AP Interview: China signals shift but no letup in Xinjiang

BEIJING (AP) — An official from China’s Communist Party signaled Monday that there would likely be no letup in its crackdown in the remote Xinjiang region, but said the government’s focus is shifting more to addressing the roots of extremism.

China’s policies in Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have become a major point of division with the U.S. and other Western nations over alleged human rights violations.

“We cannot be complacent at this moment, because the threats are still out there,” Xu Guixiang, the deputy director-general of the Xinjiang Communist Party publicity department, said in an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing.

Analysts say China has detained more than a million people in Xinjiang, forcing many to give up at least elements of their faith and traditions. Activists accuse China of mass detentions, forced labor, forced birth control and wiping out the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) language and culture.

Chinese officials deny the accusations and tout what they say has been a successful effort to deradicalize the population and provide job training, saying the region hasn’t had a terrorist attack in four years.

Xu said the party is consolidating the measures taken to date and would also explore ways to achieve sustained stability in multi-ethnic border areas such as Xinjiang, a western region about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from Beijing. To Xinjiang’s south is Tibet, another region marked by past unrest.

“We need to think more about how to solve the deep-seated issues, including the social foundation and the soil that give rise to extremism and terrorism,” Xu said.

China built up an intensive police state in Xinjiang after a series of attacks in the region and elsewhere. A Uighur drove a car into crowds at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2013, and men threw bombs from two SUVs on a busy market street in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, killing 43 people in 2014.

The threat appears to have receded. The U.S. removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Xinjiang group, from its terrorist list in November.

Xu did not directly answer whether or not security measures would be relaxed, but said that the U.S. move could embolden the group to act. “Four years free of terrorism does not mean there is no threat or danger at all,” he said.

He repeated the government’s vehement denials of forced labor, in which vocational training graduates are allegedly pressured to work in factories both in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

Xu said that 117,000 people have gone to work in other parts of China since 2014 through programs that have enabled them to develop skills and leave farms for higher-paying factory work.

The U.S. customs agency has blocked imports of clothing and other goods from Xinjiang this year over the forced labor issue, and U.K. politicians are demanding that British companies ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor.

The U.S. restrictions have driven some of the region’s firms to seek other markets, Xu said, noting there are amply opportunities both at home and abroad.

“One can’t assume that Xinjiang companies can’t live without the U.S. market or some U.S. companies,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Xu and other officials held a three-hour news conference in Beijing to refute persistent and mounting international criticism of the government’s actions in Xinjiang.

They brought two graduates of vocational training centers and two workers, and showed video interviews with others. All extolled the opportunities given to them. None said they were forced to do anything.

Xinjiang authorities have not allowed journalists for foreign news media to report freely in the region, giving access only on controlled visits that they arrange.

Elijan Anayat, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang government and an ethnic Uighur, said that reports of forced sterilization to limit Uighur population growth was sheer fabrication by anti-Chinese forces.

The birthrate in Xinjiang fell to 10.7 per 1,000 people in 2018, after holding steady at around 15.5 for the previous eight years.

Xu attributed the fall in Xinjiang’s birthrate to a younger generation wanting smaller families and stricter implementation of limits on the number of children since 2017.

The family planning policy was revised that year to allow two children for urban families in Xinjiang, and three for rural families.