Columns 24.8.2018 08:30 am

China can’t have it both ways

Armed Chinese paramilitary police patrol a street in Urumqi, the capital of farwest China's Muslim Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, on May 23, 2014.

Armed Chinese paramilitary police patrol a street in Urumqi, the capital of farwest China's Muslim Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, on May 23, 2014.

Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule; it is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity

Two weeks ago, Professor Gay McDougall, co-chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, alleged that up to a million people belonging to the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang have been detained in concentration camps to be “re-educated” about religion.

Hu Lianhe, who shapes the Communist Party Central Committee’s policies on minorities, sternly denied it. He rather spoiled the effect of his denial, however, by telling the meeting that while China was not running a “de-Islamisation” programme in Xinjiang, “those deceived by religious extremists … shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education”.

Resettled where? In detention camps, perhaps? And if not a million, then how many? Half a million? Two million? The state-run Global Times then defended the camps that do not exist by claiming that Xinjiang had narrowly escaped a descent into mass violence and chaos.

“It is because of the party’s leadership, a powerful China, and the courage of local officials that Xinjiang has been pulled back from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’.” That is not a denial of the policy; it’s a justification of it.

You can’t have it both ways: China is detaining and “reprogramming” Muslims in Xinjiang (we don’t say ‘brainwashing’ any more) on a very large scale. It is doing so because it fears that the sporadic terrorist attacks that have hit cities in Xingjiang and even China proper may escalate as Islamic State, defeated in Syria and Iraq, seeks to build support in other regions of the Muslim world.

Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule; it is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity by settling millions of Han Chinese (the ethnic group who make up more than 90% of China’s population) in the province that was once known as “Chinese Turkestan”.

Only one-fifth of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese in 1950; today almost half is. Han immigration was spontaneous in the early days, but in recent decades the Communist regime has encouraged and even subsidised it, in a deliberate attempt to create a loyal majority in the province. Muslim Xinjiang, like its neighbour to the south, Buddhist Tibet, is suspect because its religion gives it an alternative, “foreign” loyalty.

As in Tibet, this attempt to make the population more “Chinese” stimulated resentment and resistance among the former majority population, and the first anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang began in the late 1990s. Almost 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital, in 2009, and since then there have been numerous knife, bomb and vehicle attacks in Xinjiang and in China proper.

The official Chinese response has been repression. A vast surveillance apparatus, from facial recognition software to mass DNA collection, blankets the province. Xinjiang’s 20 million people are only 2% of China’s population, but the province accounts for 20% of the country’s arrests. And now, mass detention and “re-education” camps.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria, recently told the pro-government Syrian daily AlWatan that China is “following the situation in Syria, in particular after the [Assad regime’s] victory in southern Syria. Its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria”.

And then they could invade Afghanistan. Everybody else has.

Gwynne Dyer.

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