China has launched a propaganda offensive to reframe discussion of the far-western region of Xinjiang in ethnic terms, with the theme “we are all Chinese, not Turkic”.

The change of emphasis began before a regular United Nations review of China’s human rights record in Geneva on Tuesday, and sought to reinforce the notion of China as a unified multi-ethnic country whose history was being distorted by separatists.

A UN human rights panel estimated in August that 1 million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims in China were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”, and subjected to enforced political indoctrination.

Many Western countries have urged China to halt internment and allow independent observers unhindered access to inspect its camps.

On Tuesday, China again rejected criticism of its treatment of ethnic Muslims, telling the UN review the accusations of rights abuses from some countries were “politically driven”.

Last month, the government of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region amended its anti-extremism law in what was seen as an attempt to retrospectively legitimise the camps, and Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir broke the official silence on their existence to tell state media the “vocational training centres” were for “people influenced by terrorism and extremism” who were suspected of minor criminal offences.

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In the first article on the new theme, published by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily on October 28, author Xu Guixiang – an ethnic Han and a state researcher in Xinjiang’s Academy of Social Sciences – called for “understanding the historical problems in Xinjiang correctly”.

Xu wrote that “separatism still exists today”, that “pan-Turkism” – a political movement advocating the unification of all Turkic people – is influential and that thoughts of religious extremism were “far from being eliminated”.

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These thoughts, Xu argued, had seriously undermined the sense of national identity among people in Xinjiang, and meant “eradicating the poison of separatism is the key for Xinjiang to achieve long-term stability”.

The article said that separatists were “distorting the history of Xinjiang”, “spreading the history of Xinjiang as an ‘independent state’”, and urged people to recognise “China as a unified multi-ethnic country” and Xinjiang as “an inalienable part of Chinese territory”.

Pan-Turkism emerged in the 1880s. Uygur followers of pan-Turkism in Xinjiang identify as Turkic, not Chinese, and some see themselves as an oppressed group whose homeland is occupied by Han Chinese.

Another article, in the region’s official paper Xinjiang Daily – written by Xinjiang Communist Party standing committee member and regional vice-chairman Alken Tunia, a Uygur – was titled “Understanding the history of the Uygurs correctly”.

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Tunia wrote that modern Uygurs come from a melting pot of several ethnic groups and that “those people who advocated ‘pan-Turkism’ deliberately confuse the concepts of language and ethnic group, calling people who used the Turkic language ‘Turkic’”. “We are all Chinese,” he wrote. According to government figures, almost half of the population of Xinjiang are Turkic speakers.

He argued that Uygurs and Turks had lived in the same area for a long time, “but [Uygurs] are not Turkic” and Uygur ancestors had in fact been oppressed by a Turkic ruler.

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Meanwhile, a story was being circulated on social media platforms including WeChat and Weibo about a Han Chinese man named Yi Duocai who overcame stereotyping to marry his Uygur partner Aminagul and finally won the acceptance of his parents-in-law.

Another social media story concerned an Uygur girl named Elaqiz, who grew up learning Chinese and became a teacher in Xinjiang. The story was aimed at encouraging the Uygur population to learn Chinese language skills to enhance their employability.

The media campaign follows claims of a significant increase in the building of security facilities in Xinjiang. According to an estimate made in a study in Germany, an extra 20 billion yuan (US$2.9 billion) was spent on security facilities in the 2017 financial year.

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