As Xinjiang makes international news, China’s counterattacks against the US miss the mark

(Originally published here in South China Morning Post on December 9, 2019.)

Three years and no terrorist attacks. And remember the misery of Native Americans. 

We went from the Chinese government’s denial that it had set up camps for Uygurs to this justification after their existence could no longer be covered up. 

This is all the Chinese government has left, effectively confirming their programme of mass cultural indoctrination. There are many disturbing facets of this effort that have been reported but not easily confirmed. 

So, we’re left to seek truth from facts. And the key facts come down to photos of sprawling, windowless buildings surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, which leave no doubt that those inside are there against their will. 

Global attention to this will not go away and, as concern escalates about the future of China’s Uygur community, it should be understood that the people who are the most trapped by this programme are the ones who created it. 

In a sign of the Chinese foreign ministry’s defencelessness, spokeswoman Hua Chunying brought up in a tweet last week the “tears” and “blood” of Native American civilisations that were decimated by the westward expansion of the United States.

She was correct about this brutal and tragic history. She might as well have brought up the internment camps that the US government forced Japanese-Americans into during World War II. 

She could have also pointed out the repercussions African-Americans face, to this day, for minor traffic violations or wearing hoodies. 

And how about US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents on the country’s southern border as a way to deter illegal immigration? 

It would be fair for Hua and the rest of China’s diplomatic corps to cite these realities because they make a mockery of America’s perception of itself as a beacon of freedom and good governance. 

And while they’re trying to deflect criticism by holding a mirror up to the US, China’s diplomats should also point out the bipartisan effort in Washington to portray everything about China – its students, investors, companies, technology and infrastructure projects – as national security threats. 

Using one brush stroke to portray an entire group of people, and enacting policies based on these presumptions, never works out well. 

Which brings us back to Xinjiang. While it’s fair for China’s foreign ministry to highlight American hypocrisy, such a strategy won’t resolve Beijing’s current PR problem

Responding to it by bringing up the fate of Native Americans more than a century ago only creates an equivalence between that brutality and the Xinjiang internment camps. 

Just as the blanket presumption of guilt that Washington’s ideologues are trying to throw on everything Chinese will undermine its authority on the world stage, the continued effort to detain Uygurs until their culture is suffocated will backfire. 

One only needs to look at America’s efforts to win over the hearts and minds of its supposed allies in the Middle East. Just days ago, one of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s subjects killed three students at a Florida naval base in what the FBI is treating as a terrorist attack

Does anyone think the murderous rage of someone like Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Air Force would have been quieted if he had been forced to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy in an internment camp?

As the Muslim world gets more details about what’s going on in Xinjiang, China will only become more vulnerable to attacks from beyond its borders like the US witnessed in Florida. 

Moreover, China risks losing the diplomatic game it’s playing against the US in Europe, where it needs allies more than ever as it seeks to build market share among the world’s 5G infrastructure customers and win over international public opinion about its Belt and Road Initiative. 

Beijing will find it very difficult to achieve its foreign policy goals until it finds a more humane way to address the threat that the Xinjiang internment camps are meant to address.

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