Uighur students
© Reese Erlich
Uighur students learn computer skills at the government supported Muslim Institute, Urumqui, Xinjiang.
In the final days of the Trump Administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced China for carrying out "genocide" against its Uighur minority. He accused the Communist Party of China of engaging in "forced assimilation" and other crimes, providing a laundry list of alleged offenses but no proof.

Antony Blinken, Biden's Secretary of State, told a Senate committee that he agreed China was engaged in "genocide."

But Zhun Xu, an associate professor of economics at John Jay College, says politicians are seeking scapegoats for serious U.S. economic and other problems. Creating or exaggerating human rights violations is one way to "play the China card," he tells me in a phone interview from New York.

"There is bipartisan support to create an outside enemy," he says.

In 2008, on assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle, I reported from Xinjiang, the predominantly Uighur province. It sits in China's far northwest. Uighurs are ethnically linked to Turks, and have their own language and culture separate from China's dominant Han nationality.

A few years prior to my trip, two terrorist groups had murdered civilians in knife and bombing attacks. These groups called for independence of "East Turkestan" (Xinjiang) and the expulsion of Han Chinese. The groups distorted Islam to justify their actions.

Abuduriyimu Haxim Aji, then-vice director of Xinjiang's public security bureau, explained the difficulty of combating religion-based terrorism. "The terrorists are small in number but the religious followers are big in number," he told me. "They use religion to deceive a small group of people and advocate Holy War."

China subsequently faced serious attacks on civilians and police officers. In 2009, in the provincial capital of Urumqi, Uighurs and Han rioted, killing 197 people and injuring 1,700. In 2014, the Turkestan Islamic Party, a separatist group, gave its support to the attack on civilians at the Kunming railway station, killing thirty-one and injuring 140. Kunming is located in Yunnan province, far from Xinjiang.


Comment: Terror attacks in China spiked in 2014, with 37 attacks killing 322. There haven't been any reported attacks since 2017.


Today, extremists have allied with international terrorist groups. Roughly 5,000 Uighurs are fighting alongside Islamic extremists from other countries in rebel-controlled Syria. They live in an area under the control of infamous warlord Abu Mohammad al Julani, according to Marco Carnelos, formerly Italy's special envoy for Syria.


Comment: Coincidentally, the drop off in attacks in China (16 in 2015, 5 in 2016, 6 in 2017, total of 152 deaths) corresponds to the rise of ISIS (and the migration of militants from Xinjiang to Syria), and their defeat there in 2017. (At the end of the year, they had lost around 95% of their previously held territory.)


Chinese authorities worry that the fighters will return to China, to apply their military skills.

China faces a difficult question: How can it combat a ruthless minority of militants while not alienating the larger Muslim community?

We all know how the United States responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001, arresting nearly 2,000 Arabs and Muslims on phony charges, none of whom were connected to the 9/11 attacks. It set up secret black sites to house kidnapped and tortured suspects. It created the Guantanamo concentration camp to hold and torture prisoners. The FBI infiltrated mosques, sowing fear and anger among Muslims who had no ties to terrorist groups.

China, in contrast, set up Education and Training Centers aimed at convincing Uighurs not to support extremism. The Centers are supposed to teach Mandarin and job skills. Numerous human rights groups accuse the centers of condoning rape, torture, and forced labor.

Bringing people into large centers, separated from family and friends, alienated many Uighurs. "Building a training center is not the ideal way of doing this job," says China expert Xu.


Comment: Erlich can make his point just fine without the euphemism (as he did in the paragraph about the U.S. response). "Bringing people into large centers" = forcibly detaining them in involuntary 'vocational' re-education centers.


He says community-based education would better root out the extremists. "Community schools, social networks and classes in mosques" would be far more effective, in his view.

In my opinion, Chinese authorities made mistakes and engaged in human rights abuses. Some people were sent to the centers without justification; others were held too long. Overly zealous guards beat detainees. But Washington intentionally exaggerates conditions in the centers and how many people they held.


