The Xinjiang Autonomous Region is located in China’s northwest. It has a population of over 23,000,00 people and is a key source of economic resources for the country, possessing abundant reserves of crude oil, coal and natural gas. It is also home to some of the worst state oppression and minority persecution in the world.
Since 2014, the Chinese state has engaged in the systematic repression of the 11 million-strong Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang. This repression has manifested as mass-detention, Orwellian ‘re-education’ programs, and pervasive state surveillance.
In 2018, a UN human rights committee publicly stated that they had seen “credible reports” pertaining to the detention of up to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in “political indoctrination camps”. Within these camps, they are forced to declare allegiance to President Xi Jinping, learn Mandarin Chinese, and criticize or renounce their faith. One of the few former detainees (it appears almost no-one is freed from the camps currently), speaking to the BBC, attested to prolonged physical and psychological torture. He claimed that he was hung up for hours, beaten, and deprived of sleep.
The Uyghur’s oppression is not limited to within the walls of these “re-education camps”, it is deeply embedded into daily life in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has appointed more than one million Han Chinese “relatives”—a more apt term perhaps being ‘informants’—to live in the homes of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region. The Uyghur World Congress sums up their role as being “to aid the military and police in their campaign by occupying the homes of the region’s Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, and undertaking programs of indoctrination and surveillance”. Such brazen expressions of state intrusion are accompanied by cameras placed within homes and neighbourhoods, widespread utilisation of voice and face recognition technologies, and the coercive surrender of biometric and personal data.
The Chinese government, to use the words of Gay McDougall, member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, has effectively turned the Xinjiang region into one big “internment camp”.
How have they justified such treatment of the Uyghur population? Well, by turning to a favoured refrain of authoritarian human rights abusers, the claim that the infringement of individual or minority rights is necessary for the people’s security. President Xi Jinping has claimed the program is key to the fight against terrorism and the “ideological virus” of separatism. That is, without the government’s mass surveillance, detention and torture of Xinjiang’s Uyghur people, its population would be radicalized in opposition to the Chinese state. There is more than a little irony in such an argument.
And when faced with criticism from the likes of the UN or Human Rights Watch—who have claimed the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang province are “of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution”—, the Chinese government is quick to adopt a fluid approach to the truth. Initially denying the existence of the detention camps (Hu Lianhe, a senior Chinese official, claimed “there is no such thing as re-education centres”) they have since sought to downplay their significance: Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the region described them as simply “vocational training centres”; and a speech by the Chinese Communist Youth League Xinjiang Branch in 2018 stated “the training has only one purpose: to learn laws and regulations … if the education is not going well, we will continue to provide free education, until the students achieve satisfactory results and graduate smoothly”.
There is a more plausible explanation behind the Chinese state’s preoccupation with complete dominance over the Xinjiang province. The region is home to essential elements of the government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s ambitious trade policy, through which it seeks to link Beijing with some 70 countries via shipping lanes, railways, and other infrastructure projects. The BRI is Xi Jinping’s flagship policy, and one in which he sees an opportunity to aid his push for Chinese economic hegemony—in 2018 trade along the BRI route totalled $1.3 trillion. It is no wonder then, that the most comprehensive oppression of the Uyghur people has coincided with his rule and the BRI project: Rushan Abbas, an Uyghur activist claims “this has everything to do with…the Belt and Road Initiative, because the Uyghur land is in the heart of [its] most key point”.
And it is through this lens, that of economic benefit, that we can also begin to understand why China has been able to pursue its aggressive oppression of minorities in Xinjiang with relative ease—those who might otherwise condemn Chinese actions see greater economic advantage in silence than in censure.
Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and one of the Muslim world’s most powerful leaders, declared to Chinese state media on a trip to the country in February 2019, “China has the right to carry out antiterrorism and de-extremization work for its national security”. During the same trip, he signed 35 economic-cooperation agreements between Saudi Arabia and China worth up to $28 billion.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has a history of standing up for Muslim rights—in 2017 he condemned the “hypocrisy” of the international community in failing to protect Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and criticized the treatment of Muslim Kashmiris. When asked about the Uyghur’s plight in a March 2019 interview, he responded, “Frankly, I don’t know much about that”, dodging the question. Pakistan is economically invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project priced at around $60 billion.
Theresa May, outgoing Prime Minister of the U.K., was praised by Chinese state media for wisely “sidestepping” the issue of human rights on a February 2018 state visit to China. She received praise for prioritising “pragmatic collaboration” – as she sought to lay the groundwork for post-Brexit trade with the nation – over the “noise and nagging” of “radical public opinion”. Here, the implicit trade-off between standing up for human rights and receiving economic benefit was made explicit by the Chinese: “for the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere”.
To speak out on China’s treatment of the Uyghur people then is to risk the loss of significant economic benefit through dealings with the Chinese government; and thus far, it seems inaction has been adjudged a worthy price to pay. There must come a point, however, where the cost of doing business becomes too high, where hypocrisy becomes too perverse, and action must be taken.
We must also recognize that some states have in fact spoken out. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, has called for the end of Uyghur “repression” and the release of all those who have been “arbitrarily” detained in Xinjiang. Speaking on Twitter, he said, “The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy towards Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home but on the other, it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN”.
Yet words can be hollow. In September 2018, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religion openly criticized China’s activities in Xinjiang province, claiming it “increases the chances of an extremist viewpoint” growing in the region. Three months later, this criticism was dramatically rowed back, as the foreign ministry accused the media of “trying to sensationalize” the issue. Mohammed Faisal, the spokesman for the ministry, defended Uyghur detention, arguing those within re-education camps were merely “undergoing voluntary training”; and as mentioned, Prime Minister Imran Khan has claimed ignorance on the issue. And it is perhaps optimistic to place too much stock into the U.S.’ rhetoric on the issue; given their ongoing trade discussions with China it is unlikely they will wish to rock the boat too much, and thus threaten to damage their prospects in the negotiations.
Countries must first speak up if only to raise awareness. But words are not enough—following this they must act. They cannot treat economic advantage and respect for human rights as mutually exclusive goals. As Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, argues “talking and putting inconsequential actions are two different things”, China will “fight it tooth and nail”, so words are unlikely to be enough to secure change for the Uyghurs, “the question now is what everybody is willing to do”.
The form such action could take is another question, but at the very least it seems that independent international inspectors should be given full access to the region, and the contents of their findings made freely available. This would hopefully generate the kind of public pressure that may compel change. States may also find that economic sanctions are needed to pressure the Chinese into action.
Importantly the calculation of costs and benefits must shift such that silence on the regime’s oppressive action in Xinjiang becomes more costly than taking an active stance. This requires concerted international cooperation and pressure brought to bear on the Chinese government.
If successful, China will begin to recognize that their interests would be best served with the cessation of the Uyghur’s repression. Its Belt and Road Initiative is dependent on a number of countries with largely Muslim populations. If these states begin to openly oppose the abuse of Muslims in Xinjiang, President Xi’s flagship policy faces harm. China too depends heavily on the import of oil from majority-Muslim countries.
There is the potential for countries in Asia, the Middle East, and the West to exert significant pressure on China over this issue. They need simply decide that the short-term economic gain their silence buys, is not worth the price of condoning abusive authoritarianism. Until the international community makes this choice and breaks their pattern of passivity, minorities in Xinjiang will continue to suffer.