By Bang Xiao Posted Sat at 3:46am
At a reunion dinner with my best friends from university last month, we got into a heated discussion on Beijing’s mass repression in Xinjiang and the protests in Hong Kong.
- Attitudes towards Xinjiang’s Uyghurs in China are a response to violence there
- Hong Kong protesters are often portrayed as undermining China’s sovereignty
- But many Uyghurs and Hongkongers feel Beijing is eroding their identities
My friend Adrian, who was born and raised in Xinjiang, said he didn’t feel any sympathy for the Uyghurs detained in camps there.
It shocked us that he said it just like he was talking about something ordinary.
“None of you ever lived in Xinjiang, and most of the Western reporters who write about Xinjiang have never been there in person,” he said.
Of course, you can imagine how badly my other friends criticised his view. He eventually left earlier than us.
He wondered why everyone thought they knew the place better than him.
As a Chinese-born journalist who has covered Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang for more than a year, I come across many different views on Beijing’s use of re-education camps every day.
However, that dinner was the first time I had been confronted by such divisive views in my personal life.
Many in China support human rights and democracy, however support for Beijing’s often contradictory actions remains vast — so why is that the case?
Violence and insecurity
Recent violence in Xinjiang, and the resulting sense of insecurity, is at the core of why many people across China support Beijing’s policies there.
Adrian said Han Chinese, the ethnic group that make up the vast majority of mainland China’s population, used to have a very close relationship with ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
But he said everything changed after riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, where nearly 200 people — most of them Han Chinese — were killed after a mob of more than 1,000 Uyghurs took to the streets.
The riots started as a protest against the killing of two Uyghur migrant workers at a toy factory in China’s south-east but escalated after police allegedly used excessive force to disperse demonstrators (however, Beijing disputes this).
“Han people were living in fear and insecurity, we were very dissatisfied with the local government’s inaction, and even protested several times,” Adrian said.
“Later, a large number of armed police were transferred from other provinces to Xinjiang … Their [presence], and now the camps, really made Xinjiang the safest place to live on earth.”
Associate Professor Michael Clarke, an expert on Xinjiang’s history and politics at the Australian National University, said there was undoubtedly a sense of fear and insecurity in Urumqi after the riots.
However, he said this affected both Han and Uyghur people.
“Authorities began house-to-house sweeps of Uyghur neighbourhoods, arresting and in some cases disappearing those believed to have taken any part in the violence,” Dr Clarke said.
He said Han Chinese mobs, which assembled in the days after the riots and also clashed with police, were not treated in the same way by authorities.
Sovereignty and separatists
Over an uncountable number of official statements and state media news reports, Beijing has described both Uyghurs and the demonstrators in Hong Kong as “separatists”, who are seeking to “undermine China’s sovereignty”.
This has created a huge stir in mainland China, where people take the subject of the country’s sovereignty very seriously.
Chinese human rights lawyer Qiushi Chen attended a couple of the protests in Hong Kong this August, in a bid to separate fact from fiction in regards to the mainland news coverage of the unrest.
He live-streamed the protests to his more than 1 million followers on Weibo and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to raise awareness of the pro-democracy movement inside China’s Great Firewall.
“Most people were demonstrating in a peaceful manner, and most of them understood how biased media reports in China shaped people’s perceptions of the movement,” Mr Chen told the ABC.
Soon his accounts were permanently banned, and he was called back to the mainland by authorities. He was later disqualified from practicing as a lawyer.
Mr Chen said he was very concerned about the influence of social media, and the ability of pro-Beijing accounts, which he says have increased in number, to direct public opinion in China.
“It increases the chance that people consuming that media content will struggle to accept others who have different identities,” he said.
Adrian said he believed some Uyghurs had “bad thought and ideology”, and that they “needed to be educated” — he thought the re-education camps helped unify people from different ethnic backgrounds in Xinjiang.
But Dr Clarke from the Australian National University does not agree.
“This appears to repeat almost word-for-word [Chinese Communist Party] rhetoric,” Dr Clarke said.
“The problem, of course, is that the idea of ethnic unity is understood almost entirely as a one-way street … Non-Han ethnic groups must increasingly conform to [the Party’s] mandated vision of ethnic unity.”
Different ‘spiritual assets’
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai fled mainland China as a child, reaching the island territory as a stowaway on a fishing boat.
At the age of 12, he went to work in a garment factory for around $4.5 a month — by the age of 27, he had purchased his own factory, and by his mid-30s, he had created the international fashion label Giordano.
He later founded the pro-democracy Next Magazine in 1990. After the magazine published criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, officials threatened to close Giordano stores on the mainland.
Mr Lai subsequently sold out his shares in the fashion company and founded a second publication, Apple Daily, in 1995.
“Many mainland Chinese people cannot understand the feeling of having freedom, because they had never really lived in a free society,” Mr Lai told the ABC.
Since the protests kicked off in Hong Kong this year, Mr Lai has been at the forefront of the movement.
“They don’t understand what Hong Kong people are fighting for. They are confused: ‘If I could live my life in China like this, why can’t you,'” he said.
“Our spiritual assets are our rule of law, human rights, free market, private assets, and the lifestyle without fear, which is fundamentally different from the mainland Chinese,” Mr Lai said.
But like the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Hongkongers have seen the things that are central to their identity — democracy and freedom — encroached on by Beijing over time.
For example, there was a huge public backlash in 2012 when Hong Kong’s government attempted to introduce pro-Communist “Moral and National Education” classes in schools.
But not everyone sees it that way — just like how some Hongkongers feel that China doesn’t understand their values, some in the pro-Beijing camp feel China is also misunderstood.
Deng Fei, principal of the Heung To Secondary School and the director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau, told the ABC the protest movement was a sign of the lack of positive stories about China in Hong Kong.
The lack of positive stories is a complaint I’ve come across on my own WeChat account.
Last month, when I shared an article I wrote on the Hong Kong protests on WeChat — which told a different story to the reports in China’s state-owned media — the platform advised me that six of my friends had unfollowed me.
I decided to call one of them: they said they were tired of seeing biased reports from Western media outlets, offering facts contrary to the official Beijing line.