremism has slowly proliferated throughout much of the Muslim world. Xinjiang, translated literally as “new frontier”, can be thought of instead as something of a final frontier for this wave of extremist expansion: its location in the Western-most reaches of China also represents the Eastern-most reaches of Islam on the Eurasian landmass. This geography has allowed extremist Salafi-jihadist thought to seep into Xinjiang via its porous borders with its Central Asian neighbours, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the last decade alone.
But in order to fully appreciate the present situation, we need to first understand some basic history and cultural context.
A very brief history of Xinjiang
Xinjiang is a region of immense historical significance. Having once served as a gateway between East and West during the time of the ancient Silk Roads, many great empires and kingdoms have vied for control over the territory for millennia. To truncate this vast and complicated history, it is important to note that Xinjiang first fell under Chinese control during the Han dynasty around 60 BC. Originally a Buddhist peoples, the Uyghurs were conquered by a Turkish khanate in the 10th century and subsequently Islamized. After back and forth control between the Turks and the Mongols in the ensuing centuries, Xinjiang was eventually reabsorbed into China under the Qing dynasty in the 18th century.
Uyghurs, identity and fringe separatism
Xinjiang’s convoluted history has given rise to something of an identity crisis in modern-day China. For some Uyghurs, their Turkic roots call to them more strongly than their Chinese identity. This feeling, compounded by ethnic tensions stoked by the mass migration of Han Chinese into the region, has led to the birth of a separatist movement — one which seeks to establish Xinjiang as a sovereign nation known as East Turkestan. Their central claim to legitimacy is that the Uyghurs are a Turkic people indigenous to Xinjiang.
Although the history is clear in showing that the Turks migrated into the region (a fact that disputes this claim to legitimacy), I will be the first to concede that there is certainly a conversation to be had here, if not about secession then at least about identity and assimilation. It is 100% true that real grassroots discontent exists, and that it is partly driven by aspects of the Chinese government’s policies in the region (e.g. mass Han migration) that most people would consider culturally insensitive or even repressive. While these policies were enacted with good intentions (i.e. security, peace, prosperity and — perhaps controversially — higher rates of assimilation) and are decidedly not genocidal in nature, the fact that some Uyghurs have felt marginalized by them must be taken into consideration. We must hear their voices, have conversations about Uyghur identity in China, and make good faith criticisms of the Chinese government. But these conversations and criticisms cannot be had or made under the backdrop of bad faith imperialist lies about “genocide” or “concentration camps.”
What must be underlined here, however, is that this situation is not an indication of some kind of uniquely oppressive quality of the Chinese government, as the West would like you to believe. Minorities in every nation feel the sting of marginalization, and often to a much higher degree; the recent Black Lives Matters protests are a striking testament to this. Many nations also have pockets of secessionist sentiment; some examples include Hawaii in the U.S. (and more recently, CHAZ), Okinawa in Japan and Scotland in the UK.
Moreover, it must be noted that separatist sentiment in Xinjiang is held by a tiny minority of the Uyghur population, while the violent extremists comprise a tinier minority still. The vast majority of Uyghurs quite happily consider themselves Chinese, especially given the unbelievable mass poverty alleviation that the government has carried out in Xinjiang in recent years (more on that later). Indeed, many Uyghurs are fully assimilated into Chinese culture and society while still preserving their own unique heritage and religion — the latter being something that the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to ensure.
Today, Uyghurs are officially recognized as one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. Under the doctrine of “zhonghua minzu”, a political slogan that stresses the one-ness of all ethnic groups under a common Chinese national identity, the Uyghurs are constitutionally guaranteed the same rights and freedoms as the Han majority, including religious freedom. There are 24,400 mosques in Xinjiang alone — roughly one mosque for every 530 Muslims. This is a higher figure, both in absolute and per capita terms, than most Muslim countries.
Ethnic minorities including Uyghurs have also long been conferred benefits during China’s struggle towards modernization and prosperity: in addition to receiving affirmative action benefits in China’s notoriously competitive university entrance exams, Uyghurs have also been exempt from China’s controversial one-child policy over the last 40 years. Recent reports about China’s “forced sterilization” of Uyghur women is in fact a propagandization of the fact that China is now rolling back this exemption and applying the same standards to the Uyghur as that of the Han (i.e. a two-child policy) — hardly a genocidal act. Indeed, the demographic statistics of the Xinjiang region are clear in showing that the exact opposite of genocide has taken place in recent history.
Uyghurs are well-represented in government, both locally and nationally, and have established themselves in every imaginable industry, from science and technology to entertainment and sport. One of China’s most promising young basketball stars, Abdulsalam Abdurëshit, is a Uyghur who won a gold medal with China at the 2018 Asian Games and played for the Golden State Warriors’ G-League team in 2018. Meanwhile, one of the most beloved actresses and models in the entire country, Dilraba Dilmurat, is also a Uyghur.
All of that is not to deny, denounce or delegitimize the genuine, peaceful grievances held by some Uyghurs; again, I argue that China must continue to be delicate and considerate when approaching issues of culture and assimilation. What must be unequivocally denounced, however, is the expression of these grievances through violent means. That is, when separatist sentiment evolves into full-fledged organized terror — which is exactly what has happened in Xinjiang — China has every right to put its foot down in order to protect both its citizens’ lives and the nation’s sovereignty.
