Xinjiang (now Uyghur Autonomous Region) is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. It is the largest Chinese administrative division and spans over 1.6 million km2, bordering countries such as Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The name “Xinjiang”, which literally means “New Frontier” or “New Border”, was given during the Qing Dynasty. It is home to a number of different ethnic groups including the Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongol. The decision to grant Xinjiang an autonomous status many years ago by Mao was rooted in the strange dialectics of Communism, specifically in Stalin’s nationality policies. Stalin, and later Mao, viewed the creation of autonomous regions as the Communist Party’s transitory recognition of local identities that would eventually become obsolete under socialism, and of independent cultural identities that would soon be assimilated in all but a folkloric sense. The creation of an autonomous region was therefore merely a tactic, as the idea of national autonomy would itself ultimately become a meaningless political concept under Communism.
The long-standing subjugation and Government’s response
The province consists of two ethnic groups, the Hans and the Uyghur (Turkish and Muslim population) apart from the others such as Mongols, Huis etc. Much of the tension in the region is sourced in the claims of some Uyghur separatist groups for greater political and religious autonomy, and also in resentment at the growing presence of Han Chinese domination— China’s largest ethnic group —that they claim limits their economic opportunities. For a millennium, Xinjiang’s large Muslim and Turkic population has viewed itself as religiously and ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese society. The Uyghur themselves comprise just under half of Xinjiang’s population, but with the addition of Kazaks and Kyrgyz the number of Turkic Muslims rises to over half of the total. The Uyghur have not, until the past few generations, shared a strong sense of common destiny. Increasingly, however, they have come to adopt a consolidated identity as “Uyghur.”
These Uyghur today feel that Chinese policy has ignored them or, worse, consciously worked against them and feel deeply threatened. Even though this was initially welcomed, Uyghur feel that the economic benefits is one-sided and towards Han Chinese. This has led to economic marginalisation and skewed growth in favour of the Han. Uyghur think that this unequal division of wealth favours Han Chinese at their expense. Those involved with the development of the province’s energy wealth are mainly Han Chinese, rather than Uyghur, and the profits go mainly to Beijing.
The response to this growing discontent is also compounded by lukewarm response of the Government.
Xinjiang has been an integral part of China for nearly two millennia. The government is willing to grant only minimal concessions, if any, in the direction of genuine Uyghur autonomy, since it aims to preserve the status of the province as it was at the time of independence. Over the past decade it has applied whatever degree of force is necessary to eliminate what it sees as the threat of separatism and the use of terrorism by those promoting it.
“Xinjiang problem” pits a small but increasingly self-conscious group of people anxious for its existential future against one of the world’s most powerful states whose leaders are equally concerned to preserve the territory and administrative integrity of the whole. It arises primarily from economic, social, and cultural developments within the borders of the People’s Republic of China.
The “problem” has two key players – the Uyghur – fighting to regain and re-establish their identity and the Chinese Government, who is keen on suppressing their identity.
What Uyghur and other ethnic minorities face as a challenge?
- Increasing migration of the Han Chinese into the region. This migration is slowly denying to Uyghur the traditional centres of their civilisation.
- The existing economy favours Han Chinese, who fill approximately four fifths of all jobs in manufacturing, the oil and gas industries, transport, communications, and science and technology, and nine-tenths of jobs in the burgeoning field of construction.
- In an effort to preserve their own language and cultural traditions, many Turkic families send their sons to Chinese schools and their daughters to Uyghur or Kazak schools, thus lowering the horizons for women and broadening the gender gap.
- As their Uyghur grievance deepens, many turn to Islam and face severe restrictions by the state, denying them autonomy to practice their religion and face repression
- Xinjiang Turks, mistrust Chinese talk of a multi-ethnic society and fear their fate is to be absorbed into a specifically Han Chinese world. Hence, they see themselves as fighting to preserve their unique historical homeland, language, culture, and traditions from forces they believe would obliterate them.
Government’s response and Terrorism
- Turkic peoples of Xinjiang are different, which is why Mao granted them one of five autonomous regions within the People’s Republic. But China is a multi-ethnic state whose citizens are free to move as they wish. Since Uyghur themselves claim this right when they set up trading operations as far afield as Shanghai and the coastal cities, they should not complain when Han Chinese do the same in Xinjiang.
- China has pulled Xinjiang from abject poverty and rolled back near-universal illiteracy there.
- Following the above two reasons, China has invested heavily in the economic development, but Uyghur somehow don’t want to be a part of this development. They resist a legitimate developmental program designed to pull the region into the twenty-first century and integrate it economically both with the rest of China and with lands to the west, are working against the true interests of Xinjiang.
However, the reasons presented by the Government has been fiercely debated and continual lukewarm response has led to rise of terrorist groups in the region, fighting to restore the identity that has been lost in the forced assimilation. Eastern Turkistan People’s Party (ETPP) founded in 1949, which had spearheaded the growth of the militant movement in Xinjiang, was followed by the growth of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) reorganized along religious lines. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the ETIM tried to mobilise local support through various slogans like ‘Down with socialism’. The growth of terrorism has led to various incidents across China and deaths in an effort to drive home their message.
The government’s response has been swift here. Uighurs – were already being subjected to what the Chinese state described as an “all-out offensive” against religious extremism and terrorism. The hard-line policies started shortly after the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s party secretary, a strongman who had previously pursued similar policies in Tibet. While the government has justified its use of force as a response to a number of violent incidents, critics have claimed the measures are aimed at destroying Uighur identity. Xinjiang is being turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls “transformation through education”. Others have been thrown in prison or “disappeared”. Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing.
