BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) - China is mounting an increasingly sophisticated counterattack to criticism of its policies in the restive, heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang, courting foreign media and running opinion pieces abroad as it seeks to spin a more positive message.
Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, scholars, foreign governments and U.N. rights experts over mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups who call Xinjiang home.
The United States is even looking at sanctions on senior Chinese officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses there, which would further ratchet up tension amid their blistering trade war.
China says Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists and has rejected all accusations of mistreatment in an area where hundreds have been killed in recent years in unrest between Uighurs and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
Officials say they are putting some people through “vocational” style courses to rein in extremism, and have denounced hostile foreign forces for sowing misinformation.
In an opinion piece last week in the Jakarta Post entitled “Xinjiang, what a wonderful place,” China’s ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, wrote that religious rights were respected and protected there and attacks were “anti-religion in nature”.
He added, “But regrettably, a few institutions and people from the West pursue double standards, deliberately distorting the facts, speculating on the so-called ‘re-education camps’ and misrepresenting (the) Chinese government’s efforts to prevent religious extremism and promote deradicalisation.”
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, has also written to the Financial Times and the Economist to defend its policy on Xinjiang.
Privately, however, China has not been so willing to discuss Xinjiang with foreign diplomats, say two diplomats who have attended meetings with Chinese officials.
“They just shut you down,” said one of the diplomats.
Last month, the Chinese government invited a small group of foreign reporters to a briefing on the sidelines of a U.N. human rights meeting in Geneva, to put its side of the story in unusually strong and outspoken terms.
Li Xiaojun, publicity director at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office, which is the office of the Chinese cabinet’s spokesman, denied mistreating Muslims in Xinjiang, and said China was trying to avoid the problems of radicalization Europe had experienced.
“Look at Belgium, look at Paris, look at some other European countries,” Li said, referring to recent terror attacks in these locations blamed on Islamic extremists. “You have failed.”
Government officials at the Geneva event were accompanied by five Chinese academic experts, who all remained silent when asked if they had any criticism of China’s human rights record.
The five said they had not been to Xinjiang recently.
Asked how they knew about conditions there, Wang Xiaolin, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said there were a lot of information channels, such as television broadcasts, social media, and information shared by business people, tourists and academics and friends who traveled there.
It is hard to quantify whether anyone is paying attention to what China has been saying on Xinjiang. Ambassador Xiao’s piece for the Jakarta Post was roasted by followers of the paper’s Facebook and Twitter pages as Chinese “propaganda”.
Asked about China’s efforts to put its side of the story and whether its messaging had been effective, the Foreign Ministry said the region was stable and prosperous, with no attacks for more than a year.
“On Xinjiang matters, the Chinese people have the most right to speak,” it said in a short statement sent to Reuters.
Foreign human rights groups and exiles have been unimpressed with China’s defense, and held their own panel in Geneva.
“What we are seeing now in East Turkestan is more than just repression: it is an intentional campaign of assimilation by the Chinese government targeting the Uighur identity,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the exiled World Uyghur Congress, using the term the community employs to refer to Xinjiang.
China has sought to cast its security crackdown in resource-rich Xinjiang - strategically located on the borders of Afghanistan, central Asia, India and Pakistan - as part of the wider global “war on terror”.
All countries have a responsibility to protect their security and that of their citizens, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told the Financial Times in an interview published last week, whose transcript was released by the foreign ministry.
“The Chinese government will not permit Xinjiang to become a second Syria, Libya or Iraq,” said Le, an increasingly influential voice in China’s diplomacy, whom diplomatic sources in Beijing say is tipped as a possible future foreign minister.
“If upheaval in Xinjiang spreads outside the borders, it will affect the stability of central Asia and the Middle East, and maybe spread to Europe.”
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Tom Miles; Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Clarence Fernandez