Terrorist attacks in China
Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang is connected primarily to one organization: the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Conceived as an ethno-nationalist separatist group, the TIP has evolved into an extremist organization seeking separatism through jihad. It is linked with the broader Salafi movement led by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and is officially designated by the UN, EU, the U.S., China and many more nations as a terrorist organization.
Aside from recruiting impoverished, disenfranchised Uyghurs — and their small children — to wage jihad in Syria, the TIP has claimed responsibility for, or otherwise lauded, dozens of terrorist attacks in China stretching as far back as 1989. While the target of these attacks have primarily been the Han Chinese population, many innocent Uyghurs have also been killed, either as civilians caught in the crossfire or as victims of assassination: at least 11 Uyghur government officials and imams have been murdered by extremists for their pro-China leanings over the years. None of these murders were condemned by the World Uyghur Congress (a U.S.-funded separatist lobby with ostensible ties to the TIP), who instead blamed the Chinese government for forcing their hand.
In 2014 alone, 37 terrorist incidents resulted in 322 deaths and 478 injuries. Most notable amongst them (likely due to its occurrence outside of Xinjiang) was the Kunming knife attack, in which a group of 8 knife-wielding extremists murdered 35 people at a train station. The incident has been referred to by some as China’s 9/11 moment.
So what did China do in response to their 9/11 moment, and how does it compare to what the U.S. did after the real 9/11?
China’s response: vocational training, education and poverty alleviation
When faced with terror, the U.S. launched an all-out offensive on the Islamic world. A conservative estimate of direct casualties of the U.S. war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan comes out to about half a million. This doesn’t include the indirect deaths caused by displacement, disease and the loss of infrastructure, nor does it touch on the deaths caused by U.S. involvement in Libya, Syria, Yemen and more. While the exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, the bigger picture is self-evident: American intervention in the Middle East has caused the deaths of literally countless innocent Muslims and contributed to sustained regional instability. In this resulting chaos, jihadist vigor has been galvanized, not quashed.
Meanwhile, China — which has categorically stayed away from intervention in the Middle East — has taken a radically different path in reponse to terror. Rather than drop bombs, China has decided to drop knowledge. Beginning in 2017, it began a systematic program of re-education and vocational training for those returning from, or affiliated with, jihadist activity. Approved and condoned by actual Uyghur politicians (who comprise the majority of Xinjiang’s semi-autonomous government), these vocational schools combine lessons in Chinese language and law with training in employable vocational skills with the goal of de-radicalization and societal re-integration. Basketball, music and art are common pasttimes outside of class.
Implicit in China’s approach is the recognition that it’s not so much Islam that’s at the root of terrorism than it is poverty and a lack of educational and employment opportunities. Thus, as part of a broader nation-wide poverty alleviation program, the Chinese central government has worked tirelessly to funnel resources into Xinjiang in an effort to stamp out extremism. Once a desolate desert, Ürümqi (the region’s capital) has been recently transformed into a bustling metropolis as integrated and interconnected — both economically and physically — with the rest of China as any major coastal city. Of course, there are geostrategic considerations at play here (Ürümqi is a pivotal stop in China’s Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], which seeks to build a modern day Silk Road), but those don’t preclude the fact that since 2014, over 2.3 million Uyghurs have been pulled out of abject poverty. Consider this in concert with the vocational centres and the results speak for themselves: zero terrorist attacks have been reported since 2017.
This colossal effort to improve economic conditions in Xinjiang while protecting vulnerable youth from extremist indoctrination has won the praises of the Muslim world at large. In July 2019, 50 nations, many of which were Muslim-majority, co-signed a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) supporting China’s position in Xinjiang. This was a direct response to an earlier letter from a U.S.-led coalition of 22 countries (of which none were Muslim-majority) that condemned China’s position in Xinjiang.
One year later and not much has changed: at the 44th session of the HRC, 46 mostly Muslim countries again voiced their support for China’s efforts in Xinjiang in opposition to condemnation from U.S. and its NATO allies. In an interview with the Global Times, Serbian history professor Predrag J. Markovic voiced what should now be apparent: “the concept of human rights is often misused as a tool for an imperialist struggle for global domination.”
Of course, one could make the argument here that these outcomes are a result of China’s political and economic gravity pulling countries (even Muslim ones) to its side in spite of its atrocities. While it is certainly true that China has made many friends amongst the Global South via the expansion of the BRI, it is also ostensibly true that the welfare of Muslim people more broadly should take precedence over geopolitical and economic interests for Muslim states.
Nevertheless, if we assume that Muslim governments’ moral principles are indeed that easily corrupted, we can turn instead to the verdict of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a collective of 57 member states with the stated purpose of “safeguard[ing] and protect[ing] the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony”. In a resolution passed on March 2, 2019, the OIC announced that it “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.” [link, page 5].
