China, under growing global pressure over its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, is mounting an unprecedented and aggressive campaign to push back, including explicit attacks on women who have made claims of abuse.
As allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang mount, with a growing number of Western lawmakers accusing China of genocide, Beijing is focusing on discrediting the female Uighur witnesses behind reports of abuse.
Chinese officials have named women, disclosed medical data and information on their fertility, and accused some of having affairs and one of having a sexually transmitted disease.
Officials said that the information was evidence of bad character, invalidating their accounts of abuse.
“To rebuke some media’s disgusting acts, we have taken a series of measures,” Xu Guixiang (徐貴相), deputy head of Xinjiang’s publicity department, told a news conference in December last year that was part of China’s pushback campaign.
It included hours-long briefings, with footage of Xinjiang residents and family members reading monologues.
A Reuters review of dozens of hours of presentations and hundreds of pages of literature, as well as interviews with experts, shows a meticulous and wide-reaching campaign that hints at China’s fears that it is losing control of the Xinjiang narrative.
“One reason that the [Chinese] Communist Party is so concerned about these testimonies from women is because it undermines their initial premise for what they’re doing there, which is anti-terrorism”, said James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert in Xinjiang policy.
“The fact that there are so many women in the camps ... who don’t have the faintest appearance of being violent people, this just shows how this has nothing to do with terrorism,” he said.
Uighurs make up most of the 1 million people that a UN estimate says have been detained in Xinjiang camps under what Beijing calls a campaign against terrorism.
Accusations by Western lawmakers and non-governmental organizations include torture, forced labor and sterilizations.
In rare US bipartisan agreement, the top diplomats of the administrations of former US president Donald Trump and US President Joe Biden have called China’s treatment of the Uighurs genocide, a stance officially adopted last week by the Canadian and Dutch parliaments.
China faces sanctions, such as a ban on US purchases of Xinjiang cotton and tomatoes, and calls by Western lawmakers to boycott next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
The Chinese government denies accusations of abuse at the “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang and says claims of systematic sexual abuse are unfounded. Beijing has rejected calls for an independent UN investigation into the internment program.
Journalists and diplomats have not been permitted access to the camps outside of tightly controlled government tours, while Uighurs in Xinjiang say they fear reprisals for speaking to the media while in China.
China’s tightly controlled, invitation-only media events on Xinjiang require journalists to submit questions days or weeks in advance. They include prerecorded videos and prepared testimony by former camp inmates and religious figures.
The Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in the US was suspended in January for a post that said Uighur women had been “baby-making machines” before Beijing instituted its system of camps.
“The biological, the reproductive, the gendered aspect of this is particularly horrifying to the world,” Millward said.
“[China] seems to have recognized that... You now see them trying in this clumsy way to respond,” he said.
At a regular daily news conference last week, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) held up images of witnesses who had described sexual abuse in Xinjiang.
The account of one of them, he said, was “lies and rumors” because she had not recounted the experience in previous interviews. He gave medical details about the woman’s fertility.
Xinjiang officials in January said that a woman who had spoken to foreign media had syphilis, and they showed images of medical records — unsolicited information that was not directly related to her account.
“Everyone knows about her inferior character. She’s lazy and likes comfort, her private life is chaotic, her neighbors say that she committed adultery while in China,” a Xinjiang government official said of another witness last month.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) last week posted online images of four named witnesses, saying that they had “raked their brains for lies,” adding that “they will never succeed.”
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