China pushes back against Xinjiang criticism in event hosted by its UN delegation

·5-min read

China pushed back against criticism of policies in its Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region (XUAR), calling them “a legitimate struggle against terrorism” in an event that its delegation to the United Nations organised with the participation of Russia and other allies.

The two-hour virtual event called “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land” was hosted by China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun, and featured a slate of XUAR government officials including Shawkat Imin, chairman of the standing committee of XUAR’s parliament. It took place separately but at the same time the United Nations Human Rights Council was in regular session.

Members of the council have accused China of subjecting Uygurs and other Muslim minorities to forced labour and mass internment.

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The US government and Canadian and British parliaments have accused Beijing of genocide. Earlier this year, the US, EU, UK and Canada banded together to sanction Chinese officials over the suspected human rights abuses.

In an apparent swipe at former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s charge that China’s XUAR policy of mass detention is “the stain of the century”, Zhang said that China’s critics “fabricated the lie of the century about the genocide”.

“The fact is, over the past couple decades, the Uygur population in Xinjiang has increased from 5.2 million to 11.6 million, while the average life expectancy has increased from 38 years decades ago to 72 years today,” he said.

A video production about Xinjiang followed Zhang’s remarks.

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“A legitimate struggle against terrorism and extremism has been raised in Xinjiang” and “the tendency of frequent terrorist activities has been effectively curbed”, according to the narrator.

“In Xinjiang, the principle of freedom of religious belief enshrined in the national constitution has been implemented in entirety,” the narrator added.

Beijing’s “unwillingness, both to take seriously and try to factually address the … information that has been published substantiating what in our view rises to crimes against humanity, doesn’t do a whole lot for your argument”, said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. Photo: Reuters
Beijing’s “unwillingness, both to take seriously and try to factually address the … information that has been published substantiating what in our view rises to crimes against humanity, doesn’t do a whole lot for your argument”, said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. Photo: Reuters

Stepan Kuzmenov, the head of the Russian UN delegation’s human rights section, attended the event virtually along with UN representatives from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cuba, Eritrea and Morocco. The event also included pre-packaged video productions featuring Uygurs expressing their support for Beijing’s policies in the region.

Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch China director, said Beijing’s effort at the UN to portray Xinjiang as a paragon of religious and ethnic harmony will not likely sway any countries outside its diplomatic orbit. Richardson has been sanctioned by the Chinese government.

“When you’ve got some of the worst human rights violators in the world by your side to try to lend to your perspective of credibility, you’re probably not going to do very well,” Richardson said.

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Beijing’s “unwillingness, both to take seriously and try to factually address the … information that has been published substantiating what in our view rises to crimes against humanity, doesn’t do a whole lot for your argument”, she added.

Members of the Uygur diaspora have also criticised Beijing’s efforts to counter the messages that they have been delivering.

“I think a genuine smile is something that we, as human beings, can see,” said Rayhan Asat, a US-based human rights advocate, in a Wednesday event hosted by the Atlantic Council, referring to interviews with Uygurs that the Chinese government promotes. “And [that] fake, very much scripted language – any person with common sense and intelligence can [see through it].”

Speaking alongside Asat at the Atlantic Council event, Lithuanian parliament member Dovilė Šakalienė said mainstream media outlets in her country are refusing efforts by the Chinese embassy to push articles or advertisements presenting “these wonderful stories of happy Uygurs”.

“Mainstream media doesn’t even want to talk to Chinese diplomats about that any more, because it’s pointless,” Šakalienė said. “They’ve killed their credibility for all time.”

China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York last week. Photo: Reuters
China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York last week. Photo: Reuters

Lithuania is currently in China’s crosshairs over its warming relations with Taiwan.

While Beijing has used advertorials and slick video productions such as Wednesday’s to deliver its message overseas, it has also brandished the sharper tool of sanctions to censure politicians and other public figures who challenge that narrative.

But like Beijing’s soft power efforts, there are signs that the punitive measures, too, have failed to temper criticism of its actions in Xinjiang.

Nusrat Ghani, a Conservative member of UK parliament, said at the Atlantic Council event that sanctions have had the unintended effect of galvanising support for more scrutiny of China’s actions in the region.

Ghani was among those sanctioned by Beijing in March in retaliation for coordinated sanctions by the EU, UK, US and Canada targeting a number of Chinese officials and entities.

Beijing’s retaliation effectively put the brakes on an investment deal the EU had been finalising with Beijing.

Ghani said the action led to an “overnight” jump in interest in the Xinjiang issue among British parliamentarians who were not otherwise engaged in China affairs.

That retaliation has “created greater support, greater awareness, and far more questioning of our links to China and [MPs] asking what more they can do to support the Uygur people”, Ghani said.

The current session of the UN Human Rights Council is set to run until October 8.

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