One of the most important, yet relatively unknown, issues of our time, is the prevalence of Chinese imperialist policies in Xinjiang. Despite the fact that the region has been under Chinese control for centuries, it remains, at least for now, distinct from the Han Chinese areas. The location of Xinjiang has made it a multicultural place with a rich history and distinct language and culture, represented by members of multiple ethnic groups, mainly the Uyghurs and the Kazaks.
In recent years, the area has been marred with a growing separatist movement, as well as insurrection and terrorism. To this, the response was an aggressive quashing of the local population. The Chinese central government has been steadily stripping the region and people of any autonomy and privilege, and more recently, human rights. With the application of facial recognition technology, the installation of hundreds of thousands of security cameras, the imposition of strict rules concerning gatherings, travel, even prayer and religious symbols, all punctuated with the presence of countless police officers, the Chinese government is maintaining a strong chokehold on the local non-Han population.
This has included the illegitimate detention of over a million people, based on the Schriver estimate as of 2019, although this number may be even higher. These people, the vast majority belonging to the Uyghur ethnic group, are being held under the pretence of radicalisation, and are being indoctrinated with CCP – approved propaganda. So far, no major opposition has taken place against this practice, which is understandable given China’s economic reach and military strength. On the contrary, despite 22 countries submitting a letter to the UN Human Rights Council against the practice, 37 countries, many of them Muslim majority, responded in support of the camps.
To better understand how this came to be, we must examine the period where Xinjiang first came under the control of the Chinese State, at the time being the Qing Dynasty. Very quickly, Han Chinese and other groups were settled in the region by the government, something that has continued until the present day. The result of this was, the Uyghurs, previously comprising the majority of the population, now make up less than half. Current expansionist policies, therefore, are rooted in a complex social and historical context. That makes Chinese aspirations in the region incredibly deep-seated and highly resistant to change.
Tensions in the region have been ever-present, with separatist ambition and Islamic radicalisation seeing an increase in recent years. The central government’s stance has been hardening, especially after several terrorist incidents in the 90s and 00s. In 2014, following the death sentences of several people for terrorist attacks, the current crackdown began. Some may argue that de-radicalising dangerous individuals, who willingly attend the camps, while also providing them with language and trade skills, is an honourable pursuit. That is indeed how the “re-education camps” are being branded in Chinese media and presented to the world.
Simultaneously, as various pieces of evidence and testimonials have shown, particularly articles and documentaries by VICE and the BBC, that is in fact, not the case. Understandably, interaction with locals is extremely limited and the media is tightly controlled. This makes obtaining accurate information that paints the full picture, impossible. In essence, though, people have spoken of incomprehensible abuse, brainwashing and blackmail tactics which generally follow the theme of human rights abuses in China.
For these reasons, as well as the fact that China controls a large part of the global commerce and manufacturing industries, no measures have been taken in response. This blatant indifference by countries who generally promote human rights and boast their accepting culture goes to show the place of China in world politics. Similarly, the Muslim majority countries defending the camps, usually the first to speak out against discrimination against Muslims, serve to show their dependence on Chinese goods. Nevertheless, the international response has been underwhelming, to say the least. Within China, the misinformation and terror tactics run deep, with many people expressing support but no indication as to whether it is genuine and to what degree.
For the Uyghurs themselves, there can be no opposition out of fear of being sent to the camps. There can also be no escape since any contact with people abroad has been cited as a cause of arrest and incarceration in a camp. In other words, there is no substantial criticism to the response to the issue, as it has been minimal and entirely irrelevant.
Chinese influence is abundant and no state or organisation can afford to be sanctioned by one of the largest and most powerful players in the international scene. The causes behind this are well examined, mainly economic, as China has an abundance of natural resources, a large population and human rights or work regulations are no issue, thus enabling products to be produced cheaply and efficiently.
When it comes to solutions, there are multiple convoluted layers, with each one needing to be addressed separately. In an ideal world, there would be no need for any measures, the Uyghurs would establish the independent East Turkestan, thus ending their plight, Chinese control, and the need for foreign intervention. This may still be a possibility, however, given the strength of the Chinese military and the successful, albeit violent, quashing of several such movements, extremely unlikely.
Firstly, Chinese expansionism, the main issue, cannot be tackled unless the international community suddenly decides to impose sanctions or bring the case to the International Court of Justice. As explained above, the only way for this to be a realistic possibility would be if the majority of powerful states suddenly stopped being dependent on Chinese imported goods. Again, this is not an entirely unrealistic goal, with consumers becoming more aware of ethics and how Chinese goods fail to provide that feeling of clear-conscience materialism. On the other hand, the drive for items to be cheaper and better is strong, with China leading the market from smartphones to textiles and from engineering to agriculture goods.
Secondly, the incidents that lead to, or at least have been blamed for the crackdown are a logical and expected reaction to the region being ruled with an iron fist. While the symptom, terrorism, has largely been dealt with through death sentences, camps, and endless checkpoints, the underlying cause remains unaddressed. At the same time, these measures are laying the groundwork for further radicalisation and insurrection, since the systematic erasure of one’s culture and identity, tends to bring a violent reaction. In a way, as the situation currently stands, the most logical solution would be to intensify the brainwashing and completely eradicate the problem. That, of course, is the least desirable outcome. Regardless, the idealistic result (that of an independent Uyghur state) would certainly maintain strong anti-china sentiment and will persevere. A logical fix would be actual de-radicalisation programmes and the preservation of the local language and culture on an official level, for example through schools. This way, true integration could potentially be possible, although, it would go against all that has happened so far.
Thirdly, the indifference and even endorsement that has so far been exhibited by a plethora of nations with ranging influences is a far more difficult thing to solve. As mentioned before, the central cause is an economic dependency, which could potentially be solved. At the same time, it is also worth mentioning that the obligation to intervene at times of genocide or ethnic cleansing remains among several nations. It seems though, as seen in the case of Myanmar, Rwanda, DR Congo and many others, the international community acts only when doing so would serve its interests, in one way or another. Addressing this is next to impossible, particularly because each state has its own goals and ambitions, which are not necessarily conducive to world peace.
In conclusion, the transformation of Xinjiang into a police state has been a long and arduous process. It certainly did not happen overnight, as most people seem to think, but is an extremely complicated mix of causes, effects, history and geopolitics. In any case, the situation is not threatening to spill over but remains highly controversial and certainly a threat to world peace. The blatant disregard of international rules, their purpose being to prevent exactly such a situation, is extremely concerning. Also, the fact that there has been almost no resistance from the international community goes to show China’s place in the international power games. The effects of the crisis can only be mitigated with the world adopting a proactive and united policy. As things stand, there is little prospect for improvement.