A co-ordinated propaganda campaign
But how do governments backing China’s position support their claims? Isn’t it all a game of “he said, she said” given that these facilities are all hushed-up by the government?
Well, no. Not at all. China has been open about their re-education centres from the very beginning, ostensibly because they knew they had nothing to hide. After malign Western entities first began making accusations in 2018, China proceeded to invite journalists and diplomats the world over to come and see the truth for themselves. They did, and what they found was the exact opposite of everything the West has reported:
“This is a school, not a concentration camp,” said Paolo Salom, deputy director of the international department of the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “It’s a place where people learn not only laws and regulations but also how to find a job and cope in modern society. To overcome extremism through education, no doubt, is the right way.”
Abdulaziz Raddad A. Alrabie, director of the Mecca office of Okaz, a Saudi Arabian newspaper, said the vocational education and training center is in no way a “concentration camp,” but a school where people with extremist thoughts are transformed. “I saw genuine smiles on the faces of the trainees I interviewed, and I can tell they are satisfied with their life and study at the center,” Alrabie said.“Journalists from 24 countries visit Xinjiang”, China Daily, 2019-07-23
The fact of the matter is that claims of atrocities being committed inside of these schools are completely unsubstantiated. There is not a shred of evidence for torture, illegal organ harvesting, forced pork consumption or forced marriages. Indeed, Western media regularly fails to even convene on an agreed-upon number of “detainees” for their lies, with estimates ranging anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 3 million.
Desperate for a smoking gun in its new Cold War on China and equipped with the understanding that evidence is hardly a necessity when in control of the most powerful media propaganda apparatus in the world, the U.S. has decided to double down regardless. Seizing on the existence of a small pocket of anti-China Uyghur sentiment, Washington has thrown its full weight (and wallet) behind legitimizing and amplifying this fringe separatist cause — primarily by co-ordinating the proliferation of the concentration camp narrative, one of the most egregious imperialist lies ever told.
At the heart of this campaign are three main parties: the U.S. state department and its regime change front, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a NED-funded Uyghur separatist lobby explicitly seeking the “fall of China”; and Adrian Zenz, a German scholar and fundamentalist Christian who claims to be “led by God” on a “mission against China.” Together, they form the basis of literally everything you think you know about Xinjiang. To call them “bad faith actors” would be an understatement; two fantastic investigative reports (linked at the end of this paragraph) by The Grayzone’s Ajit Singh have exposed the unsavoury underbelly of their operations and intentions. A short summary of his findings are as follows: the NED provides millions of dollars in funding for the WUC to train and promote separatist Uyghur lobbyists and activists, state assets who account entirely for the concentration camp horror story “testimonials” that are readily accepted and circulated within the corporate media system with nary a critical eye. Meanwhile, Zenz, who is funded by the similarly state-connected Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, has been heavily criticized for his methodologically shoddy work as well as his unabashed a priori bias against China. Despite this, Zenz has been propped up as an esteemed “China scholar” and the West’s “leading expert” on Xinjiang — the singular source from which the now-memetic “million Uyghurs in concentration camps” mantra originated.
- SEE: “Inside the World Uyghur Congress: the US-backed right-wing regime change network seeking the “fall of China”
- SEE: “China detaining millions of Uyghurs? Serious problems with claims by NGO and far-right researcher “led by God” against Beijing”
The potential fruits of this labour for American empire are clear to see. For starters, there’s the soft power gains that come from the dissemination of atrocity propaganda (feeding into the already-suffocating atmosphere of anti-China sentiment in 2020), and the resulting pretense it provides for economic sanctions. Secondly, by fanning the flames of separatism, the inevitable uptick in violence, unrest and terror would only serve to drain time, energy and resources from Beijing. Finally — and most importantly — there’s the prospect of actually wresting Xinjiang away from China and into the hands of a vassal state in East Turkestan. The significance of this was first laid out in 1997 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security advisor and foreign policy analyst. In his seminal work, “The Grand Chessboard,” he noted that the key to the continued maintenance of U.S. hegemony would lie in the geopolitical domination of Eurasia. Xinjiang is the very heart of Eurasia, a critical junction in China’s ambitious BRI that seeks to erode U.S. hegemony in the region. It is almost certainly for this reason that the U.S. has devoted so much time and energy into propagating this narrative over the last two years.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that this article is not an attempt to silence or delegitimize the grievances that some Uyghurs have about their place in Chinese society, nor is it an attempt to deny that there are indeed some aspects of these vocational centres that may strike some as unethical. There are legitimate conversations to be had about Uyghur identity in China, just as there are conversations to be had about the continued oppression of Black and Indigenous people in America.
This article is, however, an attempt to categorically debunk the myth that China is brutally and systematically “genociding” Uyghurs by detaining them in “concentration camps” or “forcefully sterilizing” them. These are blatant, bad faith lies generated by an imperial war machine seeking to manufacture consent against China. Don’t fall for it.
xinjiang china: a YouTube channel with authentic, non-Western media content related to Xinjiang.
安妮古丽 / Anni Guli’s YouTube channel: a treasure trove of content debunking conventional wisdom on Xinjiang from a Uyghur teen vlogging her day-to-day life