On Tuesday, many leaders at the United Nations expressed concerns about China committing human rights violations against ethnic Uighur Muslims. "We call on China to respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet," German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said on behalf of 39 countries at the U.N committee that deals with human rights issues.
This has been an on-going concern as for the past several years, China has been ethnically cleansing Uighur Muslims by locking them in prison-like internment camps. But the country has consistently denied this claim and insisted that the camps are “re-education centres” to prevent the radicalization of Muslims.
Who are the Uighurs?
Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic minority in China who identify with Central Asian nations culturally and ethnically. A majority of the Uighur population (almost 11 million) lives in Xinjiang and usually sustain themselves through agriculture and trade. Despite constituting most of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, the Chinese government refuses to consider them as the indigenous population.
According to the BBC, China’s central government policies have been systematically used to curb religious, commercial, and cultural activities of the Uighurs.
How did the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese government begin?
The conflict between the Uighur Muslims and the Chinese government in the Xinjiang region has existed since the 20th century. Xinjiang, the largest region of China, had experienced a short period of independence in the 1940s but China took control over the region in 1949 after the Communists came into power.
Home to Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims, the region is rich in natural resources. The abundance of natural resources made it a hotspot for industrialization and economic development due to which Xinjiang witnessed a large-scale migration of Han Chinese.
While Xinjiang was becoming more economically developed, many Uighurs complained about not receiving economic opportunities due to the presence of Han Chinese.
They also accused the Chinese government of discrimination and marginalization. In the 1990s, this resentment towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) transformed into an anti-Han and separatist sentiment that led to riots against the authorities.
One of the most significant Uighur protests was the Baren Township riot that occurred on April 5, 1990. Zeydun Yusup, a member of the East Turkistan Islamic Party, led 200 men to protest against the 250 forced abortions enforced by the government upon the local Uyghur women and to the mass immigration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang.
Beijing clamped down the protests by the “strike hard” campaign which involved using brute force to instill fear in Uighur pro-independence and anti-CCP rioters. The Chinese government justified their repressive methods by claiming that Uighur Muslims were being radicalized by militant separatists and jihadist factions such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
However, some experts say that there is little evidence to support the former claim and that China had exaggerated the threat to justify its cutthroat and heavy-handed security policies in the region.
China claims it is trying to eradicate terrorism and radicalization of Uighur Muslims
China has always defended the crackdown on Uighurs by citing national security concerns. However, international charities such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are of the view that this a ploy by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to promote Han nationalism as a unifying force. The Chinese do not want any other ethnic or religious identity to compete with loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
While it’s true that riots led by the Uighur separatists turned violent, the Chinese government didn’t stop at targeting the separatists, they arrested and executed anyone alleged as a rioter or separatist.
After the infamous July 2009 Ürümqi riots by Uighurs, which is now considered as the most destructive interethnic conflict in China, State authorities put the entire region on lockdown for almost a year. According to a paper published in the European Foundation of South Asian studies, 40,000 surveillance cameras were installed, Internet provision was shut down, international phone calls were blocked, barriers between Han and Uyghur neighborhoods were built, Uyghurs mobility was limited, thousands of Uyghurs were arrested and an unaccounted number of Uyghurs disappeared.
There was no due process and they identified perpetrators solely on ethnic profiling. For the CCP, every Uighur was a terrorist. A report by Amnesty International accused Beijing of unlawfully executing political prisoners in Xinjiang, holding trials with ready-made verdicts, and deriving confessions through torture.
China is vilifying the whole Uighur community by collectively labeling them as terrorists
Although China has faced violent resistance from Uighur groups such as the 2013 attack in Beijing or the 2014 attack in Kunming, the so-called “re-education” camps are less about combating extremism and more about instilling fear in Uighur Muslims.
In a 2019 interview with Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Uyghur Service, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, said that China’s claim of holding Uighurs in camps as part of vocational training is a sham and believes the camps are meant to indoctrinate loyalty toward the Chinese State. The Diplomat reported that detainees are forced to study Mandarin, recite Chinese propaganda, and reflect on past “political mistakes,” among other things.
“The scope of this campaign is so vast and so untargeted that it simply has nothing to do with terrorism. Instead, what's going on is the Chinese Communist Party is waging war on religion. It is trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious identities of the people that it’s been targeting,” he tells RFA.
The NY Times supported this claim by highlighting that the detainees at the camp aren’t just young men (usually the group most vulnerable to radicalization) but also elderly and pregnant women, atheists, and Christians.
Chinese leaders want Uighur’s loyalty to the government’s ideology
The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal is to have complete ideological supremacy and gain the loyalty and veneration of the minority populations. The “re-education” drive is a systematic way of eradicating any alternative religious or spiritual beliefs. The State also exercises control over Uighur citizens through technological surveillance that scans faces and number plates to closely watch their activities.
The government has also used social mobility and material incentives to promote ethnolinguistic assimilation by encouraging minorities to pursue a Chinese language education. However, a study found that it has made some young Uighurs embrace their own non-Chinese ethnic identity even more.
The Chinese aren’t just targetting the Uighur Muslims but also Tibetan nomads and Christian villagers. In 2019, the government subtly threatened Tibetans to replace their altars devoted to Buddhist deities with images of Chinese political leaders if they want state subsidies. Similarly, Christian villagers in southeast China were told to remove pictures of Jesus and put up portraits of President Xi Jinping if they wanted to receive poverty-alleviation subsidies.
These policies may work in controlling unrest but they still don’t address the cause of the protests. The Chinese are reluctant to give the Xinjiang region autonomy and aims to eradicate the Uighurs' religious identity - this will only fuel anger in the Uighurs. It might lead to more people choosing radical measures to rebel against the Chinese suppression.