China’s claims of human rights progress in Xinjiang ‘flimsy propaganda’, say pressure groups

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Originally published by SCMP on June 2, 2017

“Great progress” has been achieved in promoting human rights in Xinjiang under Communist Party rule, the Chinese government said in a white paper issued on Thursday, despite growing criticism among rights and exile groups who accuse Beijing of enforcing sweeping social control measures and placing restrictions on religious practice in the region.

The white paper, “Human Rights in Xinjiang – Development and Progress”, lauded improvements in a wide range of areas in the far western region since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, from political, civil, economic, social, cultural, environmental and religious rights.

However, it drew strong criticism from rights groups, who slammed the paper for being methodologically flawed and called its claims “flimsy pieces of propaganda … detached from the reality on the ground”.

The publication of the report comes as hundreds have died in attacks in the region in recent years which the authorities have blamed on Muslim separatist militants.

Rights groups say government repression of religious freedoms and unfair ethnic policies have contributed to the rise in tensions and violence, allegations the government denies.

The white paper said human rights in Xinjiang, where about half population are Turkish-speaking Muslim Uygurs, have achieved “unceasingly new development and progress” particularly since the 18th party congress when President Xi Jinping ascended to power in late 2012.

The report said freedom of religion has been respected and protected in the region, along with religious venues and normal religious activities.

It said people’s “normal religious needs have been met”, citing the publication of translations of religious texts such as the Koran in multiple languages, the founding of a periodical and a website dedicated to Xinjiang Muslims and the offering of training courses on religious knowledge and practice.

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the white paper seemed disconnected from reality when it discusses freedom of religion.

“This is a region that has frequently banned outward symbols of Islam – such as veils, long breads and the Islamic crescent – has banned children under 18 from taking part in religious activities and has rooted out all non-state approved religious activities,” he said.

Xinjiang passed a new law in March to curb extremism, which formally bans the wearing of veils or “abnormal” beards, plus a wide range of other acts such as refusing to watch state television or preventing children from receiving national education. The white paper said the implementation of the law was to “ensure citizen’s right to freedom of religious belief”.

The document also said people’s right to freedom of expression was “effectively protected” in Xinjiang, citing the flourishing of traditional media and the rapid development of internet infrastructure and websites which it said had made it easier for people to express their opinions.

Nee said, however, that the white paper denied the routine censorship of television, books, newspapers and the internet, plus the fact that people are given lengthy prison sentences for expressing their views.

The internet in parts of Xinjiang is often shut down during sensitive periods, such as after violent attacks, as local governments scramble to prevent news from getting out.

The region’s government issued strict regulations last year to punish people for spreading “false information” online, which rights groups say criminalises internet users who post about ethnic conflict or tensions, rather than only terrorism and extremism.

Nee called Beijing’s issuing of the white paper “brazen”. “There is no freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, or freedom of religion to speak of in the region,” he said.

Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) in Hong Kong, said the white paper “makes many preposterous claims that are detached from the reality on the ground”.

“The human rights situation in Xinjiang is getting worse as the government has increasingly militarised the province in the name of a ‘strike hard’ anti-terrorism campaign. There are restrictions on the practice and expression of religious freedom and cultural rights and denial of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” she said.

The publication of the white paper came as Xinjiang entered the sixth day of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims worldwide, during which many abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset.

Local governments have reportedly banned civil servants and students from fasting and ordered restaurants to remain open during Ramadan in recent years, according to international media reports.

Beijing issued a white paper on Xinjiang’s religious freedoms last June saying there was no religious discrimination against Muslims and that freedom of religious belief in the region “cannot be matched by that in any other historical period”.

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