China has delved back centuries in an attempt to justify its controversial policies in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where experts say up to 2 million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been held against their will in vast detention centers.
In a white paper released Sunday, the Chinese State Council Information Office painted Xinjiang as a religiously diverse community where a number of faiths had co-existed for centuries.
The 6,800-word document, released in full by state news agency Xinhua, said that Xinjiang “respects citizens’ freedom to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion.”
However, it also said Islam was introduced to region by force during a religious war in the 10th century, which ended Buddhism’s centuries of dominance.
“The Uyghur 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,” the report said.
“Islam is neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uyghur people,” it added.
China is officially an atheist country, although around 18% of the country’s citizens identify as Buddhist, 5% Christians and under 2% Muslim, according to the CIA Factbook.
The paper said the region’s history had been distorted by “hostile foreign forces and separatist, religious extremist and terrorist forces.”
It also took aim at the notion Uyghurs were descended from Turks. “Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory; never has it been the so-called East Turkistan,” the paper stated.
Beijing has had a long and fractious history with Xinjiang, a massive, nominally autonomous region in the far west of the country that is home to a relatively small population of around 22 million in a nation of 1.4 billion people.
The predominately Muslim Uyghurs, who are ethnically distinct from the country’s majority ethnic group, the Han Chinese, form the majority in Xinjiang, where they account for just under half of the total population.
The white paper says there are now 24,800 venues for religious activities in Xinjiang, including 24,400 mosques and 400 temples, churches and other places of prayer.
Uyghurs have likened China’s campaign against their people to a form of “cultural genocide,” with former camp detainees describing forced lessons in Communist Party propaganda and region-wide bans on Uyghur culture and traditions.
In 2017, long beards and face veils were banned in Xinjiang, as well as “choosing names in an abnormal way.” In 2018, Chinese public servants began mandatory home stays with Uyghur families to help the Xinjiang residents “assimilate,” and watch for frowned-upon religious or cultural practices. And, reports suggest that dozens of mosques have been destroyed in China’s crackdown.
The Chinese government has denied it has re-education camps in Xinjiang, describing them as voluntary “vocational training centers.”
Beijing has fiercely defended the centers as an important part of a program to combat Islamic radicalization, which the white paper said had risen worldwide after the Cold War, before spreading to Xinjiang.
“Drawing lessons from international experiences and in view of reality of the region, Xinjiang has taken resolute action to fight terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law,” the paper said.
The white paper suggested that any criticism of attempts to crackdown on radicalization was “double standards.”
“This kind of criticism betrays the basic conscience and justice of humanity, and will be repudiated by all genuine champions of justice and progress,” the report said.