The northern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the country’s Muslim population is concentrated, has long been victim to repressive policies and strict securitization. More recently, the situation has worsened and attracted international attention, as the Chinese government has reportedly detained more than one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and other ethnic Turkic Muslims, Christians, as well as foreign citizens such as Kazakhstanis, in secretive internment camps. Officially known as Vocational Education and Training Centers, former detainees have made corroborated claims of physical torture and psychological indoctrination, supposedly to suppress dissident religious beliefs and separatist movements. The terror attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the United States’ subsequent “war on terror” played an unmistakable role in the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China that has escalated to the current human rights crisis in Xinjiang. While the residents of Xinjiang had already been viewed as separatist threats due to ethnic differences and unrest, they were now able to be framed in the context of global jihadism and Islamic extremism, helping to further legitimize the repressive policies against them.
Xinjiang has long been a contentious region of China. Uprisings have become more common within the past two decades, but the dissatisfaction with the Chinese government is not a new phenomenon. The Uyghurs have historical claims to their homeland and have repeatedly attempted to secede from China within the past 300 years. Since the formation of the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang had witnessed unrest due to repressive policies that pushed cultural assimilation, ethnic discrimination, and limitations to religious freedoms. The unrest worsened with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the Central Asian republics along China’s border gained independence, the Chinese government became concerned about possible secessionism and increased pressure on the Uyghurs. Throughout the 1990s, “strike hard” campaigns attempted to eliminate all possible opposition and dissent within the regions, and peaceful demonstrations were suppressed with excessive force. For example, in 1997, the government harshly cracked down on a rally of Uyghur students, and, according to Amnesty International, summarily executed numerous Uyghurs.
The Chinese government had framed the unrest in Xinjiang as an existential threat to the state and therefore has governed the region from a prism of national security. However, unrest was historically viewed as stemming from foreign influence or even misrule, not Islamic extremism. This changed after the 9/11 terror attacks. The United States swiftly launched a global war on terror, and China was one of the first countries to join the U.S. in this war. The reason was evident to many observers – China had now acquired a golden opportunity to eliminate any form of opposition in the region under the guise of fighting against terrorism. While other ethnic minorities such as Tibetans were also perceived as a threat to the Chinese government, the Uyghurs, due to their Muslim identity, became an easy target. In the days after September 11th, the Chinese began emphasizing the existence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups within the country, swiftly reconfiguring its discourse regarding Xinjiang to reflect the contemporary international focus on Islamic terrorism and legitimize its struggle against the Uyghurs.
Jumping onto the “war on terror” bandwagon was also an attempt by China to gain international recognition for its struggles against Uyghur unrest and convince other states that it is confronted with an international terrorist movement, thus justifying its treatment of their Muslim population. China first presented a list of “terrorist” organizations in November of 2001, claiming that they were founded and facilitated by al-Qaeda operatives. The report also linked Osama bin Laden to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. It was the first time China had made such a claim. Only two weeks before 9/11, the Secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, stated that the region had never been affected by separatists or religious extremists. The discourse changed dramatically after 9/11, with the Chinese government describing the region as a breeding ground for terrorists. Therefore, through exploiting the climate that followed 9/11, China was largely successful in portraying the Uyghurs as a source of serious Islamic terrorist threats. As a result, mass demonstrations, as well as incidents of violent and non-violent protest, are not understood to be the results of legitimate grievances, but as products of separatism, extremism, and terrorism, making the massive security apparatus in place seem necessary.
The importance of media in pushing this narrative cannot be ignored. The news media is an important conduit for conveying messages to the public and can shape attitudes, influence the national and global discourse, and generate stereotypes. Despite claims to the contrary, news media is not unbiased and can influence racial attitudes on a mass scale. In the post-9/11 world, the vast majority of news coverage on Muslims has been in the context of global terrorism, violence, and war, resulting in a mass misrepresentation of Islam and stoking a widespread fear and hatred toward Muslims. Chinese media is not exempt from perpetuating stereotypes and narrow depictions of Muslims both throughout the world and within their own country. The Chinese media often employs narratives from the discourses of the global “war on terror”, repackaging the social control in Xinjiang as important counter-terrorism measures. A study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that Chinese media employed three primary representational tropes to define Uyghurs involved in the 2009 Xinjiang riots: criminals, terrorists, and outside agitators; contrasting directly with the representation of the Han population as peaceful, civilized, and law-abiding. The media’s widespread evocation of terrorism has thus cemented the Uyghur identity as a perceived threat to the Chinese state.
Through these different means of framing the Uyghurs, the Chinese government has been able to escalate the securitization of Xinjiang, leading to the internment camps of Xinjiang that have garnered widespread condemnation from international observers. Officially, the government states that these measures and the existence of the camps are meant to tackle extremism through “thought transformation”, and that foreign religious ideas – often propagated over the internet – have corrupted the Muslim population of Xinjiang, legitimizing the transformation of the region into a surveillance state.
Despite the efforts of the Chinese government to portray the policies and now the camps in Xinjiang in a positive light, these human rights abuses have garnered widespread condemnation. In October of 2019, the U.S. government placed eight Chinese companies and several police departments on a blacklist that forbids them from buying American-made technology. These companies make large portions of their profits from the constant surveillance in Xinjiang, which employs technologies such as smartphone tracking, voice-pattern identification, and facial recognition. The Communist Party of China has also faced increasing internal and external dissent about the slowing economy, income inequality, corruption, and its treatment of its Muslim population. However, more than six decades into its rule, the Party has shown no interest in democratic elections. With China’s current system of government and leaders, change may never come. Democracies around the world should end their policy of Chinese exceptionalism and start calling for free and fair elections, just as they have for countries like Myanmar and Cambodia.
The issues in Xinjiang bring to light a major issue of our current system of international governance: the lack of enforceability of human rights. While the international community has acknowledged and, in some cases, condemned what is happening, an outside entity has no power to force the Chinese government to stop. “Xinjiang’s affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference,” a Chinese Embassy spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. The same principle applies to atrocities across the globe. Since the Chinese government has no real incentive to stop its campaign in Xinjiang, the question that must be asked is what changes can be made so that human rights are more easily accessible, and those who violate them are more swiftly brought to justice?
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