Gerry Brownlee 'more concerned now' about Xinjiang after orchestrated China 'propaganda' presentation

National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson is "more concerned now" than previously about activities in China's Xinjiang province after a highly orchestrated presentation by the Chinese Government attempting to show life there as harmonious and prosperous.

A number of New Zealand academics, journalists and figures from non-government organisations (NGOs) attended a Zoom conference on Friday afternoon hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Wellington and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region's Government. 

Viewers were shown a number of propaganda videos seeking to portray Xinjiang as a place of harmony and ethnic unity, while local representatives selected by the government to speak said they were "happy" with their lives and free to live as they wanted. 

In the background of a shot of officials, text said: "Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land".

It was an effort by the Chinese Government to highlight what it says is the "real situation" in Xinjiang after a large number of independent reports and first-hand testimonials showed that more than 1 million Uighurs are detained in concentration camps, subject to torture and forced labour as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates. 

A screenshot of a part of the conference.
A screenshot of a part of the conference. Photo credit: Newshub.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics, described Friday's presentation on Twitter as a "propaganda event".

One former detainee told the BBC earlier this year that women were removed from their cells every night to be raped by "one or more masked Chinese men". Uighurs in New Zealand Newshub has spoken to say they are fearful to return to Xinjiang and know of family members kept in the camps who are subjected to "merciless" oppression.

In March, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there is "clear evidence of severe human rights abuses" in Xinjiang, while other countries' Parliaments have declared a "genocide" is underway in the province. A landmark report from a Washington-based think tank has found China is breaching every prohibited act of the UN Genocide Convention. 

China has always denied accusations of mistreatment, saying the centres are for vocational education and counter-terrorism, something it repeated numerous times on Friday. 

Videos shown at the conference featured people in Xinjiang singing and dancing, taking selfies, supposedly expressing their religion and pushing back against claims of forced sterilisation, while officials rejected accusations of genocide and heralded local economic progress.  

However, China also continues to be reluctant to allow independent observers the opportunity to visit Xinjiang without overwhelming restrictions. Foreign journalists have visited the province, but many have spoken of significant limitations to their movement and being shadowed by officials.

It was a point raised during the conference by Gerry Brownlee, National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

"With all due respect to the speaker who just finished saying you welcome people, journalists, to come and see what is on the lie of the land in Xinjiang, it is caveated with what looks like fairly heavy restrictions and for us that's a strange position," Brownlee said.

The MP went on to say that the Zoom conference was "quite extensive and well organised" and suggested to him that there was concern within the Chinese administration at the international view of Xinjiang.

"To counter that by simply saying 'you can come here, but essentially only see what we want you to see', doesn't take us very far," Brownlee said.

"I am more concerned now than I have been at any point along the continuum of concern about Xinjiang that the effort appears to be to say 'nothing to see here, move on', when in our culture at least, that often means 'there is something to see and we don't want you to see it'." 

He later repeated that point: "Everything I have heard on this Zoom conference has caused me more concern about what might be happening in Xinjiang, simply because the effort appears to be to say that there is nothing to see here, so move on."

Gerry Brownlee.
Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: Newshub.

Wu Xi, the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, responded by saying that Xinjiang welcomes foreigners, but they shouldn't visit the region with their minds already made up. 

"The purpose of the visit should not be an investigation or accountability with the presumption of guilt. This should not be the purpose," she said. "China is a sovereign country and people need to respect China's sovereignty and they need to comply with all the laws and regulations in China."

Wu earlier told attendees the door to Xinjiang was open to "unbiased foreigners" and talks were underway with the United Nations for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit.

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Secretary Chris Seed spoke in February about the prospect of sending officials to Xinjiang. 

"We've regularly supported the idea of a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We also talked to the Chinese Government about visits, including by our diplomatic staff," Seed said. 

"They are certainly willing to have our people go. They make much publicly of this, that diplomats from many countries go. We want to be very clear that if we visited, the basis on which we'd be able to make inquiries and meet our free movement and talk to who they want, and that sort of thing."

Mahuta has repeatedly called for UN officials to have "unfettered access" to the region.

But Wu said on Friday that she doesn't believe there "is any absolute, unfettered access anywhere in the world" and insisted there was no human rights issue in Xinjiang.

She also rejected assertions the conference didn't give an honest portrayal of the region. 

"This is not a propaganda seminar. This is a seminar to enhance mutual understanding and to offer a true story from Xinjiang," she said. "What we are saying today and what we are showing today is the true story from Xinjiang, whether people like it or not, it is the truth and it is what is happening in Xinjiang. It is what the people from Xinjiang are going to tell."

Wu Xi.
Wu Xi. Photo credit: Newshub.

But her comments run counter to the stories of people who have both fled from Xinjiang as well as the families of those who have loved ones in China. 

Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, a Uighur in New Zealand, last week spoke to Newshub Nation about her brother being detained there in 2017. She said she hasn't had any chance to speak to him and has no idea about his status.

"As far as I know there has been no trial, there has been no due process," she said.

Another Kiwi Uighur has told Newshub he avoids communicating with family in Xinjiang as he worries it will get them in trouble. He said police have previously attended their home after they spoke to him. 

New Zealand has repeatedly expressed concern about activities in Xinjiang, both independently and with our partners. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised human rights abuses with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 and said in March that New Zealand will continue to do so.

In a speech to the NZ China Council last week, Mahuta said there were some areas in which New Zealand and China "do not, cannot, and will not, agree", giving issues in Xinjiang as an example.

The ACT Party on Wednesday filed a motion to debate in Parliament whether China is committing acts of genocide against the Uighur people in Xinjiang. The Labour Party, which has a majority in the House, is yet to decide its position.

In regards to labelling the Uighurs' oppression a genocide, Mahuta told Newshub this week that the Government needed to consider further information and she "has asked for wider advice around what are the processes and considerations that go into determining a genocide".

"This requires complex legal and factual assessments and is not a process the Government could undertake lightly."

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty.

Wu said on Friday that "the Xinjiang issue" is purely China's domestic affairs. 

"There have never been such things as genocide, forced labour or religious oppression in Xinjiang. We hope the New Zealand side can hold an objective view and a just position, respect China's core interests and major concerns, and uphold the big picture of bilateral ties with concrete actions."

Shawkat Imin, the chairman of the standing committee of the People’s Congress of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and one of the officials Zooming in from the Chinese province on Friday, said Uighurs "are part of the whole China family".

"Xinjiang is experiencing its most auspicious period of prosperity and development in history. However, some people in the international community with ulterior motives, just ignore facts and spread their vicious rumours about Xinjiang such as establishment of so-called concentration camps and large-scale forced labour and even acts of genocide, which are totally nonsense."