Video Counters Beijing’s Xinjiang Narrative as Crackdown on Islam Spreads

The Guardian’s Lily Kuo reports on recently emerged drone footage of hundreds of blindfolded and shackled prisoners being led from a train by police. The footage, which was posted on YouTube last week, is believed to have been taken in in August of last year. has been the site of a mass detention program where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been or are being held in a series of internment camps, as part of a longer-running anti-terror campaign in the region. While authorities claim detention facilities are “vocational training” facilities, there has been evidence of forced laborpolitical indoctrination, abuse, and deaths inside the camps.

The video, posted anonymously on YouTube last week, shows what appear to be Uighur or other minorities wearing blue and yellow uniforms, with cleanly shaven heads, their eyes covered, sitting in rows on the ground and later being led away by police. Prisoners in China are often transferred with handcuffs and masks covering their faces.

Nathan Ruser, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s international cyber policy centre, used clues in the footage, including landmarks and the position of the sun, to verify the video, which he believes was shot at a train station west of Korla in south-east Xinjiang in August last year.

[…] Ruser said the detainees were most likely being transferred to prisons in Korla from Kashgar, where the crackdown has been particularly severe. The area is believed to be home to several re-education camps but fewer detention centres.

“It counters the propaganda offensive China is trying to show,” he said, underlining the treatment of those within the penal system. [Source]

In a lengthy Twitter thread, some of which is embedded below, researcher Nathan Ruser describes how he came to his conclusions about the time and place of the footage:

In an interview with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Erin Handley, Ruser further elaborates on how this footage counters Beijing’s propaganda on the situation in Xinjiang:

“They take journalists and diplomats on very guided, very manicured tours around the region, to particular camps to highlight what they call progress and human rights in the region.

“However, this video undercuts that narrative and shows clearly the very inhumane treatment that detained individuals get in the system, in the crackdown that started in 2017 in western China.”

[…] “All the evidence points to this being standard practice in how this crackdown is being perpetrated. And it’s a very shocking visual reminder of that,” he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne described the video as “deeply disturbing”. [Source]

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose previous criticism of the campaign in Xinjiang was described as “lies” by Beijing, said that the campaign isn’t about counterterrorism, but part of “China’s attempt to erase its own citizens,” in a meeting with officials from several Central Asian countries that border Xinjiang. Al Jazeera reports:

“I want to make clear that China’s repressive campaign in Xinjiang is not about terrorism,” Pompeo told reporters on Sunday. “It’s about China’s attempt to erase its own citizens. We call on all countries to resist China’s demands to repatriate the Uighurs.”

Pompeo made the comments after a meeting in New York with the foreign ministers of five Central Asian countries – Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan – ahead of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week, during which Washington is expected to confront China over the issue.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will host an event on Tuesday on the “human rights crisis in Xinjiang” in China, diplomats said on Friday.

In recent years, Beijing has been putting pressure on countries to which Uighurs have fled, to send them back to China. [Source]

China’s foreign ministry again struck back at Pompeo’s criticism. CBS News reports:

 The ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Chinese activities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where Muslims are held in detention camps, are the same as de-radicalization efforts in other countries.

[…] Geng complained that American politicians “slandered China’s policy toward Xinjiang and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.”

“These measures are no different in nature from the deradicalization and preventive counterterrorism measures taken by many other countries, including the United States,” Geng said at a regular news briefing. “The lies of U.S. politicians can’t deceive the world and only further reveals their ulterior political goals.” [Source]

The internment camps are the most extreme measures in a security crackdown in Xinjiang launched in 2014 in response to rising incidents of violence in the region and elsewhere in China. The crackdown has also included increasingly invasive and controversial policies mostly targeting Xinjiang and the Uyghur ethnic minority native to the region. Policies have included the limitation of Islamic dress, the banning of religious customs, and the encouragement of practices forbidden in . Rights advocates see these controversial policies as responsible for exacerbating ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.

As Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang have faced increasingly repressive policies in recent years, researchers and journalists noted the relative religious freedoms enjoyed by the predominately Muslim Hui minority in China’s heartland. There have, however, been accounts of this group facing mounting repression and targeted surveillance. At the Washington Post, Gerry Shih reports on the fading hope of Hui people in Gansu that they would avoid the anti-Islam campaign that has been raging in Xinjiang for years:

Hope faded in April. Government cranes began appearing ominously over mosques. A video surfaced on social media showing workers taking apart the Gazhuang mosque’s gold dome, then smashing it into the prayer hall. Local saw an unmistakable metaphor: The Communist Party, which once handled religious life here with a light touch, now ran roughshod over it.

“Women were crying; others, like me, couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Ma Ha, a 40-year-old owner of a noodle shop. “We had 40 years of . The winds are changing.”

[…] That tide of “Sinicization,” as Chinese policymakers call it, is surging nationwide. A recent, unescorted trip through , a corridor that once ushered Silk Road caravans and Islam into imperial China, revealed an accelerating campaign to assimilate another Muslim minority, the Hui, a Chinese-speaking people with no recent record of separatism or extremism.

The campaign targeting the Hui does not feature mass internment or pervasive digital surveillance, the most striking aspects of the Xinjiang crackdown. But it is a purge of ideas, symbols, culture, products — anything deemed not Chinese. It permeates life, in ways existential and mundane. […] [Source]

More from The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers, who notes that Gansu is not the only region that appears to now be the target of a government directive to combat the influence of Islam in China:

Similar demolitions have been carried out in Inner Mongolia, Henan and Ningxia, the homeland of China’s largest Muslim ethnic minority, the Hui. In the southern province of Yunnan, three mosques were closed. From Beijing to Ningxia, officials have banned the public use of Arabic script.

[…] It is driven by the party’s fear that adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule. Across China, the party is now imposing new restrictions on Islamic customs and practices, in line with a confidential party directive, parts of which have been seen by The New York Times.

[…] The restrictions they now face can be traced to 2015, when Mr. Xi first raised the issue of what he called the “Sinicization of Islam,” saying all faiths should be subordinate to Chinese culture and the Communist Party. Last year, Mr. Xi’s government issued a confidential directive that ordered local officials to prevent Islam from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions.

Critics of China’s policies who are outside the country provided excerpts from the directive to The Times. The directive, titled “Reinforcing and Improving Islam Work in the New Situation,” has not been made public. It was issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in April of last year and classified as confidential for 20 years.

The directive warns against the “Arabization” of Islamic places, fashions and rituals in China, singling out the influence of Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, as a cause for concern. […] [Source]

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