Over recent months, China’s government has been in overdrive to combat allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. To cite just one example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying dismissed the charges of genocide as “the most preposterous lie of the century, an outrageous insult and affront to the Chinese people, and a gross breach of international law and basic norms governing international relations.”
It’s easy to write that off as propaganda, but Hua is far from alone in expressing such a sentiment. Many average Chinese agree – even some who have heard first-hand testimony from victims.
“I have had friends who were highly educated, but after they heard my story they would think that I’m brainwashed,” Jewher Ilham told The Diplomat. She became a prominent activist after her father, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, was detained in China. He was later sentenced to life in prison; his crime, according to his daughter and many of his fellow academics, was trying to advance mutual understanding between China’s ethnic Han majority and Uyghurs.
Of course, there are over 1.3 billion Chinese people, and it is impossible to pinpoint what “the Chinese” think of Xinjiang. “It really varies, depending on who you talk to and their background,” as Ilham put it. But she has noticed a few distinct general reactions, which also largely fit with the interviews The Diplomat conducted for this piece.
First, there are those who don’t know much about the situation in Xinjiang. “They don’t read any of the Western news and obviously in China they wouldn’t talk about it. They still believe that Uyghurs are living their happy lives in western China, enjoying all the privileges the Chinese government has given them,” Ilham explained.
Others are vaguely aware of the accusations, but don’t believe them. These people tend to think “Western news is propaganda, only Chinese news is the truth, Western countries want to take China down,” in Ilham’s words.
And still others “are willing to learn more and listen to Uyghur voices,” said Ilham. “I was able to convince some people who were ‘deep believers’ [in the Chinese system].”
On the other hand, “Some people will deny it themselves even if they see it themselves,” she added.
This article provides snapshots of how members of China’s urban, educated middle class – largely living in eastern cities – reacted to allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The piece is based on interviews conducted in China, as well as comments from U.S. scholars and activists.
“They Still Believe That Uyghurs Are Living Their Happy Lives”
Many of those interviewed for this piece believe Uyghurs are generally happy and treated well by the government. This echoes official Chinese media narratives about “ethnic harmony” and poverty alleviation efforts in ethnic minority areas.
The official government line on Xinjiang is that there are no abuses, much less a genocide; the people – whether Han, Uyghur, or another ethnic group – are happy, prosperous, and grateful to the Chinese Communist Party. Many people in China believe exactly that.
But it would be overly simplistic to assume that Chinese who think this way have been brainwashed by the government. Instead, many also base their conclusions on first-hand experiences in Xinjiang, or stories heard from friends and colleagues – including Uyghurs.
To Qianghua,* a journalist from Beijing, the Xinjiang issue boils down to one point: “Do ordinary Chinese people trust their eyes and ears more, or do they trust English media reports and foreign governments’ accusations? Undoubtedly, of course they will choose the first option.”
Ma Ling* is a Hui Muslim who teaches at an educational institution in Changji, Xinjiang (about 25 miles west of Urumqi). The school counts among its employees members of eight ethnic groups, including Han, Hui, Uyghurs, and even Korean Chinese. “Everyone is just like relatives,” Ma said, emphasizing Xinjiang’s multiethnic credentials.
“Xinjiang is not as dark as the West governments say,” he insisted. “On the contrary, people’s lives are getting better and better… Ordinary Xinjiang people are very supportive of such efforts.”
Ma also said he had visited the “so-called concentration camps mentioned by Westerners… these are no more than training schools.”
“I know some Uyghurs came to learn from Kashgar. Some of them could not even speak a single sentence of Mandarin before, but after studying for a period of time, some were able to find a good job… If this is very good for them, and they are willing, how can it be called a concentration camp?” he asked. (It’s worth noting in this context that many of those who have spent time in these facilities say they were commanded to speak often of their gratitude to the CCP – and even to look happy at all times.)
“On the contrary, if they don’t have this study experience in the training schools, they may only stay at home in the poor villages on the border, and they will become prey to Afghan terrorists, and maybe finally become jihadis in the future,” Ma continued.
A similar attitude was shared by Liu Cixin, author of the famous sci-fi trilogy “The Three Body Problem.” When asked about the forced detention of Uyghurs in a July 2019 interview with the New Yorker, Liu shot back: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”
To Sean Roberts, author of “The War on the Uyghurs” and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., these defenses of the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang have problematic undertones. There’s a certain level of “colonial, racist inclinations that people may have about Uyghurs,” he told The Diplomat. “That either they’re dangerous, or backward… you see this actually in the government’s response to this, as well.”
