Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Last August, when China took part in hearings of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Chinese delegation was repeatedly questioned about reports of so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang, where up to a million Uyghurs and other Muslims were being illegally detained. China’s representatives insisted that such camps did not exist.
In October, there was a dramatic about-turn as Chinese official Shohrat Zakir, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, told the official Xinhua news agency that the facilities not only existed but were an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism. He said they provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Then the Xinjiang regional legislature rushed to change the law. The revised legislation gave the government the ability to “educate and transform” people influenced by extremism at “vocational training centres.” The network of re-education camps that China declared did not exist suddenly appeared in full bloom.
On Nov. 6, China appeared before the United Nations again, this time in the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to which all countries are subject every few years.
China seemingly felt that its undoubted economic achievements of the last 40 years, which lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, was itself proof of its human rights achievements. There was little – if any – discussion of political rights.
Le Yucheng, a vice foreign minister who led the 66-strong Chinese delegation to Geneva, said that setting up the “training centres” was “a preventive measure to combat terrorism.”
In fact, he said, China had been inspired by some European countries that had “set up anti-extremist courses in middle schools, published regulations to ban the wearing of masked robes and closely monitored people with extremist thoughts.”
So the “vocational educational and training centres” in Xinjiang were not only a counterterrorism initiative but indeed “another important contribution made by China in the field of international counterterrorism,” according to the Chinese official.
However, what China is doing clearly cannot be justified. It has published no criteria as to who could be subject to such treatment. Seemingly, every Uyghur who has travelled abroad is, ipso facto, a potential terrorist. China asked Uyghurs overseas to return and, once back, they disappeared into the so-called re-education camps.
Uyghurs who remained overseas are now cut off from their families, who no longer dare communicate with them. Many families have been broken up.
More than a million Han Chinese officials, according to the Global Times, have been assigned to be “relatives” of Uyghur families. To promote “ethnic unity,” these officials visit Uyghur families, living in their homes for a week at a time, eating with them and instructing them on Communist party directives.
According to the Lowy Institute, these officials, besides indoctrinating their hosts, grill children on their parents’ habits “so they can identify new candidates for the indoctrination camps.”
In short, the Chinese government is trying to stop Uyghurs from being Muslims, despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. It is cutting Uyghurs off from their culture and, in effect, trying to turn them into Han Chinese.
The UPR session itself was, in many ways, an anticlimax. The Human Rights Council could only devote half a day to each country. Such is China’s influence that 120 countries that applied to speak only did so to express their support of China’s achievements. Countries that had critical comments couldn’t do much in the 45 seconds allotted to each speaker.
Notably, of the more than 50 Muslim countries present, not one mentioned the camps. Turkey called on China to improve conditions for ethnic groups that are trying to “preserve their distinct identity, religion and culture,” but that was the farthest that any Muslim country dared to go.
Quite a few western countries submitted written questions in advance so as to ask more questions and in greater detail. They then had to greatly abbreviate their oral remarks.
After the session ended, Mr. Le dismissed all questions about the “re-education” camps as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases, with total disregard for facts.”
After the formal session ended, he told the press triumphantly that “China has set up the world’s largest human-rights protection project, achieved the fastest human-rights progress in history, and made significant contributions to the world’s cause of human rights.”
Such self-praise, is apparently par for the course in this new era of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.