In recent months, the Uighur minority of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region has been a regular feature of the mainstream Western media. Prevented from practicing their religion, Islam, subjected to massive and regular disappearances, the imprisonment of professors and academics, forced abortions; these are just some examples of the fate suffered by the Uighurs at the hands of the Chinese state apparatus.
How did this situation develop?
July 2009 – Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, experienced a series of protests and clashes between Han (majority population of China) and Uighur residents following the Shaoguan incident (allegations of the rape of two Han women by six Uighur men) that took place a few thousand kilometers away in the coastal region of Guangdong. These demonstrations turned into an ethnic brawl between the ‘conquering invader’ Han and the local Uighurs. With nearly 200 dead, more than 1,500 people arrested and more than 400 later indicted, Xinjiang became once again the center of global media attention after the enforced calm that followed the aftermath of the 1997 Ghulja massacre when 30 separatist activists were executed and a violent crackdown attempted to stamp out efforts to revive traditional Uighur culture.
Between 2009 and 2017, incidents of greater or lesser importance occurred regularly and the Chinese repression of the Uighurs and restrictions on their freedoms continued to grow until the noose was so tight that the rumour mills began to intensify in 2018, decrying the continuous massive disappearance of Uighurs and the presence of multiple prisons. After months of denial, China has finally admitted to holding massive numbers of Uighurs in re-education camps. China later changed its story on many occasions, despite the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination’s review, continuing choruses of alarms from Human Rights Watch, and the growing number of testimonies by survivors and their families.
In a deliberate act of forced Sinicization of the Uighurs described by many as a cultural genocide, China’s modus operandi is clear: the Chinese government is taking the most outspoken leaders first for ‘reeducation’ (a euphemism for indoctrination and forced ‘retraining’), then going after everyone suspected of not following the CCP official line. It is acting like a doctor facing cancer: in case of doubt, the removal of all cells that could possibly be affected (including healthy ones).
It is worth noting that the Uighur territory came under the rule of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century; the Qing turned it later into a province and applied Chinese political systems to its management. Clearly, tensions and conflicts between Chinese rulers and Uighurs are not new. They date back to the Qing dynasty. One of the most active periods occurred in the twentieth century when the Pan-Turkic Jadidist Islamists organized several uprisings to challenge the Chinese governor of Xinjiang in the 1920s. In 1933, the Soviet Union helped the Uighurs achieve independence by creating the First East Turkestan Republic, which did not last long. From 1944 to 1949, the Second East Turkestan Republic existed under the Soviet fold, the latter had a military base and became well established in the region.
With the advent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao ‘tore’ this region out of the Soviet Union and made it the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, which became an autonomous region in 1955. The conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state began to develop once again because of Mao’s policies that first sanctioned/encouraged the massive migration of the Chinese Han for more than two decades to dilute the Uighur identity and to make the Uighurs a minority in their own territory, and then its promoting of Beijing’s Chinese cultural ‘unity’. Despite the mass exodus of Uighurs to the Soviet Union that took place in 1962, the One-Child policy, which only applied to Han Chinese people, allowed the Uighurs to double their population in 40 years.
That said, Xinjiang’s strategic position makes it coveted by the Soviet Union, which funded separatist organizations such as the East Turkestan People’s Party and the United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, pushing the Chinese to become even more intransient in their policies towards Xinjiang and the Uighurs. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, China, feeling claustrophobic and surrounded by the Soviets, reciprocated by arming the Afghan Mujahideen and creating a Soviet-bashing campaign to discredit them with the Uighurs. The Soviet Union, fearing uprisings in its Muslim republics in Central Asia, did the same. These back-and-forth reprisals continued between the two countries while riots and protests against State police actions seen as anti-Uighur cultural identity punctuated the 1980s… until the Baren Township riot in April 1990 (riots allegedly involving Afghan militias that encouraged the Uighurs to rebel against the Chinese)! This event is considered a tipping point in the already difficult relations between the Chinese state and the Uighurs. In fact, in addition to the dead and injured, nearly 8,000 people were arrested and interned for criminal activities of an ethnic nature and other criminal offenses that would later be called separatist terrorism. This power game between the Soviet Union and China with the Uighur population held hostage between these two giants has punctuated the whole twentieth century.