When people recount China’s strenuous efforts to keep Uyghurs from “becoming jihadis” and help them develop economically, “these development discourses feed into the idea that ‘this place is backward, and we’re doing this to the benefit of the people,’ which is a very common colonial refrain,” Roberts said.
“There are socioeconomic issues in the Uyghur region… that’s fact,” said Ilham. “[…]But often what people don’t see [is] why this is happening and what caused it.”
Even Chinese people interviewed for this piece who hadn’t personally been to Xinjiang knew of government programs designed to help the region, if not the Uyghurs specifically, and pointed to these efforts to deny allegations of abuse.
“China has been mobilizing all parts of the country to support Xinjiang in the past few years. Almost every city needs to support a county or a region in Xinjiang,” Mu Chunshan, a Beijing-based journalist, told The Diplomat. “My hometown in northeast China, with a GDP of only 100 billion [RMB], provides various financial support to a county in Xinjiang. For many years, they will invest about 1 billion RMB in this small Xinjiang county.”
And then there is what might be called the “Uyghur friend” defense. Many Han Chinese will bring up conversations with Uyghur friends and colleagues as evidence that there is no oppression in Xinjiang. It’s sometimes assumed by critics that these Uyghur friends are fictional – but again, the situation is more complicated than that.
Ehmet* is a Uyghur who has worked in Beijing for more than five years. He is outspoken that all is well in his home region.
“I do not understand why Americans use the term ‘genocide’ or ‘crimes against humanity’ to describe Xinjiang,” he told The Diplomat. Ehmet said he video chats with his family every day. “It is no different from the past and life is as usual. How could there be a massacre?” he asked.
He said that his brother used to be in one of the education centers derided by the United States, but it was not a forced labor camp. “Two years ago, my brother learned Mandarin for one month there, because it is easier to find a job,” Ehmet said. “Now he is ready to get married.”
Many Chinese who object to the media reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang cite similar interactions with Uyghur friends or colleagues. But as Darren Byler, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, points out, the Uyghurs who have contact with urban, middle-class Han Chinese are also the least likely to face the worst kinds of oppression on display in Xinjiang.
“Uyghur young people that have a Han friend or speak Chinese are not necessarily representative of Uyghurs as a whole,” Byler told The Diplomat. “…the vast majority of Uyghurs are not trained in Chinese and really don’t have a lot of access to Han people.”
“If one of your friends says it doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the whole region,” Ilham said. “Nobody has said every single Uyghur is locked up in prison… But a large number of members of the Uyghur community are going through repression.”
She also pointed to the fact that Uyghurs may not feel safe speaking freely about their experiences, when speaking about oppression in Xinjiang, even to a trusted friend, can get you locked up.
“I think Chinese citizens are underestimating the surveillance level throughout China and they’re underestimating the fear throughout the Uyghur group,” said Ilham.
She explained that when she called her family members still in Xinjiang, she was pressured to say “Xi Jinping wishes you peace” rather than a traditional Uyghur greeting. “That’s the amount of fear people have. You can’t even greet someone on the phone, much less admitting to a Han Chinese that you have family members who are locked up.”
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney and activist who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was blunter. When asked about Uyghurs who recount that all is well, he responded quickly: “That’s a lie, you know that right?”
“I know so many Uyghurs who have been harmed, whose lives have been destroyed… it’s just heartbreaking,” he added. “It’s almost appalling to hear people engaging in genocide denial.”
“Western News Is Propaganda”
Many of the Chinese people interviewed for this piece further believe that reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang have been fabricated as part of a wider Western push to “contain” China – a claim frequently seen in social media discussions, whether on China’s WeChat and Weibo or U.S. platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Of particular issue is the term “genocide.” While genocide has a specific legal definition, in the popular imagination – in China, as elsewhere – it is often thought of as referring to the wholesale massacre of a particular ethnic group.
To be clear, no one says China is systematically slaughtering all the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other largely Muslim ethnic groups native to Xinjiang. Instead, the charge is that China is trying to forcibly assimilate these groups into the mainstream Han culture, by stamping out traditional cultural and religious practices. As one Uyghur activist put it, the program of mass surveillance, long-term detentions for political education, and forced labor is “the post-modern equivalent of crushing our bones and scattering them across the land.”
