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Group sanctioned by Ottawa guides Canadian children through China’s Uyghur region

A group of Canadians went on a trip to Xinjiang that was lead by an organization Canada accuses of 'systematic human rights violations'

By Tom Blackwell

December 3, 2023

In March of 2021, the Canadian government imposed sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), accusing the Chinese outfit of “gross and systematic human rights violations.”

The Corps — a combined paramilitary force, local government and business conglomerate — is complicit in arbitrary detention of more than a million Uyghur people, forced labour and forced sterilization, said a Global Affairs Canada news release.

For a group of Canadian young people, however, the XPCC was recently a guide through the very region where its alleged abuses take place.

The 20 Canadians were sent on a “roots-seeking” trip to Xinjiang this past summer, their 10-day sojourn organized by the sanctioned Corps and a branch of China’s influence-peddling United Front Work Department.

Amid continued international censure of China over its treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority, their tour came with a parting request.

An official with the United Front’s Federation of Overseas Chinese asked the children to “tell the true, beautiful and colorful stories of Xinjiang and the Xinjiang Corps,” according to an online account by another United Front division.

With young foreigners as the target group, the trip represented a striking example of Beijing’s drive to spread its influence worldwide and change the narrative around the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — despite extensive documentation of harsh repression there. The Canadian House of Commons — as well as the U.S. and other governments — has called China’s actions in the region genocide.

“This is textbook United Front work,” said James Leibold, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University and an expert on China’s Xinjiang policy. “Using these root-seeking camps to cultivate the next generation of pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) supporters and conditioning them to the CCP’s political agenda.”

Photographs accompanying the story by the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese show the Canadians — who mostly looked to be in their early teens — posing in bucolic rural settings, at a dairy plant and in front of the XPCC’s “reclamation museum.”

“The campers were eager and enthusiastic, pushing the atmosphere of the closing ceremony to a climax,” the article says.

The Xinjiang Association of Canada and the Council of Newcomer Organizations, two Toronto-area groups that are closely aligned with Beijing and appear to have arranged the trip, could not be reached for comment.

The association’s web page on the trip does not actually mention Xinjiang, but says the tour left the children with “a deeper understanding of China” and that “their horizons have been broadened.”

Mehmet Tohti, head of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, called the trip a “long-term investment” by China, using young people to cultivate a positive image of the CCP and one of its most controversial files.

“Showing a friendly and smiling face in China has been the primary job of the United Front and its affiliated organizations,” he said. “This sort of trip is a trap, in fact, to give an organized tour with organized destinations and limited engagement.”

The federation’s Chinese-language article does not spell out the XPCC’s full name, but refers repeatedly to events involving the “Corps,” while its headline describes the trip as “Summer Camp Bingtuan.” XPCC is known as both the Corps and Bingtuan.

The federal sanctions imposed in 2021 named the Corps’ party secretary and the XPCC Public Security Bureau, though it seems unlikely the measures would cover visits like that of the Canadian youth. The sanctions target commercial relations with the designated individuals and entities, barring any Canadian from dealing with their property or providing them financial or related services.

In a lengthy report on the XPCC last year, the U.K.’s Sheffield Hallam University said it acts as a government, bureau of prisons, media empire and sprawling corporate holding company within Xinjiang. As such it is “involved in a pervasive program of egregious rights violations” against the Uyghurs, from extrajudicial imprisonment to social engineering and forced labour, says the report.

“From cradle to grave, Uyghur people are subjected to centrally directed indoctrination delivered by the XPCC.”

The official Chinese article on the Canadians’ trip painted a much rosier picture of a province that Beijing has flooded with settlers from the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group in recent years. The young people saw how Kazakh herdsman had been resettled in a “beautiful ethnic new village,” the story says, and “felt the brilliant achievements of the cause of ethnic unity.”

Meanwhile, the two Canadian organizations involved in the roots-seeking trip, with close ties to the local Chinese consulate, have themselves tried to reshape public perception of what China is doing there.

Zhu Jiang, founding president of the Xinjiang Association, was quoted by state-run China News in 2019 as criticizing the U.S. House of Representatives’ Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, noted a report last year by Australia’s Leibold on how the CCP harnesses foreign groups to spread its message on the issue. Zhu was also once head of the Council of Newcomer Organizations, which last year issued a statement decrying the House of Commons genocide motion, saying it was based on “unsubstantiated rumours.”

The council has received at least $160,000 in federal funding, most recently for an elder-abuse program.

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