China state media justify Muslim Uighur crackdown to prevent ‘China's Syria'

An official Communist Party paper has defended China's policies in Xinjiang after a UN report suggested hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs are in internment camps. China rebuffed Western pressure over its policies.

China's harsh security policy against ethnic Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang has saved the area from "massive turmoil," an official Communist Party paper said Monday.

Politics | 05.03.2018

The editorial in Global Times was the first response from China to a worrying United Nations panel on Friday claiming hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been detained in what "resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy."

"Through the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China, the national strength of the country and the contribution of local officials, Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China's Syria' or ‘China's Libya,'" the editorial said.

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Reports of abusive indoctrination camps in western China

The editorial slammed the West for putting external pressure on China and not understanding the situation, while describing keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang as "the greatest human right."

"The turnaround in Xinjiang's security situation has avoided a great tragedy and saved countless lives, thanks to powerful Chinese law and the strong ruling power of the Communist Party of China. What the West has been hyping has destroyed numerous countries and regions. When the same evil influence was spreading in Xinjiang, it was decisively curbed," the Global Times commented.

Read more: 1 million Uighurs in Chinese 'internment camps,' UN hears

A UN human rights panel said there were credible reports that hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region were being forced into "political camps for indoctrination" to denounce Islam and swear loyalty to the Communist Party.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.

Without acknowledging acknowledging the existence of any camps, the Global Times editorial in English and Chinese stated that "the current peace and stability in Xinjiang is partly due to the high intensity of regulations. Police and security posts can be seen everywhere in Xinjiang."

Chinese official denies camps

Hu Lianhe, deputy director general of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the second day of its regular review of China's record that the country respected freedom of religion. 

"On freedom of religious belief, Xinjiang guarantees  citizens freedom of religious belief and protects normal religious activities," he said.

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"Those deceived by religious extremism ... shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education," he added.

However, he called the claim that 1 million people have been detained for reeducation as "completely untrue."

Gay McDougall, a member of the UN panel who accused China last Friday of running internment camps, said that Beijing needed to do more than just claim it doesn't violate minority rights.   

"To say that they don't violate rights of minorities does not prove anything. We have to more than a denial of allegations," she told the Chinese delegation on Monday. "I notice that you didn't quite deny that these re-education or indoctrination programmes don't take place," she added,

China has said that Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist extremists and separatists, who it says have carried out numerous attacks in the region to stoke tension between the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority and ethnic Han Chinese. Human rights groups point to discrimination and repression fueling Uighur discontent.

Read more: China limits beards, veils in Muslim region

Hundreds of Uighur militants are believed to have joined the "Islamic State" and other jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, creating concern they may return to fight in Xinjiang. 

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cw/jm (AP, Reuters)