Why this relentless assault on this ethnic minority?
This relentlessness of the Chinese authorities against the Uighur minority can be explained from various angles. First of all, the Uighur culture (their religion, writing, clothing, habits and customs as well as their spoken language) is quite different from that of the majority Han Chinese. This makes the Uighur people look like the Gaulish village in the Roman Empire: it stands out by its difference! And, while the region is officially an autonomous one, it is not in reality since its autonomy is undermined by the appointment of Han officials at the service of the CCP. Their mission is to ensure that the principles of the Party are applied and to Sinicize the Uighurs so that they blend into the Chinese landscape to attain the elusive ‘harmony’. The Uighurs, meanwhile, seek to defend and preserve their cultural particularism and fight, by all means, to avoid being culturally digested by the Han ethnicity. In fact, the history of China shows that this process of Sinicization has been actively pursued since the Han Dynasty in the second century BC.
Moreover, the logic of the position of the Uighurs is important. On the one hand, they are under the political sovereignty of China, while on the other hand, they belong to the Muslim world under the religious sovereignty of Islam, a world caught in powerful crosscurrents in which many of the predominant trends manifest themselves in seemingly contradictory ways. Some of these trends are jihadist currents, which China tries to block as a way to defend its territory and prevent any independence movement from flourishing at home.
In addition to these cultural and religious factors, the economic interests and the strategic depth of Xinjiang are not insignificant. Indeed, with its 1.6 million km2, Xinjiang represents almost one-sixth of the total territory of China. It is the largest Chinese administrative division and the eighth largest country division in the world. It shares its internal borders with the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, as well as with the Tibet Autonomous Region (a region that suffered in the past under Mao in the 1960s and continues to suffer Chinese persecution because of its separatist tendencies). Its external borders are shared with Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan. These borders are therefore shared with a majority of Muslim countries and/or those with large Muslim populations and/or countries that have been under the Soviet fold, recalling the threats of Russian encirclement and of the insecurity caused by jihadist movements. These threats directly affect Chinese interests in the region, including the famous Belt and Road Initiative, which makes Central Asia (including Xinjiang) an essential gateway to these new silk routes, heirs to the historical ones where Xinjiang played a central role.
Xinjiang is China’s gateway to the Eurasian continent, which gives it an invaluable geostrategic depth. Indeed, Xinjiang has moved from being a buffer zone from the Sino-Soviet schism era to a bridge region for today’s China that exploits the expansion of its influence in Central Asia and in the Middle East while forging economic ties with Eurasian countries including Iran and the Caucasus.
That said, Xinjiang has 40% of China’s national coal reserves and is the largest producer in the country. The region has the country’s largest uranium deposit in the Yili Basin. One-fifth of China’s wind power energy is produced in Dabancheng parks. Its soil contains no less than 138 kinds of ores, including gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc. ‘‘The foundation of Xinjiang’s energy economy is oil. Xinjiang has an estimated 21 billion tons of oil reserves, a fifth of China’s total, and major new deposits are still being found,’’ as reported by The New York Times. ‘‘Xinjiang is expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil by 2020, a 23 percent increase over 2012’’, according to the Ministry of Land Resources.
Finally, Xinjiang is at the crossroads of the hydrocarbon routes, with examples including the construction of the Sino-Kazakh pipeline and the Central Asia–China gas pipeline linking Xinjiang to Turkmen gas fields, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Xinjiang has become a large petrochemical refining area. Malan, a city in Xinjiang, houses a research institute in nuclear physics and allegedly was used as a hidden nuclear base with its area being home to the Lop Nor nuclear test site, the largest in the world, where atomic tests were conducted between 1964 and 1996.
How did the world react to the current situation in Xinjiang?
