Position of Uyghur in Xinjiang: A view from the ground

Faced with strident international media coverage of its policies towards the Uyghur minority community in Xinjiang, China has chosen to follow the path of creating a counter-narrative, using the pliant State media to cover the life of the Uyghur. The best example is the film titled the ‘Wings of Songs’, released on 27 March and a Chinese copy of the Hollywood film ‘La La Land’. This documentary follows the lives of three men, a Uyghur Muslim, a Han Chinese and a Kazakh, who get together to form a musical group in Xinjiang. Clearly, stung by Western media coverage China is responding with propaganda and disinformation.

While the West has accused China of genocide for its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, Beijing claims that everything is fine in the homeland of the Muslim minority. So how does one separate the chaff from the grain and distil the truth? The only way is to look at media reporting on the ground by Western media permitted to move around in Xinjiang. One such report by a Der Spiegel correspondent (22 May 2021) provides a view from the ground. The first impression of the journalist is that everything appears to be as is being made out by the Chinese. Witness the Uyghur dancing in the square in front of the Idgah Mosque in Kashgar, after their prayer. This is seen on 13 May the day of Id-ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. The Uyghur dance (known as Sema) around, spinning and throwing their hands in the air, in the traditional Sufi brotherhood style. But beware, Chinese state media drones are watching the scene from above. Later this footage is broadcast to show the level of freedom enjoyed by the Uyghur in pursuing their religion. Well, no harm in propagating the myth of religious freedom, but the fact is that this not true in Xinjiang or in China as a whole.

In fact, the entire thing is a charade as evidenced by the Der Spiegel, the people, the dance and surveillance. The Uyghur had been summoned by the local authorities and asked to perform. This was followed by the state television producer informing in advance that the performance would take place at 11 am. Stewards directed the dancing crowd and intelligence agents were just round the corner to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. Videos of earlier Id celebrations show that Sema had been performed by Uyghur, so the staging isn’t completely improbable. But upon closer inspection, “it is seen that many of the dancers look more discontented than joyful. One old man, moving along with laboured, scurrying steps, seems almost out of breath, but he keeps on dancing anyway”.

As has been shown by other reporters and organizations, participation in these stage-managed public performances is compulsory. Radio Free Asia conversations with residents in Jiashi county in Kashgar prefecture in April 2021 show that authorities made it mandatory for residents to attend morning flag hoisting ceremonies and attending classes in political education in evening during Ramadan. A team of Der Spiegel journalists had visited Xinjiang in 2018 and described the region as one ‘under siege’. Xinjiang is still in a state of siege, the only difference now is that the Uyghur are ostensibly free to do whatever they want but are kept under constant surveillance in a grid system introduced by former Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

Subsequently, as revealed by Chinese documents accessed by the New York Times and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), over one million people have been interned in camps, facilities declared by China to be “vocational training centres.” Reports of forced labour and sterilizations abound and according to China’s own statistics bureau, Xinjiang’s birth rate nearly halved between 2017 and 2019 alone. As seen from the Der Spiegel report, Western journalists are constantly monitored while travelling in Xinjiang. Normal reporting is obviously not possible under such conditions. The other challenge is that several prominent community leaders, clerics and intellectuals are interned making it difficult to obtain a real ground picture. According to a recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, China has arrested at least 1,046 imams and religious figures in Xinjiang since 2014. The German publication’s journalists also travelled around Xinjiang to find the re-education camps. They found one south of the city centre of Kashgar, a 27-minute drive and identified by satellite imagery at the ASPI last year. Apart from that they travelled to

The Uyghur Muslim community in China is being targeted and so are their relatives abroad. Surveillance efforts by “Chinese-speaking” hackers by the using fake emails from the UN and a human rights group, have recently been made public in a collaborative research by cybersecurity groups, Check Point Research and Kaspersky’s Global Research & Analysis Team. Their research concluded with “low to medium confidence” that the effort was carried out by Chinese-speaking hackers. It was found that hackers were targeting Uyghur in both China and Pakistan using malicious emails designed to trick individuals into installing a back door into Microsoft Windows software to allow the hackers to collect information and carry out further attacks.

Research showed that emails were sent under the guise of the UNHRC or from a fake human rights organization known as the Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation, both of which target Uyghur applying for grant funds. The researchers concluded that both members of the Uyghur community and organizations supporting them were selected as specific targets by the hackers, with the attacks likely still ongoing. Earlier, in March Facebook had announced that it had disrupted efforts by Chinese hacking groups targeting and conducting surveillance of Uyghur community living overseas through the installation of malware on mobile devices.

It should come as no surprise that China’s vast surveillance and intelligence system is being extensively used to track its own people. Even worse, it is employed to track, monitor and, on occasion threaten Uyghur people living abroad. Many instances of Uyghur families being warned to behave have been seen, and the punishment for not heeding the warning was that their relatives in Xinjiang disappeared, perhaps into the re-education camps! That said, the need to conduct more research and study into the conditions of Uyghur in Xinjiang cannot be underscored. Without a better perspective of the ground situation, the genocide flag cannot be raised higher, which is the need of the hour.