The UN High Commissioner’s Report on Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang

As she promised a few weeks ago, Michelle Bachelet has released the UN report on Xinjiang Human Rights before she left her post of High Commissioner. She said she would do it, many in the US State Department, Western media and other places said she wouldn’t. Many people said China would hold up the report and were attempting to prevent its release — we now know that’s all been “smoke clouding” to give media sensational headlines which have proven to be untrue.

Let’s be clear, this report is the result of collaboration with the UN and Chinese government, the UN were invited in 2018 and finally made it there in 2022. China wasn’t hiding; it was cooperating and much of the information in the report comes from China’s cooperation.

The report is called the “Final Assessment” but is in fact, the first of what will probably be many ongoing reports and actions. As it was only recently issued and contains a lot of legal wording, dozens of citations as well as some background and deep information on the Xinjiang situation. It’s going to take days or even weeks to analyse the information but there are some things that stand out and need to be highlighted.

It’s important not to make judgements; read the report, assess it for yourself and ignore the sensationalist headlines designed to suck us in, media is lost without the advertising it receives and the only way to get advertising income is to get clicks online. Sensationalism generates those clicks and sadly, truth in media does not.

So far, many of the headlines report the same thing: “China May Be…”. The Nikkei owned Financial Times, on the other hand, seems to take one step further by saying in the headline that China “did commit” human rights violations. However, a dig slightly deeper demonstrates quite clearly that the word “did” is perhaps not the best legal choice of words, since, a short way into the article they state that “there is credible evidence”.

From the FT Article

There’s credible evidence that Hunter Biden used drugs, there’s credible evidence that Donald Trump took classified and top-secret material from the White house but, as we know, credible evidence needs to be tested, cross examined and then proven before we have the ability, and legal right to say that someone “did” something.

A cursory glance at the report shows there is certainly some criticism and that’s probably justified. But the criticism is carefully worded, the report is littered with modals: “may” is used 35 times to relay some form of doubt, the report shows 50 but one relates to Karamay and 14 are the month of May: “might” only appears 4 times but in each instance, it’s been used to suggest something that isn’t certain; the word “could” is there 13 times; and “possible” 14 times; “alleged” can be seen 12 times with “appears to…” another 8 times. To any infirmed reader, this suggests huge elements of doubt. There are allegations and there are suggestions but the degree of proof required to say with certainty hasn’t been met.

China had a severe terrorism problem and that is also acknowledge by the report. No terrorism incidents have been reported in Mainland China since 2016. But equally as important, Chinese Uyghur terrorists are a threat to the international community and, the report recognises, are active in such places as Afghanistan and Syria. Wider spread of their influence has seen Uyghur terrorist cells in other parts of Asia such as Indonesia and Thailand.

Let’s get two elephants out of this room: the report is 48 pages long it has a lot of words but one word missing from the entire report is the word “genocide”. Internationally, there have been headlines and many politicians use this word to drum up support and incite horror but the word Genocide, clearly overused, was recently scaled back to “cultural genocide”. What is clear from all the available information and commented on in this report is that there is not and has never been a genocide in Xinjiang. The overall population has grown. The population of Xinjiang in 1949 was 4.3 million and it was 75% Uyghur, that’s about 3.5 million Uyghurs. The population is now over 25 million and the 45% who are Uyghurs number more than 11 million.

A search of the document for Genocide

Migration into the region has brought opportunities for growth, economic development and improvements in both health and education. The report highlights that, historically, Xinjiang was one of the poorest regions and has experienced significant increases in per capita GDP as well as increases in disposable income.

The other elephant is the one of forced labour and this is mentioned 23 times in the report. Surprisingly, even though there are some allegations, the mentions of forced labour usually relate to China’s actions to prevent it and laws against it. There is, according to the report a clear link between the Voluntary Education and Training Centres (VETCs) and ongoing employment, there are suggestions of coercion and encouragement to take jobs. Section 122 and 123 of the report analyse where the allegations come from and why there is a “contributory factor making people vulnerable to forced labour” and, while there are concerns, it says: “more information is needed”.

As for the forced sterilisation accusations these are again allegations without much in the way of proof — it’s acknowledged from reading Chinese released documentation that the insertion of IUDs increased substantially in the region and less babies are being born but, due to improved living conditions resulting in greater life expectancy, the population is increasing. Poverty causes large families, many of whom die young. Economic prosperity causes less children to be born but we live longer. Xinjiang is no different.

As for the “missing millions”: the current number on the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database is 5031 missing people. However, the UN report made mention of a database of 12,050 people registered as missing. In April 2021 the Chinese government held a press conference to discuss this. They confirmed the existence of 10,708 of the people on the list; 1342 of the names appear to have been fabricated as there is no record of them in China. And one thing we all know is that China has good databases to manage people so it’s quite likely for whatever reason, some people have added fictitious names to the list. 6,962 of the people mentioned are free and living normal lives but 3,422 of them have been legally sentenced and convicted of crimes and are serving their sentences. 238 of them have passed away and 264 of them are known to have left China and remained overseas.

In conclusion, as everyone expected, there are concerns, of course there would be. However, in May this year the High Commissioner visited China and set up courses of action to address those concerns, in her speech to the UN in June this year she confirmed that her office is in ongoing discussions with China.

Can China do better? There is a heavy police presence in Xinjiang but the problem was serious. The response needed to be equally as serious. In the 10 years preceding China’s last terrorist incident, hundreds of people died in hundreds of incidents, not just in Xinjiang but in other places such as the horrific knife attack in Kunming (2014) and a car attack in Beijing (2013). There are also known Xinjiang terrorists fighting in Afghanistan and Syria and, in 2015, murdering people in Thailand.

Not a single Uyghur has been killed in Xinjiang as a result of China’s “Strike Hard” response. Not one drone strike has taken out a leader or killed family members, not one military action or intervention resulting in street battles, or combatants from either side dying, has been undertaken but there have been some concerns over the effect this has had on an innocent population and those concerns need to be addressed. So, the answer is yes, China can do better and probably will: they will take this report and respond in their own way.

But, ask yourself: What would your country do?

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences