By Dee Knight, November 14, 2023
Neither peace nor common prosperity were the focus of talks between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco this week. Biden seemed determined to stick with spurious claims of “genocide” and “forced labor” against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, China’s economically dynamic far western province. And he seemed to expect China to accept US views on Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and Israel’s genocide in Palestine. A November 10 NY Times report said China wants reassurances that “the US does not seek to change China’s system, does not seek a new Cold War, does not support Taiwan independence and has no intention to seek decoupling from China.” The two sides remain far apart.
Xinjiang, China’s far western province, has borders with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is China’s Belt and Road portal to all these countries.
On a ten-day visit to China in early November with the theme that “China Is Not Our Enemy,” I had an opportunity to visit Xinjiang’s two major cities – Urumqi and Kashgar – hoping to see the situation up close. There have been horrific claims by US officials and the mainstream media of severe repression of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uyghur population. While these claims have recently been “walked back,” or reduced to claims of “cultural genocide” according to a YouTube report by Cyrus Janssen, our delegation wanted to see for ourselves. (The “cultural genocide” claim relates to the fact that Mandarin Chinese is a required subject in Xinjiang’s schools, while the Uyghur language is an elective.)
No matter what you might expect from Xinjiang, it’s full of surprises – mostly very pleasant. After a five-hour flight from Beijing, Urumqi, the capital, appears like a valley oasis emerging as the rugged and craggy (and very high) Tianshan mountains loom nearby. This city of 4 million (of whom over half are Uyghurs and smaller percentages are Hui and Khazak), is a market center serving as a portal to Central Asia on the western edge of China’s famous Belt and Road. It buzzes with activity, especially near the wholesale markets where traders come to order all kinds of consumer products from everywhere, but mainly either from local artisans or from China’s manufacturing centers in the east and southeast of the country. We took advantage of wholesale prices to get a coat and hat suitable for the chilly autumn weather, and an extra piece of luggage to manage our tourist acquisitions.
China’s State Council on October 31 announced a plan to build a Xinjiang Free Trade Zone, including the regional capital of Urumqi, Kashgar prefecture and Horgos. It is the first such zone in China’s northwest border region and the 22nd pilot Free Trade Zone in China.
While shopping for beautiful silk scarves in the main bazaar, we were served by a 21-year-old Uyghur woman who spoke near-perfect English. She told us she learned it in a 10-month course in a government-sponsored training center. The training gave her the skill she needs to earn a living in the bazaar, where other members of her family also work.
The bazaar serves everyone, but more Uyghurs than Han Chinese, and very few European or north American tourists. The bad news media coverage of repression or even so-called “genocide” has definitely had an impact, even though floods of Han Chinese tourists come every day. We noticed Uyghurs and Han Chinese mixing, mingling and melding nonchalantly while shopping and doing business. Street signs and advertisements typically appeared in both Chinese characters and Arabic script. On the street, we noticed there are small police stations at many major intersections, and we even saw deployments of military guards at two locations. Our guide said this level of security has been in place since the outbreaks of violence in 2009. Our sense was that the sentinels had very little to do.
After shopping we were treated to a brilliant dance performance by a group of young Uyghur women and men, who invited us to join with them. We now have a video of my Dominican wife, Consuelo, dancing with the Uyghurs. We then wandered through the bazaar to choose among a dozen tempting options for a typical Uyghur cuisine of shishkabob, nang bread and a delicious, spicy stew of chicken, potatoes and other vegetables. Following dinner we wandered along the line of restaurants till we found the public washroom – apparently a staple in most large Chinese cities, as we noticed the same in Shanghai and Beijing. Very clean and well attended by uniformed staff, the washroom has women’s and men’s sides with a line of about eight discreet stalls each, and a unisex handwashing section in the front.
We took the metro subway just to enjoy the experience. About 20 years old, it has escalators at both ends, and sports ultra-clean marble floors. The train cars are the same as in Shanghai and Beijing – very clean and remarkably quiet. Moving barriers made of heavy glass shield passengers as trains enter and leave the station. A soft voice announces each stop, which is also shown on a lighted map inside the car. Our guide checked and advised us that 31 major Chinese cities now have metro subway systems – about as many as the rest of the world combined.
Emerging from the metro took us to the buzz of the city’s downtown streets, a welter of lights of many colors among the hotels, restaurants, bars and business centers. This predominantly Muslim city is not totally abstemious, but don’t expect to be offered beer or wine with dinner.
About the outbreaks of violence mentioned earlier, and related government response, the following slightly edited excerpt from my book, A Realistic Path to Peace, provides some important and fully documented findings.
There has been a barrage of scandal stories in western media broadcasting the plight of the Uyghurs. Many of them echoed US government claims that China was committing genocide. This claim is unfounded, based on flimsy “evidence” that has been repeatedly debunked. The use of the term concentration camps to describe detention facilities has also been dubious (the 21-year-old woman we met in the bazaar told us of learning English in a training center). Such facilities were set up by the government to provide under-employed Uyghurs with vocational skills, recreational activities, medical services and other benefits. Most have included dormitories, where people who lived far from the center could stay during the week, and return home on weekends.
