“Words are bullets” Firing a few back.

“Words are bullets” is an expression used on the US Alt Right to express an essential political point; that it doesn’t matter whether an assertion is true or not, so long as it creates a desired emotional response, thereby creating a version of the truth in which the listener is emotionally invested and from which they can be mobilised – often against their own interests.

Their focus on ruthlessly targeted knee jerk reactions, designed to short circuit thought or reflection with a blaze of righteous certainty deeply rooted in fears, creates an essentially theological form of politics; in which anyone putting an opposing argument or providing inconvenient information is cast into the realms of Satan.

When you have such masters of the art of “alternative facts” as Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo* running the most powerful and dangerous country in the world – and on the occasions that their view reflects an extreme form of the broader interests of their class and not just their fraction of it – the whole of mainstream discourse in every country dominated by the US becomes infected with this style of discourse.

If you listen to Radio 4 a lot it seems like there’s a daily bash China slot, with Chris Patten and Tom Tugendhat on permanent speed dial; or with a hammock set up for them in the corner so they never have to leave. Sometimes I’ve switched on in the middle of one. You get to recognise the voice. Its the same with the Guardian. Every day there’s something. And its all from one point of view; which is presumed to be the truth. Contrary voices are squeezed out, not allowed air time or column inches, for fear that the bubble of speculation built on assertion will pop if challenged.

Campaigns like this don’t happen by accident. The old joke about how odd it is that every day there’s just enough news to fill the papers hints at the issue. What is being highlighted and what is being ignored? And if variations on the same story are relentlessly repeated to the point that it becomes a distorting prism through which the rest of the world can be misperceived, whose agenda is being served?

Most of the reporting on China is a mutually interlocking series of assertions and stories from pro US sources that feed off and reinforce each other but with very little actual evidence.

As a declaration of interest, I take the view that lifting 800 million people (give or take 50 million) out of extreme poverty in the last four decades – as China has done – is a staggering and positive achievement that benefits the whole of humanity, not just the people of China. These people’s lives are usually seen as a statistic. 800 million just means “lots” to most people. But, if you think about it, 800 million people is 13 times the entire population of the UK, two and a half times the entire population of the USA. So, imagine everyone you know and have ever met or ever seen and think of what it would mean for each of them to have gone from an income of $309 a year in 1980, to $10 099 in 2019. (1) I also take the view that this progress has been because China is not run by its capitalists but by its Communist Party. Trump has grasped this more than many on the European Left – as he has complained that China has an unfair economic advantage because the state directs investment, and the CPC directs the state. Quite so.

There are no “alternative facts”. Facts are facts. But narratives are constructed by emphasising some facts and downplaying others, by focusing on and sometimes exaggerating helpful information, and skidding quickly over anything that’s awkward. This blog is an attempt to challenge some of the dominant narrative on China in alt right and mainstream media (which increasingly overlap) and politics. So, what I am writing here is an attempt to challenge a dominant narrative by stressing the points that it hides, or elides, or ignores in a way that creates space for deeper thought and a fuller perspective.

A recent statement by faith leaders in the UK repeats the assertion that China is holding a million people in camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese deny this flat and say they have arrested around 14 000 people (out of a total Uighur population of over 11 million) in a campaign to squash a Jihadist separatist movement that has killed 458 people, mainly by knife attacks, but also with bombs and by driving into pedestrians at high speed.

Number arrested according to China

The people killed in these attacks are not much noted in the “West”. The attacks themselves are dismissed as “minor terrorist attacks” in reports in the Guardian. In fact several of them were more severe than the Charlie Hebdo shootings and have comparable casualties with the shooting in Christchurch in 2019 and the London bombings in July 2005; neither of which could ever be described as “minor” without a justified storm of indignant protest.

Not so minor

In fact, overall the accumulated casualties from these attacks (458 people) (2) is more than four times the 101 people killed in mainland Britain in blowback from the Troubles in the North of Ireland between 1971 and the turn of the Century. None of that would be considered “minor” either. But licking our own wounds while ignoring those of others was ever the Western way.

The way these people’s deaths are written out of the journalistic record – and therefore political reckoning – in the West, stands in stark contrast to the way the 2 977 victims of the 9/11 attacks were given proper respect. Film after film, documentary after documentary; on their lives, their loved ones, their final recorded messages; so after a time everyone who watched the News felt a connection with these people in a way that made the US reaction of invading two countries – one of which had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks – and start two wars which killed up to a million people – seem almost proportionate. A graphic example of the way a narrative can distort objective judgement. I write “up to” a million because the Iraqi civilian casualties of this invasion were not counted. Their lives literally didn’t count. Not even recorded. All lives matter? Not in this case. Nor in the case of the victims of the attacks in Xinjiang. The policeman cut to shreds in front of his children, the leader of the Mosque in Kashgar who was hacked to death in 2014, the Uighur girl who was an aspiring dancer who lost her leg in a bombing in 2014 and is now a doctor. None of these people have found the dignity of a reference in the Western media. Nor have any of the other 455 casualties either.

The figure of 14 000 detained is simply dismissed in Western accounts. It is taken as read that the Chinese are lying and the State Department – despite its record -is telling the truth. That presumption runs through all the coverage.

The “estimates” of 1-3 million people detained that have been made by far right “researcher” Adrian Zenz, which he admits himself are speculative and which have been effectively debunked here (3) are sometimes qualified by News organisations like the Guardian or the BBC – employing a homeopathic water memory of journalistic ethics – with words like “alleged”; but are nevertheless then taken as fact despite the paucity of evidence (and the wild variation in the figures).

The problem with this assertion is that the buildings identified as camps – or re-education centres – could not possibly contain the number of people Zenz is speculating are in them.

