What’s Really Happening to Uighurs in Xinjiang?

What’s Really Happening to Uighurs in Xinjiang?

What’s Really Happening to Uighurs in Xinjiang?

China may have interned more than a million Uighurs in Xinjiang in an attempt to suppress their desire for greater autonomy.


Human Rights Watch reported violations on a massive scale in September 2018 in Xinjiang, China’s most northwesterly region, targeted primarily at Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks. The Chinese authorities denied the allegations and insisted they were combating “radicalism” and “terrorism” fomented by the Uighur-diaspora opposition and by foreign powers. Muslim nations kept quiet.

It is beyond doubt that measures known as “transformation through education” devised in the 1990s to “reeducate” members of the Falun Gong sect have been adapted and applied to all members of Muslim minorities whose loyalty the regime suspects. Without official data it is impossible to know exactly how many have been affected. According to researcher Adrian Zenz, who uses public-sector data on the construction or expansion of internment facilities, as many as a million people, more than 10 percent of the Uighur population, may have been subjected to this program or be currently interned. Under this regime, unlike the labor-camp system (laogai), suspects do not get a trial and may be detained indefinitely. Zenz’s work and that of human-rights organizations shows that the system of repression operates on multiple levels, from open reeducation classes to closed camps with rigid discipline, all underpinned by the pathologization of dissidence. The system aims to “eradicate ideological viruses” and treat individuals according to their degree of obduracy.

In December 2018 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested official access to China’s Uighur reeducation camps. The Chinese authorities eventually acknowledged the camps’ existence, but claimed they were places of patriotic education and occupational-training centers intended to help minorities integrate, where education and self-criticism sessions and interrogations are combined with Mandarin-language courses. Accounts in the foreign press by former detainees who have fled the country paint a darker picture than that presented by Chinese media; they describe often harsh detention conditions, strong pressure, and even physical and psychological torture. In February the Turkish government, a staunch supporter of the Uighurs, issued a public condemnation of China’s treatment.This wave of repression may have reached a new peak, but Xinjiang has experienced many violent episodes, always followed by repressive crackdowns, a dynamic in which the Chinese government is still trapped.

Control of the Silk Roads

Xinjiang is bordered by huge mountain ranges and was for centuries a vital crossroads on the Silk Road. Under the Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties during the first millennium AD, it was periodically under Chinese domination as Chinese rulers wanted to prevent confederations of the steppes, which threatened their empire’s northern flank, from controlling the Silk Road and the wealth it generated.

After the Portuguese circumnavigated Africa, around 1500, overland routes went into a long, slow decline as maritime routes expanded. In the mid-18th century, Xinjiang (which had converted to Islam between the 10th and 17th centuries) was conquered by the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), but by this time it had already lost its central importance. After China cut itself off from the world, the region became an enclave, and Chinese leaders saw it as even more of a backwater because of the Sino-Soviet conflict.

The fortunes of Xinjiang, one of China’s poorest provinces, changed again as its regional and international importance grew. Mao stationed troops there in 1949 and began to align it with the rest of China through state investment. This was increased in the early 2000s as part of the Great Western Development Strategy. It coincided with massive internal migration by Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, which led to the building of new cities in the north from the 1950s and later the reshaping of the old oasis towns in the south.

Xinjiang is now connected to the rest of China by high-quality motorway and rail networks. Through the driving force of state-owned enterprises and production units developed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan for short, it has specialized in mining and agriculture (cotton, tomatoes, fruit).

The province, which is three times the size of France, has also become a strategic center for energy production as it has 25 percent of China’s hydrocarbon reserves and 38 percent of its coal. China wants to reduce its need to import energy, so Chinese companies extract 15 percent of its oil output and almost 25 percent of its natural gas in Xinjiang. Oil and gas pipelines linking it to central and coastal regions were built from the 1990s to transport the huge volumes of hydrocarbons that have powered China’s economic growth. Now the authorities are turning their attention to infrastructure for liquefied coal as well as wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the launch of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the opening up of Central Asia has turned Xinjiang into a key asset in China’s strategy of projecting its power in Asia. Bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and former Soviet republics, Xinjiang has a network of road, rail, and energy-transport links on which Beijing depends to guarantee supplies and also extend its economic influence as far as Europe. The regime needs stability in this region and is ever watchful for any sign that it might succumb to Islamism or too great a US influence.

Fear of insurrection

Though the Chinese state has consolidated its control over the region, it remains worried about insurrection, which in the past has led to brief periods of independence, recurrent riots, and, more recently, an increased incidence of violence, including terrorism. This mainly Turkic-speaking region, which in the West used to be called East Turkestan or Chinese Turkestan, is strongly individual and was known for its instability even in imperial times. When the Qing tried to make it their “new frontier” (Xinjiang in Mandarin), those nostalgic for its previous Sufi theocracy used the call to defend Islam as a way of mobilizing against non-Muslim Sino-Manchu power. Until the early 20th century, Xinjiang was divided into an area dominated by Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads in the north and the Pamir mountains, and oases inhabited by sedentary Uighurs in the south and east.