The US media coverage has not addressed the strategic importance of Xinjiang. Canadian reporter Daniel Dumbrill reported that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has claimed responsibility for attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, has been identified as a terrorist organization by the governments of China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey and the United States. The US government removed ETIM from its list of terrorist organizations in October 2020 and has since provided funds to it through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Following explosive incidents of terrorist violence by ETIM, the Chinese government responded with repression. How much repression, and for how long, are matters of controversy.
When Noam Chomsky was asked in an April 2021 New York Times podcast interview whether the situation of the Uyghurs was worse than the people of Gaza, he said “No. The Uyghurs were not having their power plants destroyed, their sewage plants destroyed,” and were “not subjected to regular bombing.” (Recent official US denials of genocide in Palestine where many thousands have been killed by Israeli bombs with US support, absolve the Israeli leaders who have called Palestinians “human animals” and promised to drive them out of this historic land. In contrast, they scream of “genocide” and “slave labor” in Xinjiang, but fail to provide evidence. That’s why we wanted to see for ourselves.)
The exact number of Uyghurs placed in education camps is not known in the West. China has called the camps a large-scale job training program, as part of its national anti-poverty crusade. On a personal visit to Xinjiang, Daniel Dumbrill found that a very small minority of Uyghurs were repressed, and a large portion benefited from job training.
Professor Zhun Xu of John Jay College in New York, says “if [China] has engaged in forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group,” there should be a decrease in the Uyghur population and increase in the Han. But Xinjiang’s Uyghur population increased by 24.9 percent from 2010 to 2018, while the Han population in Xinjiang grew by only 2.2 percent. (Cited by Reese Ehrlich, from Zhun Xu’s upcoming book, Sanctions as War)
Right-wing religious extremist Adrian Zenz, who states he is “led by God” on a “mission against China,” is the main source for US government and media criticism of Xinjiang conditions. He is also funded by The Jamestown Foundation, an arch-conservative defense policy think tank in Washington, DC, which was co-founded by William Casey, Reagan’s CIA director. Other important sources are the World Uyghur Congress, the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, and the Uyghur American Association – all of which receive substantial NED funding.
Other sources include the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – both militaristic think tanks funded by US and Western governments and weapons manufacturers. ASPI and CSIS successfully spearheaded a campaign against “forced labor” in Xinjiang, stimulating moves in Congress to ban US imports from Xinjiang.
Professor Kenneth Hammond of New Mexico State University recently explained the two main aspects of Chinese government policy toward ethnic and religious minorities: first, preservation and respect for their language and culture and, second, inclusion and opportunity through education, health care and job training. Improved health care programs in Xinjiang have contributed to life expectancy increasing there from 31 years in 1949 to 72 currently.
In 1949 there were 54 medical centers in Xinjiang; in 2017 there were more than 7,300 health care facilities and more than 1,600 hospitals. Literacy increased from ten percent to more than 90 percent in the same period. Average income in Xinjiang has increased more than ten percent since 2017.
Tens of millions of Chinese people practice the Islamic faith. Of China’s 55 officially recognized minority peoples, ten are Sunni Muslim. There are more Islamic mosques in China than the United States. Uyghurs are the second largest group, after the Hui.
Most Uyghurs practice a moderate form of Islam called Sufism, which promotes an ascetic lifestyle and shuns material wants. Sufism is incompatible with radical Islamic fundamentalism and Wahhabism, extremist beliefs which have been associated with terrorism in recent decades. The overwhelming majority of Uyghurs are not militant or extremist in outlook.
Before leaving Urumqi we visited the nearby countryside, nestled at the foot of the mountains. We were astonished to find a pair of ski resorts and an artist colony, as well as a little town with a string of stores offering delicacies – some made locally and others from nearby Kazakhstan and Russia. We stepped into a very chic coffee shop that looked out on the mountains. My cappuchino was at least as good as what we get at Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, not counting the spectacular mountain view. Our guide mentioned that the Han Chinese tourists and businesspeople who have settled in this area live at a somewhat higher standard than most of the residents in Xinjiang. And they tend not to meld and mingle in the way we had observed in Urumqi. We should bear in mind that the increase of Han residents in the past decade has been just over two percent, while the Uyghurs have grown by about 25 percent. China’s mixed economy is much in evidence in Xinjiang, with small businesses everywhere.
Ancient, enchanting Kashgar
We flew from Urumqi to Kashgar, the second largest city in Xinjiang, with about 700,000 residents, a mix of numerous ethnic groups including Uyghur, Han, Tajik and Kyrgiz. The Uyghurs are the majority. Our driver spoke Mandarin Chinese with our guide, but communicated with everyone else in the Uyghur language. The place buzzes with activity, but at a less frenetic pace than Urumqi or the “mainland” cities back in China’s east.
