China Continues to Persecute the Uighur People
Last month, during her first address to the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet, the new leader of the United Nations council, called on China to allow in monitors after deeply disturbing allegations of large re-education camps where Uighurs would be detained in China’s western Xinjiang province.
In late August, the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a report expressing its concern over numerous accounts of the detention of “tens of thousands to upwards of a million” ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held in so-called "re-education camps" without being charged or tried, under the pretext of “countering terrorism and religious extremism.”
According to Gay McDougall, Committee Co-Rapporteur for China, ethnic Uighurs and other individuals from Muslim ethnic minorities are being detained and treated as “enemies of the State” based on “nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.” He further estimates that around a million people are being held in extrajudicial counter-extremism centers and another two million have been forced into detention facilities for political and cultural indoctrination.
In addition, the Committee brings attention to reports of mass surveillance “disproportionately targeting Uyghurs” and to the ban of Uighur language education in Xinjiang’s Hotan province.
The Chinese delegation thoroughly denied the existence of camps, “arbitrary detention or lack of freedom of religious belief,” claiming that “the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region always respected and guaranteed the human rights of people of all ethnic groups in accordance with the law.”
Instead, Chinese delegates said the government had undertaken “special campaigns to clamp down on violent terrorist activities according to the law” and “put on trial and imprisoned a number of criminals involved in severe offenses,” while criminals involved in minor offenses were “provided with assistance and education to assist them in their rehabilitation and reintegration.”
In other statements, government officials claimed that the institutions were merely schools for "extremism eradication" that teach Chinese language and Chinese laws on Islam and political activity.
Facts depict a different reality. Satellite images show school-like buildings with high solid walls and razor wire fences inside the compound. Reports by former detainees describe the facilities as crowded and unsanitary. Testimonies of daily life inside the camps recount forced study of communist propaganda, punishment, and even torture, some accounts reporting cases of suicide and death.
These chilling denunciations are only adding to the long history of human rights abuses perpetrated by China against the Uighur ethnic minority since the 1990s.
While many commentators expressed their concern over China’s massive crackdown on Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, it is relevant to understand the paradox in China’s politics of ethnicity.
Multi-Ethnicity in China
Marked by a significant level of ethnic and cultural diversity,China has, since its establishment in 1949, built its nationalistic project on the foundation of its identity as a “unified multiethnic country.”
As Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists and the Japanese and established modern-day China in 1949, his victory was only made possible thanks to the support of China’s various ethnic groups. Promising them sovereignty and special treatment in order to win their backing as he traveled across China during the Long March, Mao was faced with the challenging task of upholding his commitment while governing a multi-ethnic state of innumerable cultures, languages, and religions when he came to power. Five years after the foundation of China, Mao’s communist government undertook the Ethnic Classification Project (minzu shibie) in order to determine which of the dozens, if not hundreds, of minority groups would be officially recognized by the state.
Adhering to Stalin’s principle of the “Four Commons,” which defines language, territory, economic life, and culture as the four shared attributes of an ethnic group recognized by the state, the Chinese Communist Party established the classification of China’s ethnic groups through the 1954 Ethnic Classification Project, which remains intact until today. What is little known about this project is that it was initiated as a last resort solution to a failed non-interventionist policy which allowed each individual to determine his or her own ethnicity (minzu) through a nation-wide census, without having to choose from a predetermined set of categories. As a result of this census, 400 distinct minzu were registered in the country, which far outnumbered the proportion of minority representatives the government had expected. Following this outcome, the government decided to establish a predetermined set of mutually-exclusive, limited in number authorized minzu, which would be determined through the 1954 Ethnic Classification Project.
This goes to show that the concept of multiethnicity in China has been constructed, shaped, and imposed by the Communist Party as part of the regime’s wider nationalistic ideology and project. Reinterpreting the diversity of China’s cultures and ethnicities to suit its political objectives, the Party created and institutionalized its own definition of ethnicity, which remains in place until today.
The Uighur’s Fight for Freedom
One of the 56 ethnic groups of China, the Uighur minority has been perpetually resisting its incorporation into the Chinese nation-state and battling for the independence of what has, since 1955, been known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The meaning of the term “Uighur” has shifted throughout history, inconsistently referring to different nomadic, sedentary, Buddhist, and Muslim societies dwelling in the Turkic steppes. Uighurs have tended to owe allegiance not to the collective whole of their ethnic group, but to their family, clan and oasis, thus making the Uighur identity weak and easy to control.
Taking advantage of this weakness, China has manipulated the identity of Uighurs through the implementation of two different sets of policies. On the one hand, the government executed divisive soft policies encouraging regional autonomy and affirmative action, undermining ethnic resistance, and sustaining Chinese dominance in Xinjiang. On the other hand, hard policies were used to crush the various forms of resistance emerging in responses to soft policies through tight military control and violent repression.
In this way, while on the one side China has been leading its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang since May 2014, multiplying the number of arrests, detentions, and cases of torture, it has simultaneously put in place “integration” policies, promoting interethnic marriages, and encouraging integrated residential blocks. It has also implemented preferential policies for ethnic minorities in family planning, school admissions, employment, and regional infrastructural support.
Since April 2017, Beijing has taken its repression of Uighurs up a notch. According to local officials from the mostly Uighur-populated Tuwet Township in Hotan, Xinjiang, more than one out of every 10 of the township’s 32,000 residents has been imprisoned or detained in a camp since last Spring.
The Party’s crack down does not only touch Uighurs in Xinjiang. Uighur communities abroad are also indirectly affected by progressively losing touch with friends and relatives. According to accounts from a Uighur community in Adelaide, Australia, phone calls with their relatives in China had significantly shortened due to linguistic pressure. Traditional greetings and queries about friends and local places were banned of conversations as it became clear that phone calls and social media messages were closely monitored. Eventually, Uighurs in Adelaide completely lost contact with their family members as phone numbers became restricted or ceased to function altogether.
In the context of that highly-monitored supervision, Xinjiang has become an ominous laboratory for the Party’s latest surveillance strategies. Residents between the ages of 12 and 65 have been subjected to DNA sample collection and iris scans. Facial recognition technology is already widespread, while spyware apps scanning mobile phone for dubious material have become mandatory.
Since 1990, China’s Human Development Index has leaped from 0.5 to 0.75 on a scale from 0.0 to 1.0, experiencing a 99 percent drop in its poverty headcount ratio between 1990 and 2015. With China’s economic flourishing and embrace of capitalism came the hope that greater political freedoms would soon follow. Unlike other East Asian dictatorships which democratized in the 1980s, however, China’s political reforms stalled. Economic growth has seemingly reinforced the government’s legitimacy to tighten its grip on power, instating a tradeoff between economic prosperity and political freedoms. In recent years, internet censorship and surveillance have reached new heights. Arrests and criminal prosecutions of activists, bloggers, human rights lawyers, and religious practitioners have multiplied, while minority groups face ongoing persecution and severe human rights abuses.
While alarming evidence proliferates, the international community has so far failed to condemn China for its human rights abuses against the Uighurs. Last month, following the release of the CERD report revealing the mass detention of close to a million ethnic Uighurs, U.S. Republicans called on the Trump administration to broaden sanctions on China to include entities involved in the situation in Xinjiang. In the following days, the Australian Labor Party called on the Morrison Government to increase pressure on China over the reported mass detentions. In Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to publicly criticize China claiming that it’s easier to stand up for others “when there are lots of countries with us.” Muslim nations have largely remained silent.
It is now more than due time for the international community to move beyond economic interests and finally condemn and collectively impose sanctions on China for its pervading human rights abuses.