“Xinjiang Papers” Put Spotlight on Xi’s Role In Uyghur Internment

On Saturday November 27, the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent body of lawyers and researchers documenting the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, published leaked documents that purport to show Xi Jinping personally directed the campaign. The documents appear to include some first reported by the New York Times in 2019, but this is the first time the “Xinjiang Papers,” as the Tribunal has titled them, have been made available to the public in full. At The Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin reported on the documents published by the Uyghur Tribunal, and interviewed the scholars who authenticated them:

A transcript of a speech Mr. Xi gave at a meeting on Xinjiang in May 2014, for example, quotes him saying the Communist Party “must not hesitate or waver in the use of the weapons of the people’s democratic dictatorship and focus our energy on executing a crushing blow” against the forces of religious extremism in Xinjiang.

[…] In another previously unpublished speech, Mr. Xi argued that “population proportion and population security are important foundations for long-term peace and stability.” The phrase was repeated word-for-word six years later by a senior Xinjiang official in warning that the Han Chinese share of the population in Uyghur-dominated southern Xinjiang was “too low” at 15%.

[…] “It’s not an ideology for you to study or ponder, it’s an order,” [David Tobin, a Xinjiang scholar at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield,] said of the message Mr. Xi is sending to officials. “You can’t resist or object.” [Source]

In the leaked speeches, central government officials including Xi Jinping specifically called for mass internment, coercive labor transfers, “optimizing” Xinjiang’s population by increasing the share of Han citizens, criminalization of standard Islamic practices, “home-stays” by Han officials, and the repression of the Uyghur language—all of which have since occurred. David Tobin noted in his review of the papers that, “The core argument in the analysis that violent targeting of Uyghurs intensified in response to central party directives on implementing and monitoring official policy is clearly made, logically sound, and supported with strong evidence.” Georgetown University’s James Millward also testified to the scholarly rigor of the Uyghur Tribunal’s analysis. Adrian Zenz, who worked with the group to authenticate the documents, spoke to William Yang of German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle on the importance of the papers:

In late 2014, there were developments that made labor transfer more expansive and this evolved very quickly in 2015 and 2016. It’s not just saying in 2014 we have certain thoughts, and suddenly in 2017, we have something concrete. This is a very clear evolutionary development and it can be directly linked to Xi Jinping due to the way he put it.

In many cases, he didn’t make it optional. He put it as a demand, as was the case with the centralized boarding schools. These connections are in many cases quite direct, non-experts might miss the connections.

[…] The fact that this was distributed for study in 2016 really strengthens the evidence in terms of the role of the central government for the evolving atrocities, including after 2016. The new evidence absolutely links all aspects of the atrocities in Xinjiang, from the internment, parent-child separation, to labor transfer and birth prevention, to the central government. It is approved by Beijing and mandated by Beijing. [Source]

The Chinese government has taken extreme measures to attack critical appraisals of its governance in Xinjiang. After the publication of the Xinjiang Papers, officials held a press conference to launch ad hominem attacks at Zenz. Twitter and Facebook recently removed thousands of accounts linked to a private Chinese company’s “effort to reframe global debate” and “crowd out critical/adversarial narratives” about Xinjiang, in the words of a Stanford Internet Observatory report on the takedown. At Lawfare, Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren shared their research on how China uses disinformation and propaganda to defend its conduct in Xinjiang on Twitter:

Our research has been monitoring conversations around the hashtags employed by users engaged in discussions of Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs. Sampling these messages, we can see clear signs of platform manipulation. On Twitter, troll accounts engaging in these conversations are specialized and serve a variety of functions. First, and most obviously, they spam conversations by repeating talking points and filling space on the platform. It is difficult to pin down exactly how many accounts across social media the Chinese employ, but they number in the thousands. We found that the hashtag “#Xinjiang” appeared in 60,516 tweets in October. Of these, 3,310 tweets were the first tweet a given account ever made, suggesting the possibility these 3000+ accounts were purpose-built. Nearly 40 percent of these 60,000+ tweets originated from accounts that had zero followers, another sign of potential inauthenticity. The disinformation researcher @conspirator0 identified that many of these accounts were created simultaneously, in batches.

These accounts mostly copy and paste content, much of which discusses Xinjiang and, naturally, Xinjiang cotton. A typical post is like this recently suspended one from an account named Tanya Williams. It includes a 13-second video of a cotton field in Xinjiang and shares the message “#humanrights #cotton #xinjiang #forcedlabor #uyghur A good harvest of beautiful cotton.” Users searching for conversations using any of those hashtags are somewhat less likely to find content critical of China and a little more likely to land on a video of a cotton field. These tactics make it incrementally more difficult for users’ messages expressing genuine concerns about, or evidence of, China’s actions in Xinjiang to break through. [Source]

Bot networks are only one part of China’s propaganda offensive. In the same press conference in which they attacked Zenz, Xinjiang officials praised “foreign bloggers,” specifically Jason Lightfoot of Britain and Raz Galor of Israel, for showing “the real situation of Xinjiang.” On Twitter, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian shared a video of a Bangladeshi journalist who praised Xinjiang’s natural beauty, halal cuisine, and economic development. Sinologist Mareike Ohlberg told DW that the Chinese government seeks out and deploys “Western voices” to make its own narratives more credible. Bret Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy told DW, “Whether they are paid or not, I’d say it’s likely that their affinity towards China or at least their antipathy towards the West is genuine,” adding that the use of such voices is not a new propaganda tactic.

Propaganda blitzes have failed to drown out reports on the situation in Xinjiang. In November, researchers published a groundbreaking report on forced labor in the region’s cotton industry that implicated more than one hundred global retailers. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a detailed report on “the bureaucratic, legal, and rhetorical foundations of mass detentions and other rights abuses in Xinjiang,” which CDT translated into Chinese. In an an essay for SupChina, Darren Byler, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and expert on Xinjiang, argued that accountability must extend beyond “functionaries and political leaders” to the creators of technology that is used to repress Muslims in Northwest China:

The algorithms that produce the population of extremists and terrorists whose crimes are “not serious” normalizes cruelty in a way that Arendt could not fully predict. First, technologies which control movement and thinking in such total and automated ways seem to preclude the intentional mass killing that accompanied past genocidal moments. In Xinjiang they are being used to justify the removal of more than half a million children from their homes, placing hundreds of thousands of parents in factories, but they also make people continue to live. As a region-wide camp manual put it, “abnormal deaths are not permitted.”

Second, such systems appear to wear down populations, changing the way they behave and work, and over time, they change how people think. The former detainees I interviewed spoke about how their social networks were transformed, how friends turned each other in, how they stopped using their phones for anything other than promoting state ideology because of the checkpoints. They adapted to the new reality.

Third, advanced technologies mask their evaluative processes, producing a blackbox effect. Unlike Eichmann’s ledgers and Nazi protocols, the tens of thousands of micro-clues that go into a diagnosis of an untrustworthy Uyghur are often too complex to play out through the reflective rationality that Arendt described as “thinking.” A “smart” internment system produces an automated crime against humanity, which means that moral judgments of it must be expanded beyond functionaries and political leaders to software designers who may be many steps removed from the application of the technology. [Source]


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