A growing number of far-left activists are denying China’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang
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On Sept. 5, Margaret Kimberley, editor and columnist of the far-left Black Agenda Report, tweeted to her 28,000 followers a screenshot of a headline comparing the conditions in China’s Xinjiang to Nazi Germany. She wrote: “These are lies. There is no evidence of Uighur ‘concentration camps.’ More hybrid war against China.” Two weeks later, she appeared at a talk with Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins in the Bronx.
Less than a week later in an interview on the Chinese state-sponsored CGTV, she declared the United States has the worst incarceration system in the world and it “is in no position to talk about human rights in China or anywhere else.”
Kimberley is one of a growing number of far-left activists arguing the Chinese oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang is a creation of the imperialist United States to manufacture a new Cold War with China. This comports well with China’s denials of reports about the massive detention of more than a million Uighurs in re-education camps. Chinese state media and “wolf warrior” Chinese officials on Twitter eagerly retweet and amplify these voices of doubt.
Initially the Chinese government denied the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang in 2018. But the evidence began building: Relentless investigations by Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters with wide connections in Xinjiang found local officials and residents willing to talk. German researcher Adrian Zenz used public documents online to uncover the government construction of massive camps. Satellite images pinpointed their locations, distinguishable by guard towers and surrounded by razor-wire walls popping up in the deserts of Xinjiang.
Then came personal testimonies: Kazakh nationals who had been swept up in the crackdown told international media about their experiences after being released from the detention centers, while Uighurs, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz shared about their family members disappearing into camps.
The Chinese government pivoted to justifying the camps as “vocational training centers” to rid Uighurs of extremist thoughts and improve their livelihoods. State media began publishing propaganda pieces about how happy and prosperous Uighurs have become thanks to the Chinese Communist Party. They alleged the researchers and groups investigating the camps are funded by the CIA or other Western intelligence agencies.
Now the Western far-left Xinjiang deniers use similar tactics. They question the motives of the U.S. government’s push against Chinese actions in Xinjiang and try to discredit researchers as well as the Uighur diaspora who speak out against the camps. They try to prove the reports are based on shoddy research while whole-heartedly accepting Chinese propaganda as fact.
Some deniers write for smaller online publications such as Black Agenda Report, L.A. Progressive, Popular Resistance, and the magazine CounterPunch, according to a report by Coda Story. The Qiao Collective, which calls itself “a diaspora Chinese media collective challenging U.S. aggression on China,” has more than 28,000 followers on Twitter and published an in-depth analysis to counter “Western misinformation” about Xinjiang.
One of the most notable groups in pushing this narrative is The Grayzone, a far-left news site founded by Max Blumenthal that positions itself against U.S. interventionist foreign policy. The site also supports the Assad regime in Syria, questioning accusations of the Syrian president’s abuses; backs Venezuela’s dictator Nicolas Maduro; and claims Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are backed by the CIA. Blumenthal, who has 206,000 Twitter followers, has been interviewed by Russian state-controlled RT as well as China’s CGTV and the nationalistic Global Times.
A December 2019 Grayzone article claims the figure of more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps is based solely on two “highly dubious” studies from 2018, one by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and another by Zenz published in the academic journal Central Asian Survey. Researchers admit the difficulty in getting accurate data on the exact size and scope of the camps due to the Chinese government’s clampdown and the high risks of those who speak out. Yet they used a variety of sources and data to support their estimates.
First, Grayzone tries to discredit the background of the two studies, claiming CHRD is inherently untrustworthy because it receives U.S. government funding while Zenz works for Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which Grayzone considers a far-right group established by the U.S. government. The writers also particularly take offense at Zenz’s faith, calling him an “evangelical religious fanatic” who “believes he is ‘led by God’ on a ‘mission’ against China.”
They fault the CHRD study for basing its claims—that 1 million Uighurs were being held in re-education camps and 2 million were forced to attend mandatory re-education sessions—on interviews with only eight Uighur individuals.
But a look at the study shows that researchers interviewed dozens of Uighur villagers in several counties and then asked interviewees in eight different villages in Kashgar Prefecture to estimate the number of people in their village who had been taken to re-education camps. Answers ranged from 8 to 20 percent, with an average of 12 percent.
The study noted that based on these interviews, as well as numbers provided by high-level Xinjiang officials, the authors conservatively estimated at least 10 percent of villagers in Southern Xinjiang, or 660,000 people, were detained in re-education centers while 20 percent, 1.3 million people, attended day/evening re-education sessions. They cautioned against generalizing the 10 percent figure for all of Xinjiang (which would equal 1.1 million in camps). But given that other minorities were also being sent to camps, “the numbers may not be inconceivable.”
Grayzone also claims Zenz’s estimate is derived from a dubious source: a report by Istiqlal TV, a Uighur exile media organization based in Turkey, which was republished by Newsweek Japan. Istiqlal TV published a table of re-education detainee figures allegedly leaked by Chinese authorities that totaled 892,000. The Grayzone writers also tried to discredit the other evidence claiming Radio Free Asia is “a U.S.-funded news agency created by the CIA during the Cold War to propagandize against China.”
