Last week, China's President Xi Jinping paid an unexpected visit to Xinjiang. He visited the capital city of Urumqi.
Xi’s visit marked only his second in eight years to the region where Chinese authorities have ramped up their repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities since 2017, detaining up to 1.8 million people in internment camps.
China faces allegations of severe human rights abuses, torture and forced labor as well as the eradication of linguistic, cultural and religious traditions.
China has been carrying out a policy of Sinicization in Xinjiang. It has been accused of carrying out a genocide against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, along with using the local Muslim population as a source of slave labour.
Some time before the Xinjiang trip, Xi visited Hong Kong. It appears that before this year's Communist Party congress, Xi is projecting himself as the leader of China who is successfully 'restoring order' in China's troubled territories, where the Han are not in majority.
According to a report by the Times, Xi’s four-day visit that ended Friday focused on "projecting that Xinjiang had become united and stable under his leadership."
After his last visit in 2014, Xi set in motion drastic policies including widespread arrests, surveillance, indoctrination and labor transfers — to press the region’s Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups to identify as members of one Chinese nation loyal to the Communist Party.
Reports by rights groups and the media documenting the widespread abuse and repression in the XUAR have led the US to declare that the Chinese government’s action amount to a genocide and crimes against humanity.
US has even banned the import of Xinjiang manufactured goods into US.
Xi's visit is possibly a signal to the international community that the criticism doesn't bother the CCP and the policies aimed to Sinicize Xinjiang will continue.
“Every ethnic group in Xinjiang is an inseparable member of the great family of Chinese nationhood. We must particularly treasure the excellent conditions of stability and unity,” said Xi.
During the visit Xi stressed that Islam in China must be Chinese in orientation.
Xi's visit has led to worry in many rights advocacy groups as to what lies ahead for Xinjiang.
A Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) noted that the last time the Chinese leader traveled to the region "he laid out the system that would be responsible for the ongoing Uyghur genocide."
"This means even darker days are coming for Uyghurs. The international community cannot turn a blind eye to this," said Dolkun Isa, president of the WUC.
“They have ensured security and ‘stability,’ and they are well on their way toward accomplishing their longer-term objective, which is cultural assimilation," said Michael Clarke to the Times. Clarke is a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Research at the Australian Defense College who researches Xinjiang.
Relations between Uyghurs and Hans has been fraught since the CCP took control of Xinjiang in 1949. Currently, out of Xinjiang's 26 million residents, Uyghurs account for 42 per cent and Hans account for 24 per cent.
Uyghurs are a Turkic group. Their language, culture and Muslim heritage is quite similar to other Central Asian nationalities.
During Xi's last visit to Xinjiang, which was in 2014, Uyghur militants had stabbed more than 150 people at a train station in southwest China, killing 31.
On the last day of his visit, militants detonated a bomb in Urumqi, killing one bystander and injuring dozens of others.
This event reinforced Xi’s demands to redouble control over Xinjiang.
Xi directed the Chinese state to begin an all out struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism. "Absolutely no mercy", he said, according to leaked internal documents.
As a part of that policy goal set by Xi, the authorities put the region under tight surveillance, destroyed mosques and shrines, sent residents to work in factories, stepped up birth control measures for Muslim women and placed children in boarding schools.
Much has changed now. Xi was seen waving at cheering crowds of Uyghur and Han residents whilst travelling on a bus; spoke to students in the region’s main university; and admired cotton grown by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.
"The party is obviously very confident in what it has achieved in Xinjiang,” says Michael Clarke.
Xi is set to take a third five-year term as the party general secretary during this year's Communist party congress.
Thanks to China's emergence as a great power, very few Islamic countries have spoken up for the Uyghurs. Turkey is the only notable exception.
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