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China: How is Beijing whitewashing its Xinjiang policy?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
September 11, 2023

A year after the UN released a thorough report on human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority in northwestern China, Beijing is striving to show the world a different image of life in the Xinjiang region.

Activists take part in a protest against China's treatment towards the ethnic Uyghur people
Tourism has provided an opportunity for Beijing to push back against criticism of its policies in Xinjiang Image: Tayfun Salci/imago images/ZUMA Wire

Analysts warn little progress has been made in investigating the "serious human rights violations" against the Uyghur minority assessed a year ago, as China's leadership tries to reframe the narrative on its policies in the Xinjiang region, an autonomous region in northwestern China. 

In 2022, a report from the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) concluded that the Chinese government's discriminatory detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang may constitute "crimes against humanity." 

Beijing promptly dismissed the accusation, labelling it "disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces." A move to create a formal agenda in the UN to discuss the issue fell through as China and its allies voted against it.

A rare visit to Xinjiang by Chinese President Xi Jinping last month has once again raised concerns among activist groups and human rights organizations, which believe that the government is preparing to "reaffirm the policy direction" with a more positive narrative about Xinjiang.

Beijing tightens its grip on Xinjiang

Xi visted the region after returning to China from the BRICS summit in South Africa, without first stopping in the capital Beijing.

"You can see how much the Uyghur population occupied his mind," Aziz Isa Elkun, an exiled Uyghur poet and research assistant at SOAS University of London, told DW.

It was Xi's second visit to the region since the Chinese government began its massive crackdown a decade ago. The first was in July 2022, a month before the OHCHR report was released.

China's recent focus on Xinjiang, Elkun claimed, is due to the region's crucial role in "the main conflicts with the West over the rule of law, democracy and human rights."

Since Xi came to power in 2013, Xinjiang has become a heavily militarized zone with increased high-tech security and widespread digital surveillance. Over 1 million Uyghurs are reportedly detained in so-called "reeducation camps."

While China has justified them as "vocational education and training centres" used to combat extremism and terrorism, critics argue they represent an attempted genocide to erase Uyghur identity.

"Uyghur Muslims are sent to detention centres for … 'wearing a veil', growing 'a long beard', or violating the government's family planning policy," Ayjaz Wani, a fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF, told DW.

A protester from the Uyghur community living in Turkey holds up an anti-China placard
A chorus of researchers, campaigners and Uyghurs overseas have for years alleged systematic rights abuses in XinjiangImage: Emrah Gurel/AP Photo/picture alliance

Guided tours expected to surge

But amid growing global attention on Xinjiang, China has been eager to portray the region as a "success story" by welcoming more tourists.

In a speech that he made while visiting the region last month, Xi said Xinjiang was "no longer a remote area" and should open up more to domestic and foreign tourism.

"Beijing's strategy is to manage perception through guided tours in Xinjiang," said Wani, adding that the goal was to give an impression of "normalcy" in the region.

The AFP news agency reported that Xinjiang's tourism bureau planned to spend over 700 million yuan (around €89.3 million) this year, with luxury hotels and campsites to be built across the area.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project recently called on Western tourist companies to cease offering tour packages through Xinjiang.

But Wani expected there would be "an increase in guided tours," notably from Islamic and European countries, and predicted that diplomats on these tours would commend Beijing's efforts to fight terrorism, "even though this may not be the case," he said.

Is China getting away from accountability?

Human rights groups have called for more action from the world given the UN report was released a year ago.

"We're hoping that other governments and the UN will take follow-up measures now," Maya Wang, an associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told DW.

With Russia's war in Ukraine diverting global attention, she said, activists face challenges in maintaining pressure regarding the Chinese government's oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Limited access to the region has also added to the difficulties. "The Chinese government are experts in information control," Wang said, pointing out that neither HRW nor the UN were allowed to access the region freely to do fact-finding work.

She added that given the lack of collective pressure from other governments, the chances were that China believed "it could get away with the most severe international crimes without consequences."

UN Uyghur Report

She said that although the scale of the camps had been reduced in recent years, none of the policies underlying widespread repression had been reversed or lifted. "For the Uyghurs who live there, life has always been at the brunt of the repression."

Members of the Uyghur diaspora also face the risk of harassment or threats from the Chinese government when they speak out.

In an apparent attempt to silence him, Beijing cut off Elkun's ties with his relatives in Xinjiang in 2017. "I feel very bitter each time I think about them," the Uyghur academic in exile said, adding that their situation remained unknown.

But he said that other Uyghurs had suffered even worse fates: "We will bring justice for the victims … The world will never forget," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker