Before leaving her office, on 31 August, Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing United Nations Human Rights Chief, released the much-awaited report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. The report highlights that under the pretext of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategies, the Chinese government, under President Xi Jinping, has committed grave human rights violations. The report states that the Chinese government’s wrongdoings against the Muslims of Xinjiang may constitute international crimes, particularly “crimes against humanity”. It urged China to take steps “to release all individuals (Muslim minorities) arbitrarily deprived of their liberty whether in vocational education training centres, prisons, or other detention facilities”. The report, released despite mounting pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) via diplomatic channels on Bachelet and her office, has been hailed by global civil society groups and Uyghur exiles.
For several months, Beijing persistently used diplomatic offensives and pressure tactics to stall the release of the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ (OHCHR) assessment of China’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang region, where more than one million Muslims are detained in concentration or re-education camps. China alleged that the report was “processed” by the United States (US) and other western countries and was “full of lies”. They also tried to emotionally manipulate Bachelet, who had led a UNHCR delegation to Xinjiang in May 2022, stating that she had personally witnessed the “real Xinjiang with safe and stable society”.
The Xinjiang region has been in the news after President Xi and CCP were accused of violently supporting the cultural aggression constituting genocide and worst crimes against humanity by the US and other like-minded western democracies. Increasing international concern over the situation in Xinjiang prompted Bachelet to lead a UNHCR delegation to visit China for six days in May this year. The delegation met different shades of people as well as academicians, business representatives, local officials, and civil society organisations. Whilst Bachelet came under severe criticism for being too soft on China and the CCP during the visit, she subsequently pledged to publish the report before leaving the office on 31 August.
Also read: CCP sets date to ‘elect’ Xi Jinping for third term. And Chinese bloggers congratulate India
Human rights in Xinjiang
The population of Xinjiang, the northwest province of China, was dominated by the native Uyghur and Kazak, Uzbek migrant Muslims. After 1949, the CCP increased the migration of Chinese Hans to Xinjiang to dilute the demography of the region. Eventually, the native Muslims were reduced to a negligible minority. New Han colonies were developed around the capital Urmuchi and other vital centres such as Karamai and Shihezi with modern facilities, including health services, industries, and educational facilities. Gradually, the Uyghur Muslims, who played a leading role in the region’s social and economic spheres, were marginalised in all the sectors of the economy except agriculture. For example, more than 80 percent of the Uyghurs are still employed in the agricultural sector, whilst most white-collar jobs are being taken by migrating Hans. Even within agriculture employment, the average income of Uyghur peasants has remained US$105 compared to US$386 of the Han. This lop-sided socio-economic transformation led to Sinification and cultural curtailment, and increased the centrifugal tendencies amongst the Uyghurs.
Also read: Ahead of INS Vikrant launch, PLA media pushes propaganda. Calls it ‘serving with sickness’
Xi and human rights violations
The increased economic exploitation and implemented demographic change led to ethnic discord, igniting occasional violent protests labelled by the CCP as separatism and terrorism. The Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities of the restive region became a specific target of Xi’s dictatorship. Under Xi’s guidance, Xinjiang was made China’s most militarised zone with increased hi-tech security, blanket digital surveillance of the people and even DNA profiling of all native Uyghurs. Xi also deputed a solider-turned-politician Chen Quanguo, known for his anti-minorities policies in Tibet, to govern Xinjiang. Chen’s policy targeted the Uyghur cultural core. Some western democracies decried the subsequent string of atrocities witnessed in the region as genocide. The Chinese authorities started mass internment camps and political indoctrination programmes and erased or damaged two-thirds of mosques and other Muslim religious shrines in Xinjiang.
In 2018, reports from Xinjiang revealed that more than one million Muslims were sent to concentration camps for re-education under the pretext of countering religious extremism and separatism. Uyghur Muslims having long beards, women wearing veils or those who violated the family planning norms were sent to these concentration camps, forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP, denounce Islam and their culture, and learn Mandarin. According to estimates, Beijing invested more than US$ 108 million to construct 1,200 concentration camps, where the CCP started repressive Sinicisation, using torture, sexual violence, forced labour, and forced sterilisation and abortions. The string of atrocities led to the decline of the natural population growth of the Uyghurs, and many were subjected to illegal organ harvesting by the CCP during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2020, Xi praised this onslaught on Uyghurs as a “success” that crushed violent terrorism and restored stability in the province. However, the western democracies cried foul. Calling CCP’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide”, some western leaders even wrote joint letters to the President of the UN Human Rights Council demanding an investigation of these CCP-led and orchestrated human rights abuses. They also called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. The US Senate passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 to sanction some Chinese officials.
To save President Xi’s image, Beijing and all the CCP diplomats lobbied heavily to stall the UNHCR report. In late June, Beijing started circulating a letter amongst the diplomatic missions in Geneva to get support from like-minded authoritarian countries, especially in the Muslim world. According to the letter, “the assessment (on Xinjiang), if published, will intensify politicisation and bloc confrontation in the area of human rights, undermine the credibility of the OHCHR, and harm the cooperation between OHCHR and member states”. China also accused some countries of attempting to ‘smear China’s image’. Despite hard lobbying and abuse of China’s economic clout to stall the report, Bachelet kept her promise and released the report on the last day of her tenure. However, whether or not the report impacts belligerent China’s Xinjiang policies remains a question.
Ayjaz Wani is a Research Fellow at ORF Mumbai. He is currently working on the project: “Kashmir Conflict, Managing Perceptions and Prospectus for Peace.” Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.