The treatment of the Uighur minority at the hands of the Chinese state apparatus challenges the world to different degrees. Actually, the reaction of the world to the drama lived by the Uighurs varies from a mild reaction to none. On the one hand, there is indignation without concrete action on the part of Western democracies, just like what has happened with Tibet. On the other hand, there is ‘radio silence’ from Muslim countries and countries with large Muslim populations, as well as countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. Why? Because each country has its own minority (ies) that is (are) being oppressed and their own records on human rights rival those of China. It is the politics of ‘I-turn-a-blind-eye-to-what-is-happening-in-your-country and you-do-the-same-with-regards-to-what-is-happening-in-my-country’, especially since China has veto power in the UN Security Council and it has an undeniable economic power…
Turkey learnt this the hard way in 2009 when Erdogan criticized China for its treatment of Uighurs and gave asylum to some Uighurs in 2015. China did not forget and it threatened Turkey in 2018 when the country was experiencing a difficult economic crisis and needed help. Recently, in mid-November, German Foreign Minister Maas talked openly during his visit to Beijing about the situation in Xinjiang. It was dismissed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang as “preventive measures […] The efforts are completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism, and are an important part of the global fight against terrorism”.
In general, implicitly by their silence and inaction, the international community recognizes that China has a territorial space in which it cannot intervene because of a sacrosanct principle of the UN: non-interference in internal affairs of the states. And this is what China exploits: when the German Parliament debated Xinjiang, China calls it a “striking interference into internal affairs and a grave violation of China’s sovereignty” and, when fifteen Western ambassadors in Beijing wrote a letter to the CCP chief in Xinjiang, China denounces it as a violation of the ambassadors’ mandate under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Trump’s nationalism also influences the silence of other nations renowned for their respect of human rights. Universal consciousness, ethics and human rights are increasingly being flouted. All that remains of them is ‘lip synching’ because the world wants to spare China, the country with whom it needs to maintain good business relations. The motto is ‘‘business as usual’’.
This situation requires further thought: How is it that only one Christian person, Bibi Asia, sentenced to death by a Pakistani court, moved the whole world to save her from capital punishment while a whole minority population (more than 10 million Uighurs) under surveillance and sent massively into gulags (euphemism for concentration camps, China style) only moves some human rights organizations and even less media?
The answer to this question is not that simple! Probably, Western countries cannot help a Muslim Uighur guerrilla because the experiments conducted in the past with Muslims have led to disasters and, in some cases, have had unexpected consequences with monstrous aspects. Indeed, they create proxies that turn against their creators and are faced with unwelcome and unexpected consequences.
The first example that can be cited is that of the Afghan Mujahideen that were mainly trained and funded by the CIA to counter-attack the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country, an invasion seen as an act of aggression against Islam. Years later, the Mujahideen became one of America’s deadliest enemies and the Frankenstein it created was Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, a network of Islamic extremists and Salafist jihadists, designed as a terrorist group by the UNSC, which carried out several terrorist attacks all over the world.
The second example is that of Hamas, a creation of Israel to counterbalance Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization with its faction Fatah. Later, Hamas carried out attacks against Israel and began its rapprochement with Iran, the deadliest enemy of the U.S. and of Israel.
The third example is that of Chechnya, with Shamil Basayev being funded by the CIA via Bin Laden. He was part of the US global jihad chessboard strategy to secure Western control over Caspian energy on the one hand and to destabilize post-Soviet Russia on the other. The West (mostly NATO allies) ended up giving safe haven to terrorists after the Beslan school siege, transforming them into dormant terrorists living with impunity who threaten the West security.
With these examples in mind, the West does not want to create another front of tension among the Uighurs who already have a double barrier (geographical isolation in a relatively-difficult-to-access region and relative language isolation), all under the über-vigilance and über-control of the Chinese state apparatus inside the country, while outside of China, Xinjiang finds itself in a jihadist powder keg (Afghanistan, Tajikistan…), a volcano that threatens to explode at any moment.
