China Intensifies Lobbying to Thwart Criticism of Muslim Detentions

By Chun Han Wong in Beijing and Laurence Norman in Brussels
Updated Jan. 11, 2019 1:29 p.m. ET

China has escalated efforts to repel foreign criticism of its policing, mass detentions and forced-assimilation measures targeting Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region, stepping up diplomacy and public-relations efforts.

Chinese diplomats have petitioned several governments in their capitals against attacking Beijing’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations, according to diplomats briefed on the matter.

Beijing has also arranged choreographed visits to the region for selected foreign diplomats and reporters—many from Muslim-majority nations friendly with China—while rebuffing Western requests for similar trips. But the stage-managed tour “raised more questions than it answered” for some diplomats, said a diplomat familiar with the trip.

Activists and diplomats said China’s goal is to beat back Western-led accusations of rights abuses against Xinjiang’s chiefly Muslim Uighur ethnic group, and head off criticism from Muslim-majority countries, where public anger is starting to simmer over Beijing’s repression of Islam.

China has struggled for decades to curb separatist sentiment in Xinjiang, a mountainous frontier abutting Central Asia that 11 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs—nearly half the region’s population—regard as their homeland.

After an increase in antigovernment violence and terrorism in Xinjiang in recent years, President Xi Jinping launched a high-intensity security campaign that U.N. officials said may have placed as many as one million Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps, where they were subjected to political indoctrination.

Bulking Up An Australian think tank's analysis of satellite images identifies 28 facilities in China's Xinjiang region believed to be part of a mass-detention program mainly targeting Muslims

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT The Wall Street Journal

The clampdown has sparked an international outcry and accusations of human-rights abuses. China has defended its methods as vital and effective for defeating extremism.

As scrutiny intensified, Beijing deployed publicity and diplomatic pressure to contain the fallout.

After months of denying the existence of a mass-detention program, Chinese officials switched to forcefully defending their Xinjiang policies, describing the camps as vocational schools and crediting them for containing extremism.

A woman takes part in a sewing class at the training center in Kashgar during a government-organized tour last week. Photo: ben blanchard/Reuters

The government has proclaimed that minority cultures and religious activities are flourishing in Xinjiang. State media scaled up English-language coverage of economic development in the impoverished region, touting a reduction in poverty and growing tourist arrivals.

On the diplomatic front, Chinese officials have been pressing Western governments for weeks to avoid public criticism of its Xinjiang policies at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The discussions started ahead of a November meeting on China’s human-rights policies—a regular peer-review discussion at the council—with the U.K. and the European Union among those approached by China, diplomats said. Following that meeting, where more than a dozen Western countries raised concerns about China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, Chinese efforts accelerated.

In December, Chinese diplomats made formal representations to at least three countries—one Asian and two European countries, including Belgium—and used informal conversations in other European capitals to try to avert future public criticism, European and Asian diplomats said. In the case of Belgium, there was repeated outreach by Chinese officials about their concerns, a European diplomat said.

Publicity tour

Countries whose diplomats participated in a government-organized tour of Xinjiang in late December (asterisk denotes Muslim-majority country)

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian bloc led by China and Russia: Russia, Kazakhstan*, Kyrgyzstan*, Uzbekistan*, Tajikistan*, India and Pakistan.  Other participants: Afghanistan*, Indonesia*, Malaysia*, Thailand and Kuwait*

Diplomats described the outreach as a pre-emptive campaign to pressure governments against requesting a special session of the Human Rights Council to discuss Xinjiang.

The council can convene special sessions to discuss rights abuses and emergencies if 16 of its 47 members agree. Recent special sessions have focused on the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Syrian crisis.

European diplomats said convening a special session against China would be a last resort and hadn’t been seriously considered. Only about seven Western governments are council members at any one time. The U.S. quit the Human Rights Council last year.

While many countries try to ward off criticism at the Human Rights Council through diplomatic lobbying, Beijing’s overtures signal heightened concern about widening international backlash over Xinjiang, activists and diplomats said.

“This is China’s default mode with U.N. human-rights mechanisms: to ensure that they do not robustly address China-related issues,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

China’s Foreign Ministry defended Chinese policies in Xinjiang as necessary for fighting terrorism and extremism, while decrying foreign criticism as biased and ill-meaning.

“Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs and we will never allow any external forces to make irresponsible remarks or interfere,” the ministry said. “Chinese diplomats are duty-bound to firmly defend the country’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

Late last year, a group of 18 Western ambassadors in Beijing—led by the Canadian envoy—wrote to Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief to ask for a meeting to discuss the treatment of Uighurs and other minorities, but didn’t get a response, according to people familiar with the matter.

In December, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and Germany’s human-rights commissioner, Bärbel Kofler, said Beijing hadn’t acceded to their requests to visit Xinjiang.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters this week that all parties, including U.N. officials, would be welcome in Xinjiang as long as they “abide by Chinese laws and comply with relevant procedures.”

Last month, the Foreign Ministry arranged a Xinjiang tour for 12 diplomats, mainly from Beijing’s neighbors and partners. Most of them are Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Indonesia, where public anger has started to bubble over Beijing’s treatment of Muslims. Many of their governments share close economic ties with Beijing.

The itinerary for the three-day trip included a meeting with Xinjiang’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, and visits to mosques, an industrial zone, a police station and three “vocational-education and training centers,” the government’s label for re-education camps holding Uighurs.

Uighur residents appeared to have been coached to give standard replies to visitors’ queries, while visitors were closely watched by chaperones throughout the trip, according to diplomats.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the tour was meant to boost understanding and cooperation. The Xinjiang government didn’t immediately respond to questions.

At the vocational centers, several trainees told diplomats that they volunteered for training as a way to rid themselves of “extremist thoughts” and acquire work skills, diplomats familiar with the trip said. They said security cameras appeared to have been removed from the classrooms the diplomats visited, leaving bare mountings on the walls.

A trip in early January for five foreign news agencies, including one Western outlet, followed what appeared to be an identical itinerary, according to reporters’ accounts.

—Bojan Pancevski in Berlin and Eva Dou in Beijing contributed to this article.