“I refer to it as a cultural genocide, which is the term that’s often used with the Native Americans and the Aboriginals in Australia,” Roberts said. “People who have been removed from their land … and their culture has been largely stripped of its original meaning.”
But many Chinese hear the word “genocide” and picture the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
“Any rational reporter like me can’t imagine that, in the 21st century, the CCP can treat ethnic minorities in the same way as Nazi Germany,” said Mu, the journalist. “This accusation completely contradicts my common sense and the truth I have come across.”
He also refuted comparisons to the treatment of Native Americans. “Now is the 21st century, the era when the internet is very developed. The CCP dare not do what the U.S. did to the Natives decades ago or hundreds of years ago,” Mu argued. “On the contrary, they can learn from the negative history of these countries and avoid greater risks and problems.”
Similarly, Ma Ling, the Hui Muslim who teaches in Xinjiang, said, “Whether Uyghurs or other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, they are shocked and very angry when they heard the West said there was genocide in Xinjiang.”
Indeed, one Uyghur from Kashgar, who went to university in eastern China before returning home, told The Diplomat that accusations of cultural genocide are “an insult” to his family, which was relocated from a “life without quality” in a remote village to a modern city.
The growing use of the genocide label seemed to mark a turning point in the response from China’s government as well as Chinese people. Turkel, the Uyghur American lawyer and activist, said he has traveled around the world to talk on the issue, and he often receives pushback. Mostly, these were “relatively cordial conversations, I was never attacked,” he remembered. “But I am seeing government orchestrated, concerted attacks… since the genocide determination was made.”
Hearing their government accused of genocide has prompted some Chinese to leap to China’s defense, pushing back against the charges more loudly than ever. As Li Xing of Aalborg University told the South China Morning Post, “While there are people in China who think there are problems in the way China has handled Xinjiang, the moment they hear the BBC say there is ‘genocide’ happening, they become so angry that they lose all will to criticize the Chinese government.”
The Xinjiang issue has thus been caught up in China’s tangled relationship with the West. Since many Chinese media outlets are state-owned – and the others are subject to tight restrictions on what they can publish – many Chinese assume anything, for example, a U.S. or British media outlet reports about China is directly related to U.S. or U.K. government policy. Mainstream foreign media outlets are thus deeply distrusted by many Chinese, who think they focus specifically on China’s flaws while ignoring the positives. (Many of the same people are equally mistrustful of Chinese media.)
This suspicion was widespread even before the allegations of re-education camps and forced labor started making headlines in Western media outlets like the BBC, New York Times, and New Yorker. Many Chinese were already primed to disbelieve the reports (those who could access them, that is – most Western news sites have been blocked within China). Instead, the reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang became fuel for the fire of nationalism, with Chinese seeing their country as being unfairly attack.
That’s why Qianghua, the journalist, thinks the genocide accusations are “stupid” and “a strategic mistake” made by Western governments.
“The Western accusations against China on the Xinjiang issue are so outrageous and weird that China’s leftists, rightists, conservatives, and liberals all do not believe them,” he said. “Instead, they have reached a consensus on this issue… ordinary Chinese people look down on the West even more, as well as having more confidence in their own development.”
“Perhaps Westerners feel the Xinjiang issue will cause more divisions in China, but in fact it has united the majority of the people in China,” he declared.
Mu has a similar view. “The so-called issue of genocide in Xinjiang is actually not complicated: It’s that some cases of Uyghurs in exile has been politicized by some anti-China forces and widely spread using Western media and scholars, who are unaware of the truth.”
He added, “I have also noticed the current criticisms on the Xinjiang issue are coming from Western countries, and none of the Muslim countries in the Middle East support it. This seems to confirm my opinion: The so-called Xinjiang issue is more of a political issue than a simple human rights issue.”
But in Mu’s mind, Western media coverage has been warped by members of the Uyghur diaspora. “In fact the complaints of some Uyghurs in exile are legal cases, not systemic racial issues,” he argued. “They are not happy, which does not mean other Uyghurs in Xinjiang have a bad life.”