After the fall of the last Chinese dynasty in 1912, Chinese warlords faced an unprecedented rise in autonomist and separatist opposition. Fresh blood flowed into this opposition from a new generation of activists: On the right were the supporters of pan-Turkism and on the left a communist movement supported and funded by the Soviets until the late 1940s. The victory of Mao and the Communists in 1949, then the repressive policies before and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), led to these networks’ being dismantled.

In the 1980s, with the reformist branch of the Communist party (PCC) in power, people from minorities were recruited to increase engagement with the machinery of the state. New spaces for cultural and religious freedom emerged, and there was new “anti-colonial” nationalist activism on campuses and in Uighur intellectual circles. After the ban on Islam during the Cultural Revolution, some Uighurs turned again to religion, and in the south created madrasas, centers for groups of talibs (students of religion). Some advocated adopting Muslim social values or even creating an independent Islamic state. In 1990 the Turkestan Islamic party, a recently created network, staged an insurrection in Baren.

In 1985, 1988, and 1989, in the regional capital Urumqi and other oasis towns, there were protests against colonization by immigration, and against ethnic discrimination and inequality, and the lack of political autonomy. These were led by student organizations; they degenerated into attacks on government buildings, in particular in 1989. Tibet had violent riots in March 1989 and Tiananmen Square happened in June, so the PCC feared it might lose control of the situation in Xinjiang. This fear was heightened by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when independence for other Turkic-speaking peoples became a reality.

Return of PCC hardliners

Autonomists’ and separatists’ hopes of inclusion in regional policy-making ended with the return to power of PCC hard-liners. The Communist party, Xinjiang’s Islamic Association (a liaison organization representing Muslims), the regional authorities, the religious teaching system, schools, and universities, were all brought back into line. Administrators deemed wayward, overly religious, or sympathetic to separatism or independence were sacked or punished.

A policy of gradual tightening of control over society was put in place. To avoid arrest, the most committed nationalist activists joined the formerly pro-communist or pan-Turk Uighur diaspora in Central Asia, Turkey, or the West, and with local organizations pursued a campaign for human rights on the Tibetan model. This nonviolent strategy adopted by nationalists led in 2004 to the creation of the Washington-based World Uyghur Congress.

In Xinjiang, repression brought rising tensions. Angry Uighur crowds took to the streets in Khotan in 1995, in Yining in 1997, and elsewhere. The madrasas in the south were broken up and some in Islamo-nationalist circles considered the PCC to be at war with Islam and Uighur Muslim identity. Some talibs and nationalist cells went underground, where they formed small groups advocating violent action, including terrorism. Between 1990 and 2001 the Chinese authorities claim 200 terrorist incidents caused 162 deaths. But these groups were gradually dismantled.

In March 1996 the PCC published a list of harsh directives to eradicate potentially subversive activities. This was followed by several Strike Hard campaigns (1997, 1999, 2001), which led to the creation of patriotic-education classes, an increase in actions legally classed as subversive, and waves of arrests. The same document emphasized the necessity of encouraging the influx of Han within the Production and Construction Corps. The building of mosques was severely restricted, patriotic officials were appointed as heads of places of worship, and anyone who had received unauthorized instruction in a religious school had to be registered, and tough measures were taken to prevent religion becoming involved in social and political life. Amnesty International estimates that at least 190 executions took place between January 1997 and April 1999.

During this period, connections formed between a small number of Islamo-nationalist activists who had relocated to the Pakistan-Afghan region and the Taliban networks led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. This group, which Beijing refers to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), had a harder time gaining the attention of the rich Al Qaeda networks, which had recently relocated to that region. With limited means, ETIM struggled to make much impression in Xinjiang, where sleeper networks had mostly been eradicated. The Chinese authorities took advantage of the post-9/11 environment and US forces’ capture of some ETIM members in Afghanistan, and developed the rhetoric of the “three evil forces” (sangu shili): terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism. This lumped together nonviolent democratic nationalist and autonomist groups, promoters of Islamic values in the social and political realm, ETIM jihadists, and all dissenting voices.

Violent clashes in Urumqi

What remained of the ETIM networks, which had withdrawn to Waziristan, adopted the name Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), having become part of Al Qaeda’s global brand. They promoted violence on social networks, though China’s Internet surveillance made their message hard to disseminate. But after a long period of calm, there were attacks in southern Xinjiang and its capital Urumqi, which began in 2008 as the Beijing Olympics approached, and spread in 2009 with violent clashes between Uighurs and Han in Urumqi. The official death toll was 197, three-quarters of them Han. The ensuing crackdown was severe. The Internet was cut off for several months, but the attacks continued.

The TIP seems to have planned some of the attacks, such as in Kashgar in 2011, but many, such as the knife attacks on police and ordinary citizens, appear unplanned and were perpetrated by youths who had simply seen videos from the TIP or other jihadist movements. Some violence occurred outside Xinjiang and shocked the Chinese public: a car attack in Tiananmen Square in October 2013 (five people were killed: two tourists and the three attackers), a knife attack at Kunming station in March 2014 (31 dead, 143 injured), and an attack on an Urumqi market in May 2014 (43 dead, more than 90 injured). Other smaller-scale attacks followed; in 2014 there were more than 300 victims of terrorism in China, compared to just a handful each year in the previous decade.