There is also Russia to consider. It will be difficult for it to interfere, but not that far-fetched. Indeed, on one side, Russia is busy on multiple fronts (e.g., the Baltics, Syria, Ukraine…); adding a new one may be too much to handle. On the other side, Putin is on his way to making Russia great again. To do so, he needs to regain Russia’s influence in the region, lost years ago to China, by resuming activities with the Uighurs as was the case during the Soviet era. Putin must maneuver with finesse and strategy to maintain a certain balance and a good relationship with China since Russia has its own battles with its minorities and varied interests to manage.
What will happen if the situation stays as it is or even worsens?
China will continue its process of forced Sinicization. It will exploit Xinjiang’s natural resources to fuel its internal economic growth while appropriating the geostrategic space that represents the region for the success of its Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese treatment of its Muslim minority is and will be smarter than that of Myanmar with the Rohingyas. China will tighten the screws gently and collectively so as not to arouse an outcry among the controlled locals (including the Han close to or in contact with the Uighurs) and that of the international community. Instead of chasing the Uighurs into exile and killing them as with the Rohingyas, the Chinese will continue to apply police methods worthy of Stalinism.
Human rights organizations will continue to decry the treatment of the Uighurs and world public opinion will continue to be shocked in a general way. Politicians will continue on their current nationalist and populist streak. This is no longer an era of human rights. It is chauvinistic nationalism and economic and financial interests that lead the world. The economic interests of states will take precedence over universal human rights, and will silence the human conscience, which is experiencing a great moral crisis, much to the discontent of the Uighurs, Human Rights Organizations, and informed ordinary people. Journalists will continue to report stories about the Uighurs and to document the presence of reeducation camps, claimed by some to rival the world’s largest prisons, until the next big media buzz. The media hype makes events trivialize quickly despite their gravity, while humanity is overwhelmed by this ongoing bombardment of information.
The Uighur diaspora will continue to denounce what is happening in Xinjiang while fearing for the safety of family members remaining in the country. It will also live in fear of being persecuted even when far from home, blackmailed by the Chinese authorities (threats to family in Xinjiang) and killed, recalling here certain Stalinist methods. The Uighur World Congress will continue its representations abroad and its pacifist Tibet-style lobbying. The secular nationalists will continue their militant activities in a limited way.
As for the Uighur population, some will become radicalized as a sign of resistance against the Han aggressor, following in the footsteps of the East Turkestan Islamic Party, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party. This radicalization within the Uighur population who had never thought to radicalize will be exploited by jihadist Islamists from other countries in the name of the Holy War (e.g., ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda…). With the increasing involvement of the Uighurs in terrorist attacks in Syria or Kyrgyzstan, the Uighur problem is becoming a transnational issue, not only a local Chinese problem. China shares borders with several Muslim countries, and so its security and that of its borders will remain a priority as its diplomatic missions and economic interests around the world become threatened. One recent example is the latest attack of the Chinese consulate in Karachi.
The only ones who seem to be able to face China and to help the Uighurs are the jihadist organization networks who have no diplomatic scruples and who have no sovereigns but themselves. Is this what the world wants for Xinjiang on the eve of 2019: giving power and credibility to terrorist organizations to the detriment of sovereign nations and the UN?
In this case, the consequences would be catastrophic for China, both inside the country and outside! The jihadist movements will experience a revival of activities in a region already in turmoil. Attacks on Chinese interests could take place around the world, which will push China towards more militarization and military intervention outside its territory, steps it has thus far refrained from taking (no concrete military interventions but military ‘shows’ and drills for now as is the case for example in the South China Sea). Meanwhile, in retaliation, the repression on the Uighurs will be unmatched. The only parties that would be happy would be the Western countries’ and Russia’s arms exporters. Is this where the world wants to go? Is it not time to review the rules of the UN and its principles to allow its actions to be more decisive? Do the Uighurs not deserve to live in peace while preserving their culture and freely practicing their religion? Would it not be more strategic for China to openly embrace its diversity to achieve the famous ‘harmony’, which would strengthen its unity, instead of wanting to annihilate everything that is different? These are questions the world should think about seriously before it is too late…
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Dr Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a PhD in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr Er-Rafia specializes in international affairs, geopolitics, cross-cultural management, and strategy. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia. Dr Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and business case studies. For more info: www.fatimaerrafia.com