China’s official mouthpiece Global Times, has carried three articles recently on Xinjiang, relating to the threat posed by terrorism and religious extremism and what steps need to be taken to ensure ethnic unity. All three articles are propaganda pieces aimed at Western audiences to inform them that China is ‘educating’ extremists in prisons by inviting religious experts. According to the Global Times (23 July 2018) some 300 Uighurs had gone to Syria to flight alongside the ISIS and some of them have returned to China to create unrest.
Clearly, the Chinese are rattled for the next article in the series (14 August 2018) emphasizes that counter-terror effort and laws are essential to keep the peace in Xinjiang. The article quotes Hu Lianhe, member of Chinese delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as saying that “The freedom and dignity, economic and social rights, civil and political rights and other rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are fully guaranteed by law and in practice.” Clearly, the Chinese are far off the mark in actual practice in Xinjiang. Over the last several years, reports of the presence of large ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang have emerged, in which scores of Chinese are being detained without any legal basis.
Hold on! The Chinese are actually worried about the return of Uighur fighters from Syria, Particularly those who had fought alongside the ISIS, numbering anywhere from 300 to 3000, depending on the sources that you cite? The fact of the matter is that it is the Chinese who drove the Uighur to take such drastic steps as they stepped their campaign to ‘educate’ the Uighurs about the ways Communist China.
This has been the case since the 2009 attacks in Urumqi and today, the Chinese have imposed a proper police state in Xinjiang, full of CCTVs and restriction on movement and religious activity. There is restriction on Uighurs naming their newborns with traditional Muslim names and even sporting beards. Till recently, the Hui Muslims also present in Xinjiang and other parts of China were not so restive, but now even their religious practices have come under scrutiny of the Chinese state. The Hui grand mosque at Weizhou had been constructed and suddenly, the local authorities decided that it needed to be razed to the ground on account of the fact that it did not meet the standards! Massive protests erupted amongst the Hui’s and a temporary halt to the proposal has been ordered. If de-radicalisation is the objective then it makes sense for China to send religious experts into prison to speak to those Uighurs who are returnees from Syria. Further, prison guards were also being trained to handle extremists of this genre. Fair enough!
But in the statements of Chinese officials and academics is an admission that they don’t really make a distinction between the extremist who might be preaching in prison and those forcibly detained in re-education camps. Global Times quotes an official from a leading think tank who states that China was still exploring a way to better educate extremists in prison since there were cases when the extremists spread their ideas in prison. And for this purpose, China was looking at Kazakhstan’s method of separating extremists from other prisoners, which may help the Chinese in Xinjiang.
There is no doubt that religious extremism is a threat to China just as it is to any other country in the world. In that one has to accept that it affects Xinjiang too. But the plight of the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang, in view of the increasing State pressure leaves little room for doubt that repression by the state is of a much higher order than the scale and intensity of religious extremism.
Human Rights Watch has recently found “fresh evidence that the authorities in one of China’s most repressive regions are sweeping up citizens’ personal information in a stark example of how big data technology can be used to police a population.” HRW states that Chinese police in Xinjiang regularly intercept “computer and mobile app interfaces of the software (and) tracked almost all citizens of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority and stored detailed information, including their travel history, prayer habits, number of books in their possession, banking and health records”. The platform also possesses devices to track vehicle number plates and uses facial recognition cameras to follow people in real time and provide “predictive warnings” about impending crime.
China Digital Times, explains that “Ever since former Tibet Party secretary Chen Quanguo was installed in Xinjiang to replicate his perceived successes (in Tibet where he was posted earlier), Xinjiang’s re-education system alone has (grown) to overshadow China’s officially-abolished re-education through labour system… Individuals can land in the camps for reasons such as contacting friends or relatives abroad, worshipping at mosques, or possessing Quranic verses on their phones.”
One might well ask where is the evidence to show that these ‘re-education camps’ exist. Chinese media has been talking recently of massive poverty alleviation programmes undertaken in Xinjiang wherein Uighurs are being moved to other parts of the region. For example, on 6 July 2018, People’s Daily said that “461,000 poverty-ridden residents (had been relocated) to work in other parts of the region during the first quarter of the year,” in a bid to “improve social stability and alleviate poverty”.
This report further stated that the Xinjiang autonomous region government planned to transfer another 100,000 residents from southern Hotan and Kashgar prefectures by 2019, to obtain employment somewhere else. Clearly, the only place one can be re-employed in China is the re-education camps! The logic of sending people out of Xinjiang for employment will just not sell.
Chinese experts argue that “organising people to work away from home would help them better integrate with the rest of China, and take their advanced skills back to Xinjiang later. The relocation also helps maintain regional security.” This is the so-called “Occupational Education Programmes” which last year covered 1.26 million people in Kashgar and Hotan, where according to official Chinese sources, 47,000 poor people found jobs, while 317,400 individuals and 331 villages were ‘lifted out of poverty’.
So where are all these new ideas coming up? Clearly, the Chinese state has been inspired by President Xi Jinping’s announcement of the construction of “Great Wall of Iron” in 2017 to promote security and peace in Xinjiang. This wall of iron is required to develop the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi’s call for a ‘Wall of Iron’ in Xinjiang is reminiscent of the ‘Iron Curtain’ phrase used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to describe Communist Soviet Union in the 1950s!
Last year, President Xi had given this ‘wall of iron’ call, at a meeting of Xinjiang’s lawmakers on the sidelines of the Annual Session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. He is quoted as having said that “Just as one loves one’s own eyes, one must love ethnic unity; just as one takes one’s own livelihood seriously, one must take ethnic unity seriously.” One cannot fault President Xi’s love for ethnic unity in China, but actions of the Chinese state appear to be working exactly in the opposite direction.
That is precisely why the international community must raise its voice against the repression of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Recall that the UNHRC has raised such issues in many countries, but is silent on China. Perhaps the US can take the lead in pointing out to China’s poor human rights record in Xinjiang. Issues of terrorism and religious extremism within a nation are undoubtedly significant, but when its root causes lie in a State’s policy and approach to its minorities, it is only natural that there will be a blowback. That is the real reason for restiveness in China’s Xinjiang!