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Chinese official defends jailing of Uyghur-Canadian dissident Huseyin Celil

Huseyin Celil and one of his youngest children in a photo taken shortly before his arrest in 2006.

A senior Chinese official is defending the imprisonment of Uyghur-Canadian dissident Huseyin Celil, calling him a separatist, and saying Beijing's continuing crackdown against the Uyghur minority is necessary to fight extremism.

During a visit to Ottawa Tuesday, Zuo Feng, deputy director-general of the State Council Information Office, the Chinese government's propaganda arm, led a delegation that met with the department of Global Affairs. He carried a message that is becoming increasingly familiar to China watchers during the reign of President Xi Jinping: Stop being so negative about China.

The Chinese want to boost Canadian interest and investment in Xinjiang and the "one belt, one road" initiative, a major plan to spread the Chinese development model and corporate activities across Central Asia. They're also eager for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce free-trade talks with Beijing as soon as possible.

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Mr. Celil is perhaps the most famous resident of Xinjiang among Canadians, jailed by China in 2007 over the protests of Ottawa and human-rights advocates. He was travelling on a Canadian passport in 2006 when police in Uzbekistan arrested him and sent him to China.

Mr. Celil had originally fled China in the mid-1990s after being imprisoned for using a megaphone to broadcast calls to prayer. He moved to Canada in 2001 as a political refugee and received a passport four years later.Mr. Zuo put a positive gloss on the Celil imprisonment, saying to reporters that China in 2016 cut the 50-year-old's sentence from life to about 20 years and said the dissident is now allowed to receive family visitors.

The Chinese official said Mr. Celil remains in a "typical jail in Xinjiang right now" rather than a "re-education camp" that China uses for some in the region.

Rather than call him a terrorist, as China has previously done, Mr. Zuo described Mr. Celil as a separatist.

"He was involved in the crime of secession and incited national antagonism," he said.

He suggested, however, that Mr. Celil had reformed his thinking. "During his time in prison, he realized his mistake gradually, and he took the initiative to speak [to the public]," Mr. Zuo said. "He educated more than 200,000 people by sharing his own experience."

In his meeting with reporters, Mr. Zuo also admonished Canadian journalists for their coverage of China's northwestern region and urged them to add more favourable treatment to their reports.

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"If there is a flower and garbage bin placed together and your camera is focused on the flower, then you will only see the positive side," he said through a translator. "But if you focus on the garbage bin, then you are only seeing the dirty side."

Mr. Zuo also defended the use of "re-education camps" employed by Beijing to reconfigure the thinking of people that China suspects of radicalism among the 22 million people living in Xinjiang.

Amnesty International Canada's secretary-general Alex Neve said Mr. Celil should not be imprisoned.

"There has never been any substantiation of the allegations against him – that he is some sort of terrorist mastermind. He did not have a fair trial."

He said the unrelenting Chinese repression of the Uyghurs has been a consistent pattern of silencing dissent and cultural practices and is not explained by Beijing's argument that this is fighting extremism. "It's a campaign against the Uyghur people not Uyghur extremism."

Since 2009, hundreds of people have died in multiple outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang, Beijing and elsewhere in China many of them deemed Uyghur terrorist attacks by China, although some of those incidents have been linked to local unrest over restrictions on religious practice. Beijing's worries about Islamic radicalization on Chinese territory have been further bolstered by the presence of Uyghurs in places such as Syria.

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Mr. Zuo said that for individuals found to be committing "borderline … activities" – a phrase he did not define – the Chinese have decided re-education is the best way to "to prevent that person from being further influenced by extremism."

As The Globe and Mail has reported, many of the targets of this re-education campaign are Uyghurs, members of a largely Muslim minority who have been accused of harbouring radicalism and in whom Chinese authorities are now trying to inculcate a new love of country. Behaviours for which Beijing has sent people to camp include: possessing phones with religious materials deemed contraband; accessing foreign internet sites; travelling or studying in Muslim countries or dressing too conservatively.

This campaign against extremism includes prohibiting some types of beards, the wearing of veils in public places and tries to control the names given to children.

The Chinese delegation visiting Ottawa argued that these restrictions are justified in part because the Uyghurs are susceptible to radicalism and have abandoned traditional dress and customs. China is helping them rediscover their roots, Mr. Zuo and others explained.

"Traditionally, Ugyhurs have been an ethnic group that is very focused on dancing and singing. However, [as a result of] some extremism thoughts … very influential in the less educated population, during some of the celebrations, they have stopped dancing and singing because of the influence," he said.

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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