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Xi Says China Will Continue Efforts to Assimilate Muslims in Xinjiang

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing Tuesday spoke on his country’s economic and social development.

Photo: Liu Weibing/Zuma Press

HONG KONG—Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared success in his approach to governing the region of Xinjiang, signaling no letup in the Communist Party’s forceful campaign to assimilate millions of ethnic Muslims on the country’s northwestern frontier.

“Practice has proven that the party’s strategy for governing Xinjiang in the new era is completely correct,” and it must continue for the long term, Mr. Xi said at a two-day party conference on Xinjiang policy that concluded Saturday, according to a state media report.

Addressing a Beijing gathering of officials from the party leadership, central government and Xinjiang, among others, Mr. Xi also ordered the entire Communist Party to consider it a political mission to implement the Xinjiang strategy, which he said brought the region closer toward long-term peace and stability.

Managing Xinjiang affairs well “is a major task for the entire party and the entire nation,” and one that requires strengthening the party’s “unified leadership” across the country, Mr. Xi said.

Xi Jinping said Xinjiang’s gross domestic product grew by an annual average of about 7.2% from 2014 to 2019.

Photo: Ding Lei/Zuma Press

These remarks marked Mr. Xi’s most full-throated public endorsement of the high-pressure campaign Beijing has waged to stamp out separatist sentiment in Xinjiang—an effort that has encompassed mass detentions and forced-assimilation of ethnic Muslims over recent years, and stirred international backlash over allegations of widespread human-rights abuses.

This week’s conference was the party’s first major conclave on Xinjiang policy since 2014. It is expected to chart Beijing’s agenda in the region for the next five years or so. The meeting wasn’t announced ahead of time.

The Communist Party has long struggled to manage Xinjiang, a mountainous frontier abutting Central Asia where about 12 million Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs live. Separatist sentiment among Uighurs has simmered there for decades, occasionally flaring into deadly attacks against symbols of Beijing’s authority and the country’s Han Chinese majority.

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The party’s previous Xinjiang policy conclave took place amid a spate of deadly attacks that were attributed to Uighur separatists. Among them was a bomb-and-knife attack in April 2014 that rocked Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi shortly after Mr. Xi concluded a tour of the region. A bomb attack at a Urumqi street market the following month killed at least 31 people, just days before that year’s Xinjiang policy conclave.

At the May 2014 conference, Mr. Xi demanded an all-out effort to quash separatism and terrorist activities in Xinjiang, and his administration has since adopted increasingly hard-line measures to stamp out resistance to Communist rule in the region.

These efforts have intensified dramatically since 2017, as local authorities rolled out the use of blanket digital surveillance, mass-internment camps and political-indoctrination programs to rein in the Uighur population. Officials have also targeted Uighur culture, demolishing neighborhoods and tearing down mosques and other religious sites.

Human-rights advocates and Western governments have denounced these methods, while United Nations officials have voiced concern and sought access to Xinjiang to carry out fact-finding visits. Chinese officials have denied committing any rights abuses, while portraying their policies in Xinjiang as a benign effort to help Uighurs improve their lives. They have also declared success in restoring stability to the region, saying no cases of violent terrorism have taken place there for more than three years.

This week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a pair of research reports—based largely on satellite imagery—alleging that Chinese authorities have razed or damaged two-thirds of the mosques in Xinjiang and continued to expand mass-detention camps for Uighurs over the last past year.

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected those claims as smears. Chinese officials have previously accused ASPI, which is partly funded by the Australian and U.S. governments, of concocting research on China—an allegation that ASPI researchers have denied.

In his conference speech, Mr. Xi made no reference to these programs or his 2014 demands for eradicating separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang. Instead, he listed what he described as major policy achievements since 2014, including economic and social development, rising incomes and reduced poverty rates.

Mr. Xi said Xinjiang’s gross domestic product grew by an annual average of about 7.2% from 2014 to 2019, reaching the equivalent of about $200 billion at current rates, while more than 2.9 million residents were assessed to have “escaped poverty” over the same period.

“On the whole, Xinjiang is presenting a favorable situation of social stability and people living and working in peace,” Mr. Xi said. “The facts provide ample proof that our country is successful in its ethnic policy.”

In an apparent response to international criticism of Beijing’s Xinjiang policy, Mr. Xi demanded comprehensive efforts to “tell Xinjiang’s stories well,” and to publicize the region’s development successes “with the courage of our convictions.”

Mr. Xi also called for greater efforts to strengthen a sense of Chinese national identity in Xinjiang, such as through research and educational programs that inculcate correct attitudes on history, culture and religion. Efforts to “sinicize” Islam—infusing pro-party ideas into religious practices—must also continue, he said.

The goal, according to Mr. Xi, is to ensure the “common consciousness of the Chinese nation takes root deep inside people’s hearts.”

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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