The Denial to a whole new level
In the 2nd week of August, The United Nations Security Council’s permanent member denied the United Nations’ report of clampdown on Uyghur in the region. China rejected allegations raised by a UN panel that 1 million Uygurs maybe being held in internment camps in the restive Xinjiang region, but said that some people had undergone re-education after being deceived by extremists. Hu Lianhe, deputy director general of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee, said that authorities in the far western Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region protected the full rights of all citizens equally. According to Beijing, Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uygur minority who call the region home and the ethnic Han Chinese majority. “The argument that 1 million are detained in re-education centres is completely untrue,” Hu told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the second day of its regular review of China’s record. “On freedom of religious belief, Xinjiang guarantees citizens freedom of religious belief and protects normal religious activities,” he said. “Those deceived by religious extremism … shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education,” he added. Gay McDougall, a panel member, said on Friday it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uygurs in China are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone”. “To say that they don’t violate rights of minorities does not prove anything. We have to [have] more than a denial of allegations,” she told the Chinese delegation on Monday. “I notice that you didn’t quite deny that these re-education or indoctrination programmes don’t take place,” she said, seeking clarification on how many people undergo re-education. Hu said China had clamped down on “extremist and terrorist crimes” in Xinjiang in accordance with the law, saying there had been assassinations, explosions and poisonings there. But, he said, it did not target any particular ethnic minority or seek “de-Islamisation” of the region. Earlier, in the country’s first response to the UN criticism, a state-run newspaper said that massively stepped-up security in Xinjiang has helped prevent “great tragedy”.
Even before the UN report, there have been large protests worldwide over this Chinese Clampdown on Uyghur, especially around the month of March 2018. Overseas Uygur had demonstrations in 14 countries in total, including the United States, Australia and Turkey. More than a hundred Uygur protesters gathered at a plaza near the United Nations in New York to call on the body to protect their culture against Chinese government efforts to assimilate the Turkic-speaking people. Elsewhere, hundreds of Uygur women on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street and in front of Sydney Town Hall chanted and waved blue flags, the separatist symbol for a proposed independent state called East Turkestan. The reasons for such protests were painfully obvious. Growing resentment against the authorities in China, and the call of Islamist Uygur militant groups, has also attracted thousands of Uygurs to travel to Syria in recent years. But Uygur activists and international rights groups say the far-reaching security campaign, which has accelerated markedly since 2016, exacerbates tensions and unfairly targets the entire Uygur population of more than 10 million. Many overseas Uygurs say that their relatives in China have been sent to an extrajudicial network of political indoctrination centres for months at a time without formal charges or for reasons unrelated to separatist activity – such as communicating with relatives abroad. China has also tightened restrictions over the instruction of Islam and the Uygur language and even what names Uygurs are allowed to give their babies in an effort to swiftly assimilate the minority group into the Chinese mainstream, which is dominated by the Han ethnic group. Government officials say the assimilation process will bring economic benefits to poor parts of Xinjiang, promote secularism and reinforce a sense of “patriotism” among Uygurs. Uygur activists warn that the heavy-handed methods could render traditional Uygur culture practically extinct in a matter of a few decades. Uygurs face a raft of other hurdles not imposed upon the Han: they have difficulty procuring passports and those who have them are required to leave them with the police. In Xinjiang, frequent road blocks and checkpoints enable authorities to stop people and check their mobile phones for content that might be deemed suspicious.
A New Tibet
Before the Uyghur problem, another identical crackdown occurred in the region of Tibet, where China forcibly took over the region and imposed its ideals of communism, subjugating the local culture in its entirety. Tibet had been largely independent before communist forces invaded in 1950 and China responded to riots and protests in 2008 with a deadly crackdown before accusing the Dalai Lama of orchestrating an uprising.
The similar crackdown has occurred again in China and it has followed the trend in Tibet all through the years, with a hint of Germany in the Interwar and WWII years. The Permanent member of the UN has blocked a leading human rights official from visiting the “re-education camps” which hold as many as one million Uyghur Muslims, which is not surprising to say the least. Barbel Kofler, the German human rights commissioner, had planned to travel to the heavily-policed northwestern region of Xinjiang to observe the country’s treatment of the minority group.
It follows reports that the Chinese government has extended state surveillance into the homes of Uighur families as part of what it claims is a clampdown on religious extremism and terrorism. This new development is not surprising considering China’s lengthened attempts to keep the issue under wraps and divert the world’s attention to the dreams of economic prosperity. Both Mr . Kofler and Michele Bachelet, have been seeking access to such camps, but far have been denied access. Ms Bachelet, the former President of Chile and the top human rights official has been asking for direct access to the region to be able to check and verify the worrying reports received, but China has failed to provide to do so. Former inmates and monitoring groups say those interned in the camps are subjected to prison-like conditions and forced to renounce their religion and cultural background while swearing loyalty to Communist Party leader and President Xi Jinping.
The state has also imposed an increasingly strict security regime in the region since 2017, including armed checkpoints and streets lined with facial recognition-equipped CCTV. Authorities in one city, Hami, ordered Uighurs to hand themselves in as abstention from alcohol. China has responded to increasing international if they followed “problematic” Islamic practices such concern by warning foreign ambassadors not to “interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”
China has also extended its campaign against Muslims and other religious minorities to other provinces such as Gansu, where authorities shut down a school teaching Arabic. And given that there is no foreseeable end to such assimilation forced on the ethnic groups and Xi Jingping’s government refusing access to officials or clamping on dissent, the situation has grown from bad to worse and will not end unless China takes a less radical approach to solve the crises.