Chinese brutality towards the Uighur Muslim minority is not new but what is surprising is that nobody dares to question Beijing. Why these double standards?
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 117-page report titled, ‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses — China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims’, which gave fresh evidence of Beijing’s “mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment, and the increasingly pervasive controls on daily life,” in the restive Province. The US based agency affirmed: “Throughout the region, the Turkic Muslim population of 13 million, is subjected to forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law.”
The HRW report is based on interviews with 58 former residents of Xinjiang, including five former detainees and 38 relatives of detainees. Bloomberg, citing a United Nations’ assessment, had earlier reported that the Chinese authorities have detained ‘upwards of one million’ Uighurs: “As its mosques are shuttered and travel across its borders restricted, Xinjiang — once at the intersection of ancient Silk Road trade routes — threatens to become a black hole in President Xi Jinping’s effort to build new ones.”
The fact that China would like Xinjiang to be the hub of its mega project compounds the issue. The Uighurs being badly treated by Beijing is, however, not new. In a report dated May 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) states: “On the pretense of suppressing guerrillas, the Chinese Communist troops have been going systematically from valley to valley, burning tents and looting cattle, thus depriving the inhabitants of the means of livelihood.”
Another CIA dispatch from January 22, 1951, affirms: “Muslims in Sinkiang [Xinjiang] are discontented with the Communist regime. Officially, there are no restrictions on prayers, but orchestras play for dancing at evening-prayer time to distract the young, and young men enlisted as soldiers have no time to attend religious services. Gatherings of more than four people are prohibited.”
Interestingly, the Chinese propaganda kept repeating that the Communists had come only to help the Uighurs and once their economy was on track, they would withdraw. Sixty-eight years later, the Turkic population is still waiting for the Chinese withdrawal.
Incidentally, the same CIA report asserts: “Propaganda in Sinkiang is stating that the Chinese ought to take the Ladakh airfield because the Americans intend to use it in their invasion of China via Kashmir and Tibet. The Ladakh road was closed in early December 1950.” It was probably part of Mao’s plans to invade Ladakh.
Last month, The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), admitted that the party imprisons ‘extremists’, to educate them and reform their religious thoughts in Xinjiang. It was a rare admission.
Ma Pinyan, a research fellow at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences and vice president of the Xinjiang Prison Association, told the party tabloid that the state had invited religious experts “to reform the extremists’ thoughts. …in prison [they] need to transform their thoughts.”
Another ‘expert’, La Disheng, former vice president of the Xinjiang Academy of Governance remarked: “As a multi-ethnic region, Xinjiang has proven that prosperous development can only be achieved through ethnic unity, while ethnic conflicts and separatism may lead to disasters.”
Today, a large majority of the population of the restive Muslim Province is considered ‘extremist’. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Rian Thum, a historian who has been conducting research in Xinjiang, observed: “What does it take to intern half a million members of one ethnic group in just a year? Enormous resources and elaborate organisation, but the Chinese authorities aren’t stingy. Vast swathes of the Uighur population in China’s western region of Xinjiang — as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities — are being detained to undergo what the state calls “transformation through education”.
Since last year, a large number of studies detailed the proliferation of re-education camps in Xinjiang that appeared in the Western Press. China Digital Times, which collected information from different sources, explained: “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 grew to overshadow China’s officially-abolished re-education through labor 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.”
Even the Chinese Press realises that the situation is grim. On July 6, The People’s Daily noted that Beijing has relocated “461,000 poverty-ridden residents 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.” The report asserted that the Xinjiang Government planned to further transfer 100,000 residents from southern Hotan and Kashgar prefectures by 2019, to get employed somewhere else.
Yu Shaoxiang, another ‘expert’ at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Global Times: “Poverty alleviation in Xinjiang is more difficult compared to other places because, aside from poverty, Xinjiang also faces ethnic issues.”
In 2017, Xinhua announced “occupational education programs” covering 1.26 million people in Kashgar and Hotan, where 47,000 poor people found jobs while 317,400 individuals and 331 villages were lifted out of poverty. It is obviously an excuse in an area which is the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In June, Beijing had announced that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s Government planned to teach “standard spoken and written Chinese language to all 2.94 million students during their free and compulsory education period.” Free and compulsory!
Is there a terrorist threat in Xinjiang? There is no doubt that China faces serious challenges not only from infiltration from its all-weather friend in the south, but also from the Syrian-trained Uighurs returning to Xinjiang.
It is, therefore, a legitimate concern for Beijing; some sources estimate that 5,000 Uighur jihadists were fighting in Syria. A Dubai-based media outlet reported that 10,000 to 20,000 Uighurs were supporting the Islamic State, mostly in Idlib Province.
Whatever the number is, the issue is that ferocious repression or forced assimilation, as it is happening today in the restive region, can only make the situation worse. The future of the Province is not bright, but the most surprising aspect is that Muslim nations around the world are keeping mum about the fate of their Uighur brothers and sisters; nobody dares to question China about its Muslim policy. Isn’t it amazing? This is called double standards.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)