The world has witnessed the rise and fall of many authoritarian governments. History shows us that these regimes have been vastly different in terms of their political structures, ruling durations, ethnic compositions, geographical locations, and the contexts in which they emerged. However, conventional wisdom dictates, that there must be some commonality between them due to which they have been classified under one broad heading. And indeed, there is one indisputable link that binds all these authoritarian regimes together. All of them are unrestrained in their actions. One such example can be seen in Xinjiang, which we shall discuss later in the article.
Once these governments devise a policy, they are willing to use any means necessary to implement them. The rule of law is non-existent and armed forces operate with complete impunity. In addition to this, moral considerations are mostly absent in their decision-making processes. This is because leaders of these countries tend to believe that policy should not be guided by sentimentality and hence any concern for human dignity is dismissed as a sign of weakness.
Naturally enough, in a government where apathy is encouraged, the value of human life decreases, and barbaric actions are normalized. The Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China represents one such regime. People throughout the world have been shocked after reading about the horrors of The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the incident at Tiananmen Square.
Now, another such policy is underway and the world is hardly taking notice. Apart from a handful of news agencies and magazines, China’s suppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has failed to enter mainstream news. It’s not that this issue has been completely ignored. People are generally aware of the fact that something is happening in that region. However, most of the global news channels are happy enough with limited and cursory coverage of this situation.
This article will attempt to explain the situation based on the facts that have been uncovered until yet. Starting from Xinjiang’s location and history, the article will focus on China’s recent oppressive activities in the region and will also try to uncover the reasons behind this aggressive policy.
Xinjiang is the largest administrative province of China and it makes up its north-west frontier. It is a region of immense economic and geopolitical importance for China. It has borders with 8 countries including Pakistan, India, Mongolia, and the Central Asian republics. In addition to this geostrategic significance, it also has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.
Historically, it was a part of the famous Silk Route which connected Europe with China and enabled large scale-exchange of commodities and ideas. Hence, it is an inextricable part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which aims, among other things, to revive the glory of the Silk Route by expanding the connectivity between China and Europe. This region is also quite famous for its diversity when compared to other Chinese provinces.
While Han Chinese people make up 90 percent of the population of the country, Xinjiang is home to significant proportions of people belonging to minority groups. The largest of these groups is the community of Uighur Muslims. They are a group of people who follow a moderate version of Sunni Islam and converse in a language that is quite similar to Turkish.
Xinjiang has been their home for about a millennium ever since Turk rulers established kingdoms here in the 10th century. Because of this, the current population of Xinjiang associates itself more with Central Asian nations than it does with China. Many inhabitants even refer to Xinjiang as ‘East Turkestan’, thereby claiming that China has no right to exercise authority over their sovereign land. Their argument has some force.
Historically, this region has had protracted and irregular spells of autonomy and independence. Up until the 18th century, it was never fully under the control of the Chinese empire. One reason for this was that the seat of power in China has mostly been located in the eastern provinces and rulers have found it tough to exercise complete authority over this far-west region.
It had brief spells of independence in the early 20th century but was brought under firm Chinese control after the Communist Party’s triumph in 1949. At that point in time, the Uighurs made up 73 percent of the region’s population. Because of its ethnic diversity and closeness to the erstwhile Soviet Union, it was granted a measure of autonomy by Chinese leaders who did not want to give its inhabitants a reason to rebel. But a region which has had a history of turmoil and civil unrest cannot be subdued for long. Sure enough, complications emerged in the 80s and 90s.
One major issue was that of increased internal migration. Deng Xiaoping had kick-started his reform program in the late 1970s and its effects were immediate. Within 10-12 years, many Chinese provinces underwent rapid economic advancement. One of them was Xinjiang. Its agriculture and trade-based economy made it one of the most prosperous regions in China. It also became crucial for China’s energy security after rich oil and natural gas reserves were discovered in its heartland.
This tempted the Chinese state to support internal migration to Xinjiang. Many young and dynamic Han Chinese people traveled from the Western Provinces to Xinjiang and quickly set up lucrative businesses. These Han Chinese migrants poured in at great speed and soon became 40 percent of the total population of Xinjiang (they had been at 6 percent in 1949).
In addition to this, the Communist Party ensured that most of the high-paying jobs went to the Han Chinese population while Uighur Muslims were relegated to menial professions. This enraged the natives who saw this as a Chinese attempt to dilute their culture. A separatist movement, led by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), emerged in the 90s and began carrying out coordinated terror attacks both within and outside the province.
It is important to note here that ETIM is not a highly sophisticated and structured organization like Al Qaeda or Taliban. It has never claimed any responsibility for the terror attacks which tempts us to question the Chinese characterization of it being a highly dangerous group.