Comment: This is true, and always has been when Westerners have criticized Communist nations. For example, George Orwell wrote this regarding British press about the Soviets in the early 1940s:
Any large organisation will look after its own interests as best it can, and overt propaganda is not a thing to object to. One would no more expect the Daily Worker to publicise unfavourable facts about the USSR than one would expect the Catholic Herald to denounce the Pope. But then every thinking person knows the Daily Worker and the Catholic Herald for what they are. What is disquieting is that where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from Liberal writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions. Stalin is sacrosanct and certain aspects of his policy must not be seriously discussed. This rule has been almost universally observed since 1941, but it had operated, to a greater extent than is sometimes realised, for ten years earlier than that. Throughout that time, criticism of the Soviet régime from the left could only obtain a hearing with difficulty. There was a huge output of anti-Russian literature, but nearly all of it was from the Conservative angle and manifestly dishonest, out of date and actuated by sordid motives. On the other side there was an equally huge and almost equally dishonest stream of pro-Russian propaganda, and what amounted to a boycott on anyone who tried to discuss all-important questions in a grown-up manner. You could, indeed, publish anti-Russian books, but to do so was to make sure of being ignored or misrepresented by nearly the whole of the highbrow press. Both publicly and privately you were warned that it was ʻnot doneʼ. What you said might possibly be true, but it was ʻinopportuneʼ and played into the hands of this or that reactionary interest. This attitude was usually defended on the ground that the international situation, and the urgent need for an Anglo-Russian alliance, demanded it; but it was clear that this was a rationalisation. The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards the USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards. The endless executions in the purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now.

Washington claims Beijing at one time held one million or more people in internment camps. But an investigative article in The Grayzone exposed the origins of that number. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination received a 2018 report claiming a total of one million Uighurs were sent to "reeducation camps." But that figure was based on interviews with eight Uighurs. There was no actual count of detainees.


Comment: Why did they have to guess? Because China wasn't publicizing the numbers. However, in September of 2020, China's State Council Information Office released what appear to be their numbers in an official report, "Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang." The report states (keep in mind that China considers the camps "vocational training" centers):
Through vocational training, Xinjiang has built a large knowledge-based, skilled and innovative workforce that meets the requirements of the new era. Every year from 2014 to 2019 Xinjiang provided training sessions to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers, of which 451,400 were in southern Xinjiang. The trainees mastered at least one skill with employment potential, and the vast majority of them obtained vocational qualifications, skill level certificates, or specialized skill certificates, allowing them to go on to find stable employment.
That's 7.74 million (with 2.7 million in the four southern prefectures "identified as areas of extreme poverty" and where "terrorists, separatists and religious extremists" have been most prominent) over 6 years. It's uncertain whether all or just some of these "training sessions" include terms in the re-education centers, but it at least show that the "one million" number is not unreasonable.

A couple weeks after the report was released, President Xi called the CCP's policies in Xinjiang "totally correct" and that they "must carry on for a long time."


Similarly, Washington offers no credible proof of genocide. If, as Pompeo claims, China "has engaged in forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group," there should be a decrease in the Uighur population and increase in the Han.


Comment: "Genocide" is an exaggeration, just like Ukrainian claims that Stalin's famine of 1932-33 was a deliberate genocide against the Ukrainian people. But just as in the Orwell quote above, you have dishonest exaggeration and lies on both sides: Ukrainian nationalists who inflate the figures and call it genocide, and communist apologists who try to argue that the famine had nothing to do with forced collectivization or Stalin's policies of brutal confiscation.


In reality, it's the opposite. According to a chapter in an upcoming book, Sanctions as War, Xu notes that, from 2010 to 2018, the Uyghur population increased by 24.9 percent, while the Han population in Xinjiang grew by only 2.2 percent.

"There is no evidence that China is trying to erase any ethnic or religious group," Xu says in our interview. "It is ironic that the U.S. government, which had an actual record of such forced assimilation and erasures, would accuse China of this crime."


Comment: The above is just bad logic. The Uighur and Han populations have both grown by those numbers, but the population growth rate in Xinjiang dropped from 1.1% to 0.6% in 2017-2018, and the birthrate dropped from 1.6% to 1%. In response to a German scholar pointing this out and attributing it to population control, the Chinese government released a report chalking it up to "the eradication of religious extremism" and "gender emancipation".


Under Chinese law, Uighurs and other minority nationalities enjoy autonomy within the country's political system. For example, they can enroll in schools taught in their native language and receive preferential treatment in college admissions.

However, according to Xu, since China adopted a market economy in the 1980s, Beijing has emphasized national unity. Han chauvinists stress the importance of everyone speaking a common language, saying "If you don't speak Chinese, you're not Chinese."

"Han chauvinism is a problem," he says. Chinese speakers tend to get the best jobs and own the most profitable private companies. "A market economy pushes people to Han culture."

There have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang since 2017. The government crackdown has partially succeeded, and Uighurs are tired of extremist attacks. At the same time, some Uighurs feel alienated from the government because of the crackdown.


Comment: As pointed out above, it's debatable how much success can be attributed to the re-education and how much was simply a result of the most radicalized Uighurs shipping off to Syria.


The United States, France, Britain, and many other countries fear terrorist attacks even when none have occured in recent years. They do everything possible to prevent Mideast extremist fighters from returning home. China is no different.
Reese Erlich's "Foreign Correspondent" column appears regularly in The Progressive. Erlich is an adjunct professor in International Studies at the University of San Francisco.