Beijing taps into anti-West resentment to counter UN report

Sep 1, 2022, 5:56 PM | Updated: Sep 2, 2022, 10:33 am

FILE - Tourists pose for photos with a camel outside the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China'...

FILE - Tourists pose for photos with a camel outside the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as seen during a government organized trip for foreign journalists, on April 19, 2021. After a U.N. report concluding that China's crackdown in the far west Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity, China used a well-worn tactic to deflect criticism: blame a Western conspiracy. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

BEIJING (AP) — Hours after yet another assessment by outside observers that China’s crackdown in its far-west Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stepped up to a podium to go on the offensive.

“The so-called assessment you mentioned is orchestrated and produced by the U.S. and some Western forces” and is a “a political tool” meant to contain China, he said.

It was a tactic long used by Beijing to deflect criticism from its mass detentions of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang: blame a Western conspiracy.

At home, it’s found a willing audience. But abroad, it’s angered Uyghurs and alienated foreigners. The result has been a splintering of views on Xinjiang in China and the West, a gap that threatens to fracture already-poor relations.

For decades, Beijing has struggled to integrate the Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group with close ethnic and linguistic ties to Turkey, locking the region in a cycle of revolt and repression. After bombings and knifings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs, Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched a crackdown, ensnaring huge numbers of people in a network of camps and prisons.

Since the beginning of the crackdown, the Chinese government has sought to control the narrative. They have done so through secrecy and censorship. But they have also done so by tapping into powerful, deep-rooted anti-Western sentiment, born out of a century of humiliation at the hands of the West.

Growing up in Xinjiang, Uyghur linguist Abduweli Ayup learned about how European empires marched on China’s capital and burned ancient palaces. He learned about the U.S. colonization of Hawaii and how it took Texas from Mexico.

Even as a Uyghur, Ayup said, this history instilled resentment.

“All our history we learn that China is the victim, and all those countries around us are very bad,” Ayup said, adding that he himself was opposed to the West until well into his adulthood. “Anti-Western sentiment is really strong.”

It wasn’t until his thirties, Ayup said, when he saw how the authorities weaponized historic grievances to deflect blame from themselves. On July 5, 2009, protests demanding justice for lynched Uyghurs turned bloody. Police opened fire, violent demonstrators stoned ethnic majority Han Chinese bystanders and hundreds were killed in the melee.

Beijing blamed the riots on overseas “terrorists” and “separatists” supported by foreign governments. They glossed over long-held Uyghur resentments and suppressed evidence showing that police, too, were in part responsible for the violence.

“I felt it was ridiculous,” Ayup said. “How could these foreign forces manipulate Uyghurs from far away?”

When the government first launched the crackdown, they sought to keep it secret. For months, they denied the existence of the camps.

But as evidence mounted, the state switched tactics and followed the same playbook: They hit back with accusations of a foreign plot.

When the BBC investigated labor practices in Xinjiang’s cotton fields, state media denounced the report as “using the so-called ‘research’ of anti-China scholars” to “concoct rumors.”

When a former Xinjiang resident gathered records on over 10,000 people detained in the region, a state spokesperson said the database was “created by anti-China figures” backed by the U.S. and Australia.

And after Omir Bekali, an ethnic Kazakh and Uyghur who spent eight months in detention, testified about torture inside the camps, he was branded a liar with “stories full of loopholes” by state media, feeding into “anti-China forces’ smears.”

It’s frustrating, Bekali said, because he believes most Han Chinese in China are well intentioned, but have been kept ignorant by the country’s sophisticated censorship apparatus.

“If you want to know the reality, speak to the victims,” he said. “The government controls the media, they keep on saying lies.”

As criticism mounted, Xinjiang authorities also moved quietly to scale down the most visible signs of repression. Though unclear whether it was due to global scrutiny or planned all along, the result was the same: It hid the intensity of the crackdown from outside visitors.

They took down barbed wire, dismantled some of the camps, and ripped out surveillance cameras peering over city streets, bare wires still dangling on poles overhead. They replaced the region’s hard-line leader with one from a wealthy coastal province, known more for developing economies than for brutal policing.

Then, they took journalists to vineyards and banquets, dance shows and historic mosques, with a clear, underlying message: Xinjiang is open for business.

Today, Xinjiang’s tourism industry is booming. Travelers stuck inside China because of its harsh “zero-COVID” policies are flocking to the region’s deserts, mountains and bazaars, lured by what they see as its exotic, Islam-infused character.

Though hundreds of thousands still languish in prison on secret charges, they’re tucked away in facilities behind forests and desert dunes, far from city centers and prying eyes. Voices that cut against the party line are silenced, with fear and sometimes with prison sentences.

As a result, ex-camp detainee Bekali said, “people inside China, they don’t know what’s really going on.”

With the latest report on abuses in Xinjiang, there’s been a change from the usual pattern: The assessment didn’t come from the U.S. State Department, or a rights group, or from Uyghurs in exile.

Instead, it came from the human rights office of the United Nations, an organization that China’s own leaders have repeatedly praised as the “core” of the international system. As a result, Beijing finds itself in an awkward spot, as the report threatens to puncture the party line.

Still, with independent information censored, the authorities have been largely successful in shaping the narrative within China’s borders. On Chinese social media, response to the report has been muted. And with Western sanctions and rhetoric aimed at China, resentment against the West has only grown stronger.

Today, from executives pacing downtown Beijing to teachers lecturing in lush Guangxi province, many Chinese wonder what all the Xinjiang fuss is about.

“People in Xinjiang live happy lives. All my friends living there are doing just fine,” said Ge Jing, a Han Chinese raised in Xinjiang who now runs a restaurant serving Uyghur cuisine. “I think foreign media are super biased against Xinjiang, they just can’t leave it alone.”


This story has been corrected to fix a name spelling to say Jing, not Qing.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and creator of OpenAI gestures while speaking at Un...

Associated Press

ChatGPT maker downplays fears they could leave Europe over AI rules

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman on Friday downplayed worries that the ChatGPT maker could exit the European Union

21 hours ago

File - Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, left, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman arrive to the White House for a ...

Associated Press

Regulators take aim at AI to protect consumers and workers

As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI.

3 days ago

FILE - A security surveillance camera is seen near the Microsoft office building in Beijing, July 2...

Associated Press

Microsoft: State-sponsored Chinese hackers could be laying groundwork for disruption

State-backed Chinese hackers have been targeting U.S. critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the U.S. and Asia during future crises, Microsoft said Wednesday.

4 days ago

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, May 17, 2023, in Washington....

Associated Press

White House unveils new efforts to guide federal research of AI

The White House on Tuesday announced new efforts to guide federally backed research on artificial intelligence

5 days ago

FILE - The Capitol stands in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED...

Associated Press

What it would mean for the economy if the US defaults on its debt

If the debt crisis roiling Washington were eventually to send the United States crashing into recession, America’s economy would hardly sink alone.

6 days ago

FILE - Bryan Kohberger, left, looks toward his attorney, public defender Anne Taylor, right, during...

Associated Press

Judge enters not guilty pleas for suspect in stabbing deaths of 4 University of Idaho students

A judge entered not guilty pleas Monday for a man charged in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students, setting the stage for a trial in which he could potentially face the death penalty.

7 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Beijing taps into anti-West resentment to counter UN report