Yet RFA’s Uighur services, which is the only Uighur-language news outlet in the world independent of the Chinese government, is considered one of the most reliable sources of information on what is happening in Xinjiang. Even as the reporters’ own family members are detained, they place hundreds of calls each day to Xinjiang to talk to local officials, verify claims and numbers, document the experiences of residents, and break stories on the oppression in the region.
What Grayzone leaves out is that Zenz’s paper also goes in-depth into publicly available evidence of the camps from official Chinese sources: government websites, media reports of “transformation through education training centers,” government construction bids, local budget reports, and employment ads for security positions. He also draws on the satellite images from researcher Shawn Zhang, who used Google Earth to verify the construction based on timing and floor sizes. Zenz concluded, “It is reasonable to speculate that the total number of detainees might range anywhere between several hundred thousand and just over 1 million.”
Since Zenz first published his report, much more information and data have come out. The Kazakh organization Atajurt recorded thousands of testimonials from family members outside China who have loved ones in the camps. The Xinjiang Victims Database lists nearly 11,000 people in camps, forced labor, detained in prison, or kept in police custody. Foreign journalists took reporting trips to Xinjiang in 2017 and early 2018—before police largely closed off the region—documenting emptied villages, oppressive surveillance, and sprawling detention camps.
Two major leaks in 2019 provided more detail. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the China Cables, classified government manuals for operating camps and intelligence briefs revealing how police used data collection to determine who to detain. The New York Times published the Xinjiang Papers, a 400-page trove of government documents on Xinjiang, including a script for local officials to follow explaining to Uighur students studying abroad why their parents were missing when they returned home.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also used open-source Chinese-language documents, satellite imagery analysis, academic research, and on-the-ground media reporting to reveal that the Chinese government had shipped Uighurs who had graduated from the camps to forced labor in factories. Using years of research, ASPI also created the world’s most comprehensive database, mapping more than 380 detention sites across Xinjiang built or significantly expanded since 2017.
Grayzone discredits ASPI as a “right-wing, militaristic outfit” founded by the Australian government and funded by the country’s Department of Defense, sponsored by weapons manufacturers (only 2 percent of its 2019-20 revenue came from defense industries).
After the publication of the ASPI camp database, researcher Nathan Ruser received tweets from people trying to disprove the existence of camps. They claimed the alleged camps are actually apartment complexes, schools, or other common buildings. But Ruser went through each claim to disprove them.
Some of the pictures the online sleuths used were outdated. Others used the wrong GPS coordinates. The government also often turns former government buildings—as well as retirement homes, schools, disease centers, and hospitals—into camps as the number of detainees increases.
Some of the strongest evidence of the camps has been former detainees’ testimonies, as well as testimonies of detainees’ family members. Yet deniers claim they make up sob stories for fame. As proof, they point to videos that the Chinese government released—almost certainly under duress—from the family members saying how happy they are living in China and how grateful they are to the Chinese government.
They also discredit Uighur activists and advocacy groups for their connections to the United States. They accuse Rushan Abbas, the director of Campaign for Uyghurs, of being a CIA asset because of her previous position as a translator for the Bush administration at Guantanamo Bay. The Grayzone also published a piece claiming the World Uyghur Congress is a “U.S. government-backed umbrella for several Washington-based outfits that also rely heavily on U.S. funding and direction.” Author Ajit Singh pointed to grants it receives from the National Endowment for Democracy and criticized how its members met with Trump administration officials and Republican senators.
Xinjiang camp deniers also point to the fact that only Western countries have spoken out against China as evidence Western powers concocted the issue. In July 2019, 22 countries signed a letter to the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights calling for China to end the Xinjiang camps, while 50 countries signed another letter defending China’s policies. The former group is made up of mostly European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
The second group is made up of Middle Eastern and African countries, as well as authoritarian countries with their own human rights abuses like North Korea, Venezuela, and Russia. Deniers claim there can’t be a real problem in Xinjiang if Muslim countries support China. What they fail to acknowledge is how many of China’s defenders are economically reliant on Chinese investment.
In October, 39 countries signed a joint statement to the U.N. human rights committee criticizing China’s treatment of Uighurs, while 45 countries supported China’s measures. Ruser noted that 15 Muslim-majority countries that had signed the 2019 letter supporting China did not do so in October, leaving only 13 Muslim-majority countries on the list of countries supporting China.
After addressing tweets questioning the work of Xinjiang researchers, Zenz tweeted in September: “I frankly find it utterly disgusting how Xinjiang atrocity denialists turn into amateur satellite analysts/demographers/ethnic minority policy experts, addressing years of research and expertise with a bunch of superficial nonsense cooked up and posted in a matter of hours.”
He added: “I wonder if the denialists ever ponder how much painstaking work goes into uncovering this horrendous atrocity.”
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