“As I read the entire report I could hardly keep from crying." Rayhan Asat is an Uyghur lawyer living in Washington. In 2020 his brother, Ekpar, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Xinjiang, the region on the border between China and Central Asia where Islamic minorities have been reporting various forms of abuse for years. For Asat, it is a victory to know that his brother's tragedy has received international recognition.
Late Wednesday evening, August 31, before midnight, the UN released a long-awaited report confirming serious human rights violations in the western region. The investigation - based on official documents and reports from 40 former prisoners - follows Michelle Bachelet's visit to China by four months, the first by a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2005. Although historic in some ways, the mission was strongly criticized because of restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities. The publication of the report was not enough to shut down the controversy. On the contrary, many have questioned the credibility of the study, which was screened by Beijing and published about a year late just minutes before Bachelet's term expired.
"Circumstances remind us how much pressure China is exerting to divert the eyes of the world [from Xinjiang]. And it is something that cannot be tolerated," comments anthropologist James McMurray in the Guardian. But there are also those who liked the action. According to Adrian Zenz, author of numerous papers on the subject, the report is equally valuable since it is the first stance taken by an international organization.
What's happening in Xinjiang
Independent studies have for a long time attested the existence of a system of extrajudicial detention centers and forced labor for Muslim minorities. According to estimates believed to be credible, about 1 million people-mostly ethnic Uyghurs - have been imprisoned since 2017. Beijing calls them "schools" for the "reeducation" of radicalized elements and argues that the program is finished in 2019 with the release of all "students." As we wrote some time ago in these columns, according to internal documents, the reeducation system is part of a five-year plan scheduled to expire in 2022.
There is evidence to believe that with the "war on terror" over, the government now focuses on stabilize the region through economic policies.
But one question remains: in this new phase what role will be played by forced labor, which is suspected to be widespread in the local cotton industry.
What exactly does the report say?
The U.N. report, which closes four years of audits, describes the Chinese government's counterterrorism campaign as "deeply problematic according to international human rights standards." It also notes the "widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty," and mentions the risk of "crimes against humanity." But it does not confirm accusations of "genocide" supported by Washington and some European parliaments. Specifically, "reeducation" centers are equated with prisons because of the significant presence of security and guards armed with guns and/or batons (including electric batons). Witnesses reported food shortages and constant feeling of hunger along with visible weight loss. Almost all interviewed mentioned regular administration of "injections, pills, or both," in addition to taking blood samples. The study also mentions the suspected drop in the birth rate in the region, which fell by about 48.7%, far more than the national average.
No explicit mention is made of forced sterilizations, but the investigation claims "it is probably the case that coercive measures accompanied the rigorous implementation of family planning policies." It is precisely this passage - according to Politico - that is one of the most difficult aspects of the report, because the use of techniques to prevent or abort pregnancy is one of the elements that activists bring to support the accusation of genocide.
Accusations that the UN has circumvented by preferring to maintain unclear language. According to a diplomatic source in the U.S. newspaper, "the section on forced sterilization was hidden in the last few hours," just before the report was published.
What is the UN request?
Chinese authorities were urged to take "prompt action to release all persons arbitrarily deprived of their liberty" and to conduct "a comprehensive review of the law governing national security, counterterrorism and minority rights."
Companies that have a presence in Xinjiang (such as Volkswagen) will also have to do their part "by all possible means" to assess the risks of human rights violations.
Thus, the investigation does not contradict the existence of an extremism problem in Xinjiang, but finds the coercive methods employed by Beijing unjustified. In recent years, the increase in intrusion into the private lives of minority groups (especially through apps and other surveillance devices) demonstrates how the fight against terrorism has made the non-Han population (the majority population strain) victims of discrimination on ethnic and religious grounds. Maintaining contacts in the Middle East or watching religious videos from smartphones are behaviours punishable by arrest.
In response to the report, China released a 121-page report, in which the accusations are defined as "disinformation and lies fabricated by the West and anti-China forces." Instead, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called on the UN Human Rights Office to "focus on human rights violations involving the United States," such as "physical and cultural genocide of Native Americans, systematic racial discrimination against minorities, and deadly gun violence."
Increasingly, the Chinese counteroffensive exploits a widely shared resentment among emerging countries. A part of the world that challenges Western notions of human rights and does not feel adequately represented in American-led international organizations. But behind Beijing's ostentatious confidence lies the unease felt in dealing with such a difficult issue: while the central government promotes ethnic unity, in China, Uyghurs continue to live on the margins of society. The approaching of the 20th Communist Party Congress (when the leadership will be renewed) makes maintaining internal stability a top priority between now and the next two months. Thus, rather than risk choosing the wrong words, silence is preferred. On the web, censorship continues to suppress debate. Forty-eight hours after the UN report was published, nothing about it could be traced in Chinese state media. No official response from the authorities either. On the Baidu search engine, the phrase "Xinjiang Human Rights Report" gave no results.
Alessandra Colarizi, editorial director of China Files