Mu, like many Han Chinese interviewed for this story, was adamant that any Uyghurs arrested or detained in Xinjiang are guilty of crimes against the state. “Who believes [detained Uyghurs] do nothing and one day suddenly were arrested when walking in the street?” Mu asked, rhetorically.
Ironically, part of the reason some Chinese see nothing amiss in Xinjiang is because they have become accustomed to similar abuses, albeit on a smaller scale, in their own lives. Several Chinese interviewed for this story pointed to their own experiences with coerced birth control, for example, to downplay claims that there is a particular sterilization policy targeting Uyghurs.
Byler said this is a reaction he has seen as well. Han Chinese may say that “forced labor is common… family planning is common, everyone has dealt with that in the past. So they don’t see what’s happening to the Uyghurs as anything unusual” – and particularly resist calling it genocide.
Roberts understands the emotional backlash against the term “genocide” – and it’s not unique to China. “I think you’d find a lot of Americans who would push back against the idea that there’s been a genocide against Native Americans, but there’s been a lot of scholars who talk about that,” he told The Diplomat.
“That’s less important, what we call it, than what is happening.”
“What Kind of Evidence Do We Need to See?”
When Western media is dismissed as propaganda designed to “contain” China, it becomes nearly impossible to call into question pre-existing beliefs that Xinjiang is prospering under CCP guidance. Nearly impossible – but not totally.
There are many Chinese people who “accept there’s no transparency in China and are willing to learn more and listen to Uyghur voices,” Ilham said, based on her own experiences speaking with people from China. She said she has been able to convince some people who were “deep believers” in the Chinese government narrative. “I don’t talk about politics, I just share my personal stories… It takes time and lots and lots of sources too.”
Muyi Xiao of the New York Times is one of the journalists behind a high-profile video tracking the potential use of Uyghur forced labor in creating PPE during the pandemic. “Because of the Great Firewall in China, The New York Times content, including this piece, is not able to reach a mass Chinese audience inside China,” she told The Diplomat via email.
However, Xiao also wrote a separate post in Chinese to “to offer more context of the story.” She has seen that article, along with the original New York Times video, cited as sources in Chinese-language discussions on Twitter “about Xinjiang cotton or Xinjiang’s labor transfer programs in general.”
“In my own experience, Chinese people who have directly reached out to me to ask about the story – some feel skeptical, some feel informed – are generally interested in this topic and want to know more,” Xiao said.
The crucial point is that most Chinese have little or no access to such stories. As Ilham pointed out, Uyghurs still within China may be unwilling to speak about unpleasant experiences for fear of being arrested. And given the restrictions on Chinese internet access, accessing materials from outside China can be difficult. (Although perhaps not as a difficult as sometimes imagined: Mu argued that “Any Chinese person with a high school education knows what a VPN is and has the ability to search for information on foreign websites… China is not as closed as some American scholars think.”)
We do have some powerful examples of what can happen when ordinary Chinese people listen to Uyghurs telling their stories, thanks to the brief blooming of the audio app Clubhouse in mainland China. Over one weekend in February, a number of Chinese-language “rooms” – Clubhouse’s term for discussion groups – on the camps in Xinjiang flourished, allowing Han Chinese to hear unfiltered experiences from Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority groups.
A person who started one such discussion room, who went by the initial L, spoke to the SupChina podcast about his experience in the discussions. According to L, most people who joined his room – labeled “Are There Concentration Camps in Xinjiang?” – were repeating the title question. “For a lot of Han Chinese, they actually also do not know, [are] there internment camps or not,” L said on the podcast.
“I was never able to convince anybody who had a different opinion from mine that there are camps in Xinjiang,” he added. But throughout the day of discussion, it seems several people changed their minds.
Byler has translated and published excerpts of Han comments on Xinjiang from recordings of the Clubhouse discussions. “There were a number of other folks that had very little connection to Xinjiang,” he told The Diplomat. “I thought that their perspectives were some of the most interesting… and the most encouraging in some ways.
“A story of someone changing their mind, even not having visited [Xinjiang], was really good to hear, that someone could be swayed in that way.”
Many self-identified Han Chinese from outside Xinjiang echoed the narratives described above, before the testimony shared on Clubhouse changed their minds.
One had subscribed to the “all Uyghurs are happy” theory:
I have always had a good impression of Xinjiang in my home city on the east coast. I thought everything in Xinjiang is beautiful and good, and everything is getting better. We thought we were just sending groups of cadres to “aid Xinjiang” or to engage in economic construction there, and so on. We did not associate it with the violence we’ve heard in the news. I just found this out after listening to others speak today!
