Evil’s First Soft Touches: Uyghur “Re-Education” in China

ANGELA ZHANG details China’s massive internment of Uyghurs in “re-education camps,” as well as the international response and China’s subsequent tactical revisions.

Since April 2017, as many as 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim ethnic minority groups have been indefinitely detained in an ever-expanding secretive network of extrajudicial re-education camps across Xinjiang province. China’s rulers have long held a deep suspicion of Xinjiang’s ethnic minority groups, whose members account for more than half of the provincial population of 24 million. Comprising the vast majority of Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population, Uyghurs have a distinct religion, language, and culture that’s far more similar to that of China’s Central Asian neighbors than its own Han Chinese majority. Importantly, they have a history of independence and separatist movements, largely based on ethno-nationalist arguments for a homeland for Turkic-speaking Uyghurs. Stretching 1.6 million square kilometers from the Tibetan plateau in the southeast to Kazakhstan on its northwestern border, Xinjiang is by far China’s largest administrative region. Bordering eight countries and rich with oil and natural resources, it is also one of China’s most vital regions from a strategic standpoint.

Tensions have long existed between the Han majority and the Muslim Uyghur population in the autonomous region officially called Xinjiang but known indigenously as East Turkestan by its local population. In July 2009, ethnic tensions boiled over in the capital of Urumqi, where clashes between Uyghurs and Hans left over 140 people dead and hundreds more injured. The riot reflected deep-seated frustration felt by many Uyghurs towards the tight control of the Communist Party. A series of sporadic Uyghur attacks against the Han continued over the ensuing years, reaching a peak in 2014 and prompting the launch of a “people’s war on terror” designed to exert greater control of the Uyghur population.

Amid the rising Islamophobia in China and protracted conflict, Communist Party officials have responded by creating a surveillance state in Xinjiang. In 2016, Chen Quanguo, who previously spearheaded the implementation of the “grid-style social management” system in Tibet to restore stability, was appointed as Party Secretary in Xinjiang, where he has orchestrated the detention of Uyghurs. As part of this suppressive campaign, Chinese authorities have diluted Uyghur language and culture and targeted the religious practices and customs of Muslims, banning beards, religious instruction of children, and the granting of names with religious connotations. A central part of the Chinese government’s efforts is a digital surveillance program involving widespread installation of facial recognition technology and collection of DNA samples on an unprecedented scale.

Many Western reports have likened Xinjiang to a police state, with police questioning Uyghurs on the street without cause, demanding to know what they’re doing, where they’re going, and why. Xinjiang’s cities are scrambling to hire police after regional government spending on public security nearly doubled in 2017. Furthermore, many foreign news outlets and non-profit organizations have detailed physical and psychological abuse inside the camps. The Associated Press reported that Uyghurs were forced to disavow their beliefs, praise the party, and endure solitary confinement. An AFP investigation in 2018 examining more than 1,500 publicly available government documents found evidence that the camps are run more like jails than schools, with police uniforms, riot shields and helmets, pepper spray, tear gas, stun and net guns, electrified batons, handcuffs, and billy clubs. Human Rights Watch discovered that former detainees were jailed without hearings, shackled, and beaten.

One main impetus for the Chinese government’s intensified efforts to control the Uyghur population is President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative––a trillion-dollar plan to finance a vast network of new ports, highways, roads, energy pipelines and modern infrastructure projects in developing countries that promote economic integration from China through Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and beyond. Due to its geographic location, Xinjiang serves as an important nexus for a several such key projects, including the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the China-Turkey Corridor. Because the unrest and instability in Xinjiang could discourage potential investors, the Party has sought to pacify the region, ease concerns about violence and lawlessness, and ultimately reassure investors that it is a safe place to live and to work.

China refuses to back down on what it views as its highly successful deradicalization program in Xinjiang. Nonetheless, perhaps in response to growing international pressure, the Chinese government has become more sophisticated in its approach towards legitimizing and crafting a narrative around what is happening in Xinjiang. After initially issuing several blanket denials in response to reports of mass incarceration, Beijing changed its official position after the UN raised alarm in August. As early as October 2018, authorities began to covertly send detainees to Heilongjiang province in the far northeast of China to address overcrowding in camps. Now, many are being sent to Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, a move some view as a bid to obfuscate the mass scale of detention in Xinjiang. Around the same time, China began an ardent defense of the program, calling it a counter-terrorism measure to purge Islamist extremism from the vast, unstable territory bordering Central Asia. Authorities claim that strict security measures are necessary to combat the influence of extremist groups. By framing its efforts against the Uyghur population in the language of counter-terrorism, Beijing aims to show itself to be a responsible member of the global community, ostensibly playing by the rules of the international system while sidestepping human rights concerns.

Beijing has faced a slew of international criticism and denunciation over its tactics in Xinjiang that have escalated in the past several months with increased Western reporting, academic research, and investigation by human rights NGOs. Last August, a UN human rights panel confronted China over credible reports about the “massive internment camps” holding a million or more Uyghurs. In November, six UN officials and human rights experts sent a letter to the Chinese government opposing new regulations seeking to provide a legal basis for mass internment as a countermeasure to religious extremism. In the letter, they contended that the regulations were “incompatible with China’s obligations under international human rights law” and that the new regulations relied on overly broad definitions of extremist behavior, essentially criminalizing the legitimate exercise of basic rights. That same month, a total of 278 scholars in various disciplines spanning dozens of countries urged the international community to take action against China over its “mass human rights abuses and deliberate attacks on indigenous cultures presently taking place in China’s XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region].”

In January of 2019, as part of a broader tougher tack against China, U.S. lawmakers revived a bill––the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act––that could pave the way for sanctions against China for its actions in Xinjiang. In February, human rights activist groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, began urging European and Muslim nations to take the lead in establishing a UN investigation into China’s arbitrary detention. They are appealing to the UN Human Rights Council, which opens its main annual session on February 25th, to send an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang. Moreover, in a change of tune, Turkey denounced China’s detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, calling it a “great shame for humanity.”

In a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in November 2018, China defended its camps as not only a counter-terrorism measure but also crucial vocational training centers aimed at improving the economic prospects and living standards of ethnic minorities. In the same month, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper titled “Cultural Protection and Development in Xinjiang,” trumpeting the government’s wide-ranging protection of ethnic cultures, including languages, religions and cultural heritage, of Xinjiang. To reinforce the official narrative, China has even gone so far as to take small delegations of diplomats and journalists on meticulously managed visits to Xinjiang. Even so, an EU delegation supervised by Chinese officials on a 3-day trip in January 2019 reported that the visit provided “forcing, and mutually consistent, evidence of major and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

China’s increased suppression and more sophisticated tactics in Xinjiang come at a time when China is trying to play a more central role in leading the international order. In addition to its increased economic, military and political might in the last decade or so, China has more recently emerged as a pivotal player in the international human rights system. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, China’s leverage on the world scene has grown and its tactics have become more proactive since Xi Jinping was elected president in 2013. China’s actions and narrative of Xinjiang are core to a wider and more wholesale campaign to reshape the rules and instruments of the international human rights system and challenge or co-opt some of the key values upon which the US-led liberal international order rests. It remains to be seen whether the international community will respond with force or allow China to continue to chip away at the values that underpin the existing international system. If the international community adopts a sufficiently strong stance, then China may be forced to reconsider its Uyghur policy or risk losing soft power and influence.

Angela Zhang can be contacted at zhangela18@gmail.com.

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