Chinese concern grew over the TIP’s renewed involvement in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, and especially in Syria, where it had formed links. Its participation in the Syrian conflict boosted its ranks and its support network. Having proved itself fighting alongside other constituents of the Al-Nusra Front (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) in northwest Syria, it gained access to heavy equipment and the ability to mobilize several hundred fighters. The TIP is a greater threat to Chinese interests in some parts of the world where it is able to conduct operations—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East—than in Xinjiang. Uighur society seems disinclined to embrace its hard-line brand of Islam, and the “great wall of steel” that President Xi wants to build around Xinjiang reduces its room for maneuver in China.

End of the golden era

However, the arrests and convictions (including capital sentences) that followed the 2009 riots proved a turning point for the people of Xinjiang. Many saw it as clear proof that the golden era of the 1980s, when mediators could still be found to resolve conflicts between communities, was over. Uighur resentment of Beijing turned into resentment of the Han, seen as arrogant colonizers.

The PCC’s recipe for community harmony is based on demographic and cultural homogenization (in reality sinicization) and tight Han control of Xinjiang’s institutions. This means the replacement of the Uighur language with Mandarin in the education system, ever-tighter control by the police and the authorities, and increasing Han migration, which exacerbates the local population’s sense of being overwhelmed by the Chinese.

At the start of this decade, Han represented 40 percent of the region’s population of 22 million (up from 6 percent in 1949) and Uighurs 45 percent (down from 75 percent). Han dominance of the economy and administration, coupled with their distrust of indigenous people, contributes to keeping a significant percentage of Uighurs at the bottom of the social pyramid. While it is true that the state provides over half the regional budget and has long guaranteed double-digit growth through massive investment, many Uighurs are less qualified or discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

As China’s new strongman, Xi promised to eradicate the terrorist threat and redefined the security approach. Antiterrorist forces were reorganized and came under closer government control. Supervision of minorities and religious affairs, which had been the responsibility of a range of authorities but also of “representative” organizations, was transferred to the highly centralized United Front Work Department.

The judicial apparatus was also reorganized. In November 2014 Xinjiang’s regional assembly had already passed a law reforming the 1994 regional religious regulations, adding 18 new articles to modernize the accreditation system for imams, mosques, and what remained of religious-teaching institutions, which were already closely monitored. In 2017 a new set of measures was passed, ostensibly to fight
“religious extremism.” Many Muslims saw them as intrusive, as they forbade “abnormal” beards and wearing the veil in public.

‘Unite as one family’

Control increased when Chen Quanguo was appointed secretary of the local Communist party in 2016, a post he had previously held in the autonomous region of Tibet. According to Adrian Zenz, the security budget expanded hugely. Special police units and anti-riot measures were strengthened. Police recruitment peaked between summer 2016 and summer 2017 at nearly 90,000 new officers, 12 times more than in 2009, the goal being to have a branch of the Public Security Bureau in every village. Chen also strengthened the “Unite as one family” program, in which state officials live with families, sometimes for several days, to identify subversive behavior, encourage denunciations, and carry out patriotic education. More than a million state officials may be involved, with southern rural areas a particular target.

Xinjiang has also become a testing ground for high tech and big-data security. Smartphones can be checked at any time at police and other roadside checkpoints. A vast system of facial-recognition video surveillance has been upgraded. Most Uighurs have had to surrender their passports, destroying the hopes of those who want to emigrate.

Beijing remains focused on surveilling society and punishing those who transgress. The collection of data using the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, in tandem with studying “unusual” behavior, aims to predict behavior and class individuals according to their degree of loyalty and perceived security risk. Among the many grounds for suspicion is having visited any of 26 countries deemed “risky.” Other behavior considered suspect includes contact with foreigners or people who have been abroad, downloading the banned WhatsApp social-media app, wearing a beard, not drinking alcohol or smoking, eating halal, observing Ramadan, not eating pork, and giving children Muslim first names that are considered subversive, such as Muhammad.

Well-known academics, artists, and sports stars have suddenly disappeared and are probably in prison or under house arrest. In the past few months, exceptionally harsh sentences have been handed down. The former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau and the former president of the University of Xinjiang have been sentenced to death for “separatist tendencies.” One of the last critical figures in Uighur intellectual circles, Ilham Tohti, who was arrested in 2014, has been sentenced to life in prison.

The authorities claim these measures have been highly successful, with a sharp reduction in violence. They are proud of their security model, which combines cutting-edge technology and a level of repression that recalls the Cultural Revolution. Local party officials, religious, state employees, and intellectuals, who a few decades ago might have been able to defuse misunderstandings and conflicts with the state, are obliged to keep silent. Given the high levels of frustration among Xinjiang Muslims, this could be a dangerous approach.

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