Another, like many of the people interviewed for this story, originally took umbrage at the genocide comparison:
A Jewish friend of mine compared the camps in Xinjiang to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, sharing pictures of both online. I immediately felt like this was a personal attack because China is my homeland, after all. He compared my homeland with the land of the Nazis. I really couldn’t stand it at the time. This was a couple of years ago. I didn’t believe it. Not only did I not believe it, I thought it was an insult. I thought this was just something a foreigner in the United States would say. But like so many people, after listening to many, many, many reports, I gradually believed that I also should start paying attention to this matter.
Unfortunately, Clubhouse was banned within days, cutting off one avenue of exchange that seemed to make a difference in some Chinese residents’ perceptions. Admittedly, the Clubhouse users were not representative: The app is by-invitation-only and required an iPhone, limiting users to a small subset of Chinese. Byler emphasized to The Diplomat that the Chinese who took part in the discussions were “a self-selecting group of people” who likely had more access to Western media than the average Chinese.
Taking the long view, Turkel believes that the truth will eventually come out. “I expect some reasonable Chinese people will find this out and be disturbed,” he told The Diplomat. “What will they tell their children, 10, 15 years down the road when they didn’t say anything?”
Underlying this discussion is the unspoken question: If all of China’s people did know about the abuses in Xinjiang, would it matter?
“If Xinjiang really becomes North Korea, and random massacres and crimes [are] really flourishing,” the West would not need to speak up, Mu, the Beijing-based journalist, said. “Chinese and Han nationality people like me will rise up against the CCP.”
But the CCP, of course, has designed nearly all its policies since it took control of the country precisely to prevent anyone from “rising up.” And herein lies the complexity of the Xinjiang issue. In China, the blurred redlines of what is acceptable discourse and what is not, combined with the imprisonment of people on the wrong side of that line, whatever their ethnicity, leads to a constant process of self-censorship.
“The ‘Ministry of Truth’ has been so effective, both domestically and internationally,” Turkel told The Diplomat. There’s “a fear campaign” that keeps people from talking freely about the Xinjiang issue.
One speaker, who identified himself as a Han from Xinjiang, expressed a similar sentiment in the Clubhouse discussion: “In fact, we Han people are also afraid of these camps… So it isn’t easy for the news inside the camps to get out, but it is even difficult for us to discuss the truth of what the evidence shows. And when we have evidence, those that have it are afraid to share it.”
Mu, however, dismissed that idea. If a Uyghur friend says “nothing happened [in his hometown in Xinjiang]… Of course I believe him.”
“I have interviewed the presidents and civilians of many countries. How can I be easily deceived by my friends?” he added.
He pointed to another recent example: “Not long ago, Nike and other Western companies refused to use Xinjiang cotton, which aroused the boycott and anger of Chinese young people. Almost every one of them can log on to foreign websites, but almost no one believes in Western accusations, because they really don’t have these terrible things around them. They will definitely trust their eyes and ears more.”
As one Han Chinese user said during the Clubhouse discussion, it is possible to find out information from within China, even given the limitations. After all, many of the reports on Xinjiang by Western researchers are based on Chinese government documents. “I found out via some first-hand information and then following some Uyghur bloggers,” the Clubhouse speaker said. “It was from the very obscure language and internal documents on their Weibo that I first learned about this horrible news. So even people in China have some relatively low-risk ways of understanding the current situation in Xinjiang if they are willing to look.”
She added: “I think we really need to ask ourselves what kind of evidence we need to see to be convinced.”
Many thanks to Mu Chunshan for his reporting contributions for this piece.
For more reporting on Xinjiang, see the following articles:
- “Beyond Xinjiang: Xi Jinping’s Ethnic Crackdown,” by James Leibold for The Diplomat
- “‘Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape,” by Matthew Hill, David Campanale, and Joel Gunte for BBC News
- “Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang,” b
- “‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims,” by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley for The New York Times
- “China Cables,” an ICIJ investigation into the surveillance and mass internment without charge or trial of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang
- “‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims,” by James Millward for the New York Review of Books
- “Inside China’s internment camps: Tear gas, Tasers and textbooks,” by Ben Dooley for AFP