Many analysts claim that it lacks the capability to execute large-scale terror attacks and hence can be dealt with easily by using basic security measures. But the Chinese leadership was convinced that an adverse and merciless policy was needed to stop the spread of ‘religious extremism’ in Xinjiang.
When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he was convinced of the need to curb religious extremism swiftly and brutally. In one of his secret speeches of 2014 (which was leaked in 2019), he even claimed that ‘dictatorship’ tools were necessary to defeat Islamic Fundamentalism in Xinjiang. Weeding out extremism and ensuring stability in the country is a mark of a great statesman. But what Xi Jinping was about to do is not. Based on some absurd line of analysis, the party arrived at the conclusion that the problem of extremism could only be solved by wiping out each and every trace of Islam from Xinjiang.
According to the Chinese leadership, as long as Islam existed, every Uighur Muslim was to be considered as a potential terrorist. Therefore, a series of ‘anti-extremism’ laws were passed in 2016 that prohibited men from keeping long beards and women from covering their faces with a veil. Many mosques were destroyed under the pretext that they were shoddily constructed and were not safe enough for the worshippers. Halal food and Ramadan fasting were frowned upon by the Communist Party and eventually, they were banned too.
Posters of Xi Jinping were put up in places of worship and it became mandatory for every family to send their children to government schools. The government even tried to promote drinking and smoking, considered as unpardonable sins by Islam, to promote a culture wherein people would regularly flout Islamic laws. But the biggest nightmare was yet to arrive.
And it arrived in the form of Chen Quanguo, the new party secretary of Xinjiang, in 2016. He had been the party secretary of Tibet from 2011-16 where he had gained a reputation for being a strongman leader. He had placed party secretaries in Buddhist monasteries and had given a lot of liberty to security forces in terms of arbitrary arrests and interrogations.
Now, he took all these tested methods and applied them to Xinjiang. He converted Xinjiang into a hyper-surveillance state. A grid management system was devised according to which, the entire province was divided into equal squares of about 500 people each. Each square had a police station that was in charge of maintaining a database of all the people in that square. This included their photographs, biometric data, family history and even periodic inspections of their cell phones.
Finally, the data from all these squares was compiled into an Integrated Joint Operations Platform. An algorithm was applied to this data and it generated lists of people who were, or were likely to become, separatists.
On the basis of these lists, about 2 million people have been added to detention centers throughout the province. People are still being added to these centers for frivolous reasons. These include having more than three children, attending mosque services, sending texts of Quranic verses or communicating with foreign relatives.
Due to a lack of access to these sites, the global media and investigative agencies do not really know what goes on in these detention centers. China claims that they are centers for ‘vocational training’ where people are taught about Chinese customs, laws, Mandarin and other basic skills. The Communist Party further claims that admission into these centers is completely voluntary; thereby implying that Uighur Muslims can join or leave whenever they wish to.
But people who have managed to flee from these centers and have been granted asylum in foreign countries paint a different picture. They claim that these centers have been constructed for forceful indoctrination. People are arbitrarily detained and thrown into them regularly. They are forced to chant songs in favor of the Communist Party and thank Xi Jinping. In case an inmate is unable to learn a slogan or a song within 14 days, he/she is beaten up. People who do not comply are tortured and kept in isolation.
There have also been reports that women in these camps have to face sexual harassment as well as forced sterilizations. In addition to all of this, they are taught that Islam is a violent religion and hence must be denounced. Make no mistake, this is a cultural genocide.
Humanity must hang its head in shame as international pressure has not been strong enough to stop China from continuing this policy. While the EU, USA and UNHRC have issued declarations against this barbaric policy, viable sanctions on China have not been imposed. The Trump Administration is yet to impose sanctions on Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of Xinjiang.
The steps that it has taken have largely been symbolic such as asking US companies functioning in Xinjiang to not engage in any suppression of the Uighur Muslims. But perhaps, the biggest betrayal of responsibility has been by the nations of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation.
No major Islamic nation has come to the rescue of their Muslim brethren in Xinjiang. On the contrary, they have all praised China for carrying out effective counter-terrorism operations in the region. Countries like Egypt have even co-operated with China by repatriating hundreds of Uighur students when China asked them to. All of these countries want Chinese investments and strategic ties with China. Hence, they are careful to avoid doing anything which will offend the Chinese leadership.
The Uighur community of Xinjiang is being destroyed and the world is standing by, too afraid of the Chinese dragon. Posterity will not be kind to us.
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The one word that defines him is curiosity. Always looking for new things to explore and learn. Apart from this, he is an avid debator which largely stems from his habit of reading voraciously. Currently pursuing Political Science (Hons.) at Ramjas College, Manraj is a movie buff and a huge football fan.