Visiting Xinjiang for the second time in just over a year, President Xi Jinping vowed to double down on China’s hardline policies toward the 11 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs who live in the restive, far-western region.
Maintaining “hard-won social stability” would remain the top priority, and that stability must be used to “guarantee development,” Xi said during a speech on Saturday in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, state media reported.
Xi said it was necessary to “combine the development of the anti-terrorism and anti-separatism struggle with the push for normalizing social stability work and the rule of law.” He also told officials to further “promote the Sinicization of Islam” and “effectively control various illegal religious activities.”
Under Xi, China has clamped down hard on the Uyghurs since 2017, detaining 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in concentration camps, in reaction to sporadic terrorist attacks that Uyghurs say are fueled by years of government oppression. Beijing has also sought to destroy religious and cultural sites and eradicate the Uyghur language and its culture.
The United States and legislatures of several Western countries have declared that abuses committed by China — including arbitrary detentions, torture, forced sterilizations of Uyghur women and the use of Uyghur forced labor — amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
China denies the accusations, saying its Xinjiang policies are necessary to combat religious extremism and “terrorism.”
Uyghur advocates denounced Xi’s remarks, saying they pointed to more repression.
“It’s crystal clear from Xi Jinping’s speech in Urumqi that the Chinese government and he intend to continue the ongoing Uyghur genocide and crimes against humanity in East Turkestan,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang.
Noting that Xi called for more positive propaganda on Xinjiang, Isa cautioned the international community “not to be fooled” by those false images and messages.
Xi last visited Xinjiang in July 2022, before the U.N.’s human rights office issued a report concluding that China may have committed genocide and crimes against humanity.
‘War on Islam’
On Monday, Rusha Abbas, executive director of the campaign for Uyghurs, said Xi’s use of the phrase “Sinicization of Islam” meant “war on Islam,” while “counter-terrorism measures” meant “mass imprisonment.”
Xi also emphasizes security as the priority in Xinjiang followed by the region’s economic development, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and an expert on the Xinjiang region.
“In that context he strongly emphasizes cultural assimilation, Uyghurs learning Chinese, and a Sinicization of Islam,” he said.
Zenz also noted that Xi’s point on the need for Uyghurs to work in other provinces of China and along the East Coast is significant because the government has long suppressed statistics on labor transfers to other areas.
“That’s actually a very important data point — an important point of evidence — and really an argument why the United States really urgently needs to add many more Chinese companies to the blacklist” related to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
Signed into law in December 2021, the act requires American companies that import goods from Xinjiang to prove that they have not been manufactured with Uyghur forced labor at any production stage.
David Tobin, a lecturer on East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, said the speech signaled that the Communist Party “will not listen to criticism on its ethnic policy in general and its policies towards the Uyghur people in particular.”
“Domestically, Xi Jinping is signaling to party state officials and regional leaders that he is in command and his policies must be implemented,” he said. “So, the visit is a display and an assertion of strength, but also belies a weakness to these concerns.”