Chinese state media compares Xinjiang to New Zealand in article pushing back against Uighur human rights abuse

Chinese state media has compared the nation's Xinjiang province to New Zealand in an article attempting to bolster the region's appeal and deflect from the human rights abuses underway there.

Over recent years, as credible first-hand reports emerge, China's north-western province of Xinjiang has become well-known internationally for hosting concentration camps said to house millions of members of the Uighur minority. There, Uighurs are said to be subject to torture, rape, sterilisation and brainwashing in attempt by the Chinese authorities to eradicate their religion. 

With growing evidence of such human rights abuse, more countries are speaking up against China. The United States, Canada and, on Friday, the Netherlands, have called the treatment of Uighurs genocide, while many others, including New Zealand, have condemned the abuses.

China has always claimed the concentration camps are sites of vocational education and are critical to counter-terrorism. 

With pressure mounting, its state media outlet, the Global Times, on Thursday evening (NZT) published an "in-depth" report blasting those making "absurd claims" about activities underway in Xinjiang, continuing to suggest nothing untoward is happening in the region. 

The piece paints Xinjiang as an "important hub in connecting the Chinese, Central Asian and European markets" and boasts about its rising life expectancy, "idyllic scenery" and "high-quality produce".

"In this aspect, Xinjiang is the same as other great farming regions of the world from Italy to New Zealand, where travelers are often impressed by the local spirit of hard work, passion for life, and desire to succeed."

The Heavenly Lake of Tianshan in Xinjiang.
The Heavenly Lake of Tianshan in Xinjiang. Photo credit: Newshub/Rebecca Watson

However, media reports and leaked government documents highlight a far darker side to life in the province. 

The Global Times piece claims that, since 2018, 151,000 people from poverty-stricken families in southern Xinjiang have found employment away from home and those inside the region "have a right to their respective customs, language, culture, and religious beliefs".

It also rejects the accusation that Uighurs are forced to harvest cotton, saying that cotton production in Xinjiang has become "highly mechanised" and there is no need for "a multitude of cotton pickers". 

However, last year, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington DC think tank, published a report based on Chinese Government documents, finding that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are forced to pick cotton as part of a "coercive labour training and transfer scheme".

"Government supervision teams monitor pickers, checking that they have a 'stable' state of mind, and administer political indoctrination sessions."

In response to concerns about forced labour in Xinjiang, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada all prohibited imports from the region earlier this year. 

New Zealand MP Louisa Wall, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance of China, on Thursday questioned whether Aotearoa could set up a legislative regime to prevent us from trading with regions where there is suspicion of modern slavery. 

The Global Times piece also responded to accusations of systematic sexual assault in Xinjiang. It claims that at the February 3 event called 'Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land' women who had "graduated from vocational training centres" in the region declared such allegations were "complete nonsense".

Just a day before that event, the BBC published testimonies from former Uighur camp detainees about "an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture". One said women were removed from their cells every night to be raped by "one or more masked Chinese men". 

"She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men," the BBC reported.

The BBC says while it is impossible to verify that account because of the severe restrictions China places on journalists in the country, descriptions of the camp, the routines detainees are subjected to and the abuse aligns with that of other former detainees. 

Other groups to publish harrowing details about activities in Xinjiang include the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). In 2019, the ICIJ published a raft of Chinese Government documents detailing a mass surveillance programme underway in Xinjiang.

Many of the claims made by the Global Times on Thursday were also presented by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

"Excuses are everywhere if one is bent on hurling accusations at someone. I have to say that the last thing on the mind of certain Western countries is the well-being of people in Xinjiang. They simply want to interfere in China's internal affairs and disrupt the development of Xinjiang and the whole China under the pretext of human rights," spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

"But they should know that their plans will never work out. They should be mindful of their own shameful past of murdering indigenous people, as well as their domestic problems of severe racial discrimination and rights abuses against the indigenous people. They don't need to look any further for a place to pin their 'genocide' label. Just take a mirror."

New Zealand has made several moves in recent years to condemn the human rights abuses. While in China in 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Aotearoa has also been party to several international statements on the abuses, including in October.

However, New Zealand has yet to call the actions genocide as other countries, including two Five Eyes nations, have. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says Aotearoa supports a United Nations fact-finding mission into the region "to get to the bottom of what is happening there".