We visited the imposing Id Kah Mosque – one of the biggest in China – which faces the ancient Kashgar Old Town. There is a plaque near the mosque’s entrance, in Arabic, Chinese and English, saying it was designated in 2001 as “a key relics preservation site” by the national State Council. Large amounts of state funding have been allocated since then for major maintenance projects. The plaque says “this demonstrates that our country implements the policy of freedom of religion.” People come and go in the mosque, but five times a day it fills nearly to its capacity of between two and three thousand worshipers for prayers.
The Uyghurs are Sufi Muslims – distinct and less strict than the Sunni Islam practiced in most of central and western Asia. Kashgar, as the center of Uyghur culture, is famous as “the home of songs and dances.” We enjoyed watching nearly spontaneous dance performances in both Kashgar and Urumqi. When dancing the Uyghur women wore bright colored dresses, head scarves and earrings, bracelets and necklaces. It seems clear that this “merrier” expression clashes with the conservative, strict discipline of the jihadi-Wahhabi sect which formed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that waged a violent campaign to convert the Uyghurs and use them for their separatist plans. That effort didn’t work, but has motivated the continued increased security presence, especially in Urumqi, to prevent any renewed upsurge of violence.
Slavery in the cotton fields? No!
The countryside north and west of Kashgar is an agricultural wonderland. Apple orchards, vineyards, cotton and wheat fields stretch for miles. We were especially interested in the cotton fields, due to hysterical US and European claims of “slave labor,” leading to a widespread boycott of Chinese cotton products. We observed long lines of flatbed semi-trailers loaded with huge three-ton bales of cotton from the current ongoing cotton harvest.
We watched a big mechanical harvester moving through a multi-acre cotton field “chewing up” the cotton and “spitting out” the bales. We arrived just before lunchtime, and noticed the harvester had completed half the field, producing 20 bails, for 60 tons, and expected to complete that field by the end of the day, for a total of 40 bales. The same process had already cleared the cotton from dozens of similar fields in the area.
We also saw several gangs of hand laborers cleaning out the cotton on the edges of these fields, working in groups of ten or twelve, with their scooters parked along the sides of the fields. We determined that these people are day laborers contracted through a local temporary labor cooperative. They’re paid on a “piece work” basis by the bags of cotton they pick. Our guide said they earn between $20 and $40 (US) for a day’s work. Not much, of course, but it’s definitely not slavery, and it merely cleans up the parts of the cotton fields the big harvester machines can’t reach. We could also see the cotton bales and hand-picked stacks of raw cotton outside the processing plants not far from the fields. The bales were vastly more of the stock than the hand-picked stacks.
This finding is important. It shows that western accusations of “slave labor” serve to create a scandal that’s used to try and isolate China and strangle its economy. Some US fashion companies have taken the initiative to investigate for themselves, in order to prove they are not participating in or benefiting from a “slave trade.” Ironically, the “slavery” slander can be considered a projection of the West’s own centuries of reliance on slavery to enrich itself and generate the Industrial Revolution. This in turn made possible Great Britain’s demolition of India’s cotton and textile industries, followed by its invasion of China in the Opium War of the mid-19th century. The resulting century of humiliation of China by the western powers was just fine with the invaders. Now they pretend to be concerned about “human rights” in China, when their real problem is that China has been successful and is now able to prosper from its own agriculture and industry.
Xinjiang, especially its two key cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, is an enchanting place, loaded with exotic culture and history dating back centuries. It is also a very special and dynamic hub for China’s burgeoning Belt and Road. Kashgar itself is exactly halfway between Shanghai and Paris – 5,000 kilometers from each. It sits on the border with Pakistan, and serves as the starting point for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which serves to increase prosperity for both countries, and also to provide China with access to Karachi, Pakistan’s port on the Arabian Sea.
Both Urumqi and Kashgar teem with tourism, but we were the only “gringos” present, as a Chinese police officer advised our guide. That’s a tragedy. More westerners need to come and see for themselves. That may be the best way to disprove the official government and media slanders. It could also help to build people-to-people friendship. We found nothing but friendliness everywhere we visited. People were pleased when we tried to communicate in Chinese, and also pleasant and patient to communicate with us however possible. The Chinese people are definitely not our enemy, and their government is doing a very good job serving and protecting them. It really is time for the US government to try harder to make friends with China, and help forge common prosperity and a shared future.
The “China Is Not Our Enemy” delegation was hosted by Jodie Evans of CodePink in Shanghai November 2:
(l to r) Cecile Lumer, Jodie Evans, Lee Siu Hin of China-US Solidarity Network, Dee Knight and Consuelo Peña.
Dee Knight is a member of the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and of the Bronx Antiwar Coalition. He is author of A Realistic Path to Peace.