To hold a million people you would need five hundred and fifty complexes on this scale. Where are they?

This is not in Xinjiang. It is an old aerial photo of the H Blocks in the North of Ireland, where Republican and Loyalist prisoners were held during the “Troubles”; and Britain showed its commitment to human rights by allowing 11 Republican prisoners to starve themselves to death in the 1981 Hunger strike rather than concede their demand for political status. This complex looks as though it could hold a very large number of people. But it never held more than 1 800 at any one time. To hold a million people you would need five hundred and fifty complexes of this size and, with 300 people per H block, 3 333 blocks of this sort. Imagine what that would look like on satellite photos and how hard they would be to miss. What follows is not a typo or glitch. Its what 3 333 buildings like this would look like.

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There are nothing like this number.

In the BBC analysis of satellite imagery they conclude that between 2011 and 2108, thirty seven such centres have been constructed. Thirty seven. Nowhere near 500.

They go on to cite Zenz discovering “dozens” of construction contracts, which he has asserted are for these camps. Dozens. Nowhere near 500.

Zenz – who does not speak or read Mandarin – presumes that all these contracts are for camps not reeducation centres or anything else. In fact, in the last five years the Chinese government has invested more than $70 billion on the development of infrastructure in Xinjiang, which is the Central Asian hub of the Belt and road initiative.

When BBC reporters tried randomly phoning people in Urumqi and asking them about what the big new buildings were in the places they had seen them, everyone replied “Oh, they are re- education centres.” 

Images of the re-education centres functioning as re-education centres that appear in Chinese media are dismissed as window dressing in the West, but were endorsed by a delegation from Muslim countries. An invitation has also gone to the EU to carry out a similar fact finding trip, but has so far been turned down.

One of the BBC photos shows a school playground with additional buildings put in. They presume that this is a conversion to be used as a detention centre rather than an expansion of classroom space to enable the enrollment of additional students. This has also been commonplace in the UK as portakabins have been placed on playgrounds to provide classrooms the demographic bulge that is now making its way through Secondary School.

Uighur children have enrolled in schools in increasing numbers and since 2017 they have been guaranteed 15 years of free education, conducted bilingually, to overcome a backlog of poorly resourced education and weak results, which has led to poor employment prospects up to now. (4) With the rapid development focused on the Belt and Road initiative leading to a 6.5% annual growth rate, there has to be an equally rapid expansion in education provision.

The Uighur population has traditionally missed out a lot on this. So, $1.2 billion has been invested in school buildings and in 2017 an additional half a million Uighur children enrolled in early years provision. This is presented by Zenz and the BBC as an attempt to squash Uighur culture and remove children from their roots, but the more balanced Burgen Report stresses the opposite. (4) The difficulties and opportunities of bilingual education in previously backwater regions of a fast developing country raised here are not peculiar to China. In rural South Africa children learn initially in their home language but increasingly make a transition to learning in English, because of both the vastly greater range of learning materials in that language and the greater efficacy of learning it to communicate beyond the locality. To learn other subjects in both languages and become fluent in them at the same time will take a lot of resourcing if it is to work.

A further $280 billion is being invested for sustainable development, creation of jobs and poverty alleviation and there are guaranteed quotas for minority employment.

Bullet words “Genocide” and “Concentration Camp” have gone alongside accusations by Ian Duncan Smith and others that China is “Nazi”. Put those words together and the implication is that the reeducation centres are death camps. That doesn’t have to be explicit. The hint is in the phrase. It s meant to freeze questioning or contradiction. It is also absurd. There are no reports that anyone has died in these centres; compared with a death rate of 264 people per hundred thousand in US prisons. Overall, the Uighur population is growing fast – in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population. It has more than doubled since 1978. The “one child” policy was never applied to the Uighurs, or any other ethnic minority in China.

Accusations of “cultural genocide” don’t match with the awkward fact that there are now ten times as many Mosques in Urumqi as there were in 1989, and visitors report people going to them quite normally and naturally; as in this recent report.

Our delegation wasn’t a fact-finding mission; we didn’t have a specific aim to verify the truth of these various allegations. We did however walk freely around Ürümqi and the Muslim quarter in Xi’an, and failed to see any evidence of religious or ethnic oppression. In Ürümqi one sees mosques everywhere; indeed Xinjiang has one of the highest number of mosques per capita in the world. Walking well off the beaten track, we saw hundreds of Chinese Muslims, wearing their distinctive Uighur dress (including headscarves for many women) and going about their lives without any indication that they were living in fear of persecution. We ate in Uighur restaurants, in which halal food was served and alcohol wasn’t available. (5)

The points put above are widely accepted in the world outside the bubble of the US’s closest allies. In the UN the Chinese position is supported by 50 countries, the US by just 22.

*A recent op piece in the Washington Post commented that Pompeo is now lying about his lies.

  1. https://knoema.com/atlas/China/GDP-per-capita
  2. https://thefrontierpost.com/china-releases-documentary-revealing-truth-behind-xinjiang-terrorist-attacks/ Please note that the film cited in this article contains some shocking footage that is hard to get out of your head once you’ve seen it.
  3. https://thegrayzone.com/2019/12/21/china-detaining-millions-uyghurs-problems-claims-us-ngo-researcher/
  4. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/education-in-xinjiang/
  5. https://www.invent-the-future.org/2020/01/building-solidarity-and-friendship-with-china-notes-on-a-trip-to-the-peoples-republic/?fbclid=IwAR2hvyv3LVWcjJjKLryGxGV3xIomk2UtwqIPSjEBwzi-9UCLKDesyaVqpXo

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