Dr. David Brophy, lecture of modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, stated that “the presence of a large, disconnected minority simply doesn’t fit the official vision of a nation uniting to realize what Xi Jinping calls the ‘Chinese Dream’.” Dr. Brophy argues this exclusive ideology has resulted in the Uyghur people’s precarious position within the People’s Republic of China. Brophy argues that the long history of religious suppression of the Uyghur people in China’s westernmost territory of Xinjiang is by no means new but has entered “a new era” as President Xi Jinping begins widespread modernization.
The Chinese government has made it clear that they intend to modernize the country at any cost. This goal has been cited as justification for the cultural suppression of the resistant Uyghur people in Xinjiang, individuals who do not identify as ethnically Chinese. As to not slow modernization, the Chinese have sponsored reeducation camps, mass ethnic incarceration, and widespread surveillance of suspected Muslims and political dissidents within the region.
This suppression has allowed for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government to exploit rich natural resources in areas with minority populations without significant opposition. Their actions leave no option other than for the United Nations to intervene in order to end the blatant cultural genocide and gross human rights violations being committed against the Uyghur people.
History of the Conflict
Acting as the connecting point between China and the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the desirable location of Xinjiang in terms of trade led to the region being conquered numerous times. After alternating under the reign of early Chinese empires and other Eurasian groups, Islam spread throughout the region due to influence of Arab traders. This adoption of Islam was mostly exclusive to this region of present day China and