The Inconvenient Truth of Xinjiang

Eid prayers in old Kashgar

Due to the recent discovery that Uyghur academic, Rahile Dawut has been sentenced to life imprisonment in China, Xinjiang is back in the news, but strangely (coincidentally?) several days before that news became public, the US Embassy in Beijing, on it’s Weibo site issued a reference to a report, The State Department had issued in March, 6 months earlier called the “2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”. 

Two interesting points are raised, one is the timing of the notice, it’s 6 months late and the other is that even though it’s on Weibo, a Chinese site, it’s still there, the Chinese government have never removed it.

Ten-weeks after launching the report, Blinken was in China. He met with Qin Gang in Beijing, obviously acted with appropriate diplomacy and was allowed an escalation to meet with Wang Yi and later with President Xi. The presidential meeting wasn’t announced until early afternoon and took place late afternoon in a clear indication that the escalations had been predicated on Blinken’s behavior. Had he arrived in Beijing guns blazing, almost certainly, his pre-arranged meeting with Qin Gang would still have taken place but his remaining time would have been designated a failure, meeting with diplomats and US business leaders.

On meeting with Xi, Blinken showed deference, listened to what Xi had to say and then walked out of the meeting and into a press briefing where he stated: “We both agree on the need to stabilize our relationship.”

Blinken defers to Xi

During questions, Blinken made a very interesting comment. When asked about allegations that the USA is attempting to engage in dialogue and at the same time attempting to contain China, Blinken stated: 

“It was important to me that we made clear, the very clear difference between allegations that we’re trying to contain China and de-couple economically, as opposed to what we’re actually doing” (emphasis added)

Those of us who know China, know there have been human rights allegations but, those of us who live and travel in China know, as secretary Blinken succinctly points out, there’s a difference between allegations and reality. 

In the press briefing, Blinken dwelt on human rights issues for 12 seconds of the 30-minute briefing. Only 12 seconds to encompass the very serious issues his department reported 10 weeks earlier.

There have been issues in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where China borders 8 different countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Xinjiang is not a province but an Autonomous Region, it’s effectively run by Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, so the allegations mean that Uyghurs are oppressing Uyghurs! 

map of Xinjiang
Xinjiang borders 8 different countries although this map, from the BBC, shows China as the ninth!

Following a series of terrorist incidents, a security clampdown did indeed occur, many people were arrested, some were imprisoned and some remain in prison for their actions but visitors to the region mix and mingle with ethnic minorities, questions can be asked and answered. Anyone can do this, whether they be foreigners or Chinese, if you have a China visa you are entitled to unrestricted Xinjiang access. 

I did, I’ve cycled over 5,000 kilometers in Xinjiang, once in 2014, shortly after the “clampdown” and again in 2019. These are not stage-managed visits to tourist destinations, cycling means stopping every 20-30 kilometers and interacting with local people in the stores, restaurants and guest houses. I was not stopped or questioned, never asked what I was doing, except out of curiosity, I was never asked to show my photos or videos to anyone in authority, nor was I prevented from going anywhere.

Take a look online at Xinjiang, such is the level of success of US propaganda, search returns will be full of allegations of misdeeds by China. However, if you search a little deeper and word your questions appropriately, you’ll see why it was that in 2014, China acted swiftly and appropriately to stop the killing there. Civilians were dying in the streets.

Was there abuse of power? Quite likely, in a massive security operation aimed at preventing more terrorist attacks, there would have been but can any country in the world claim no police abuse? It would be highly doubtful but, we can be assured, if there is one, it’s not the USA. 

Are there some people in prison who should not be there? It’s possible, but once again, is there a country in the world that has not mistakenly locked up a citizen? If there is, it is surely not the USA. 

Are there systematic abuses of power or people incarcerated for the “crime of merely being Uyghur” in the region? Absolutely not! Anyone travelling there can see this. But we don’t need to travel so far, there are many Chinese social media accounts, massive amounts of e-commerce transactions are done through Taobao, there are even Twitter accounts coming from the region, often ignored as propaganda but take a look at them and see for yourself, they show, everyday street scenes, farmers working and selling products, locals dancing, extravagant shopping malls and glittering infrastructure. 

If this is a stage-managed “Potemkin village” it is one that encompasses over 20 million people, almost 12 million of whom are from the allegedly oppressed minority in a region that’s 1.6 million square kilometers.

China’s most popular online shopping site with the words Xinjiang products in the search box

Xinjiang has been stabilized, it has been lifted out of poverty, its Uyghur population has grown from 8.34 million to 11.62 million during the very period Blinken’s Department says there was a genocide. While forced labor and oppression were being alleged, 89.4% of school leavers attended tertiary education. Life expectancy in the region has increased in just 70 years from 30 to 74.4, that hardly seems oppressive.

When a report contains 26 uses of the word “may” in the context of something China might be doing and 32 uses of the word “could” to indicate some degree of possibility but the only evidence offered is speculation about what China might, may, could or is alleged to have done, it’s highly likely that the report is wrong.

As Blinken quite rightly states, we need to look at the reality on the ground; when we do, we find a very different story. The US Embassy would be much better placed to go and take a look, rather than amplify allegations, their only reason not to take a look must be fear of an inconvenient truth. To take a leaf from their own book: they may not be telling the truth.