This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Following heightened pressure regarding their treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has responded with a statement claiming that the ethnic minority was actually forced into converting to Islam. On July 21, the State Council Information Office released a white paper which outlined that Uighurs “endured slavery” which “the Turks” inflicted.
“Islam is neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uighur people,” the statement alleges. “Conversion to Islam was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class.”
More than anything, they claim that Islam was not a choice made by Uighurs.
The white paper also states that Islam is not the only religion that Uighurs follow. According to the statement, these are merely historical facts. For instance, the history of conflict between Uighurs and Turks dates back to the 8th century, the report outlines.
Historically, Uighurs do have more in common – fundamentally – with the Turks than with Chinese Han. According to TIME Magazine, the Uighurs have had “deep roots” in the Xinjiang region, as descendants of Sogdian traders who were integral parts of the Silk Road. They were once the dominant ethnic group of Xinjiang. In 1933, the Uighurs declared a short-lived independent republic which was quickly submerged into China’s communist state.
The white paper claims that history is being distorted by those who are accusing China of ethnic cleansing. It stated that the Uighurs have “reflected elements of Chinese culture” for centuries. That does not seem to be the case.
This comes as the Chinese government faces allegations of separating Uighur families and methodically removing the Islamic faith from their identity. Some of them have been forced to eat pork or drink alcohol, which is forbidden in the Islamic faith. Many children have been treated as if they are orphans, taken from their parents and sent to schools across China. The Uighurs have been oppressed throughout the Xinjiang region, with so-called re-education camps being a birthplace for this systematic persecution.
Mounting criticism towards the Chinese government has taken a global platform over the past few weeks. This has included a statement to the United Nations written by 22 countries, all of whom have condemned the treatment of Uighurs in the camps they have been placed in. China's latest statement appears to be a way to resist international condemnation.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, told the ABC that the statement “is a bizarre, blatant distortion of the facts.” James Leibold, La Trobe University’s expert on Chinese ethnic minorities concurred, stating it is “a classic case of China’s ongoing information warfare.” Most critics have called it propaganda.
Chinese media, on the other hand, has praised Beijing’s effort to paint what it a truly “comprehensive” picture of the Uighur people and their history. China’s Global Television Network writes that the white paper corrected “the many misunderstandings of Western countries.” The network can be received by over 85 million people in over 100 countries.