It was a rare admission. On July 23, the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), admitted that the party imprisons “extremists”, to educate them and reform their religious thoughts in Xinjiang.
Ma Pinyan, a research fellow at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences and vice-president of the Xinjiang Prison Association, told the newspaper that the State was inviting religious experts “to reform the extremists’ thoughts… in prison (they) need to transform their thoughts”.
Another expert, La Disheng, former vice-president of the Xinjiang Academy of Governance, told the same publication: “As a multi-ethnic region, Xinjiang has proven that prosperous development can only be achieved through ethnic unity, while ethnic conflicts and separatism may lead to disasters.”
The problem is that the large majority of the population of the restive Muslim province is considered as “extremist”.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported that it had found “fresh evidence that the authorities in one of China’s most repressive regions are sweeping up citizens’ personal information in a stark example of how big data technology can be used to police a population.”
Quoted by the Associated Press, the group found in Xinjiang the existence of a policing programme called “Integrated Joint Operations Platform”.
Local sources told HRW of “computer and mobile app interfaces of the software that tracks almost all citizens of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority and stores detailed information, including their travel history, prayer habits, number of books in their possession, banking and health records.” The platform possesses devices to track vehicle number plates and uses facial recognition cameras to follow people in real time and provide “predictive warnings” about impending crime.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Rian Thum, a historian who has been conducting research in Xinjiang, wrote: “What does it take to intern half a million members of one ethnic group in just a year? Enormous resources and elaborate organisation, but the Chinese authorities aren’t stingy. Vast swathes of the Uyghur population in China’s western region of Xinjiang — as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities — are being detained to undergo what the state calls ‘transformation through education’.”
Mr Thum noted that the Chinese authorities are “cagey and evasive, if not downright dismissive”, about reports on these camps.
Since last year, a large number of studies detailing the proliferation of re-education camps and the rise of a totalitarian police state in Xinjiang appeared in the Western press.
China Digital Times, which has collected information from different sources, explained: “Ever since former Tibet Party secretary Chen Quanguo was installed in Xinjiang to replicate his perceived successes (in Tibet where he was posted earlier), Xinjiang’s re-education system alone grew to overshadow China’s officially-abolished re-education through labour system… Individuals can land in the camps for reasons such as contacting friends or relatives abroad, worshipping at mosques, or possessing Quranic verses on their phones.”
Just read the Chinese press and you will realise that all is not well.
On July 6, the People’s Daily said Beijing has relocated “461,000 poverty-ridden residents to work in other parts of the region during the first quarter of the year.” An “expert” explained that it is a bid to “improve social stability and alleviate poverty”. The report asserted that the Xinjiang government planned to further transfer 100,000 residents from southern Hotan and Kashgar prefectures by 2019, to get employed somewhere else.
Yu Shaoxiang, another “expert” at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, admitted to the Global Times: “Poverty alleviation in Xinjiang is more difficult compared to other places because, aside from poverty, Xinjiang also faces ethnic issues.”
Mr Yu further commented: “Organising people to work away from home would help them better integrate with the rest of China, and take their advanced skills back to Xinjiang later. The relocation also helps maintain regional security.”
Xinhua News Agency said that in 2017, “occupational education programmes” covered 1.26 million people in Kashgar and Hotan, where 47,000 poor people found jobs while 317,400 individuals and 331 villages were lifted out of poverty. It is obviously a pretext in an area which is the hub of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In June, it was announced that Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s government planned to teach “standard spoken and written Chinese language to all 2.94 million students during their free and compulsory education period”. Free and compulsory! Putonghua is the standard spoken and written Chinese language.
Let us remember that last year, President Xi Jinping had announced the construction of “Great Wall of Iron” to promote security and peace in Xinjiang, required to develop the BRI.
But all these policies are disproportionate, even taking into account the 2009 riots in the region’s capital city of Urumqi.
A real issue: is there a terrorist threat in Xinjiang? There is no doubt that China faces serious challenges not only from infiltration from all-weather friends in the South, but also from the Syrian-trained Uyghurs returning to Xinjiang.
In its most recent the China Brief, the Jamestown Foundation explained: “Western nations also face challenges with radicalised fighters returning to their home countries, as ISIS is gradually eliminated and the war in Syria winds down. China’s returning fighter challenge, however, is also linked with the Al Qaeda affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) which has been active in Syria and had as many as several thousand Chinese Uyghur members.”
The Brief concluded: “As Assad consolidates power, Chinese nationals fighting alongside Al Qaeda may leave the fighting and attempt to return to China. How Beijing responds to these returning fighters may dramatically alter the security situation in Xinjiang and the rest of China.”
It is therefore a legitimate concern for Beijing. Some sources estimate that 5,000 Uyghur jihadists were fighting in Syria. A Dubai-based media outlet reported the number as 10,000 to 20,000 Uyghurs, who were supporting the ISIS, mostly in Idlib province.
Whatever the number is, the issue is that ferocious repression or forced assimilation as it is happening today in the restive region, can only make the situation worse.
Another side of the coin, many China watchers believe that Xinjiang is a pilot project to extend the surveillance to the Middle Kingdom. China Digital Times spoke of an increasing concern about “the expansion of the Xinjiang model to non-Uyghur Muslims such as the Hui and ethnic Kazakhs. The Hui minority group, traditionally treated with more acceptance by the Chinese government due to their higher levels of cultural and linguistic assimilation with the Han majority, have found themselves subject to increasingly greater levels of scrutiny.”
The future of China is not rosy, but perhaps the most surprising aspect is that Muslim nations around the world are keeping mum about the fate of the Uyghurs; nobody has so far dared to question China about its Muslim policy.
Isn’t it double standards? Especially when so-called honourable institutions like the United Nations are extremely critical of India for its policies in Kashmir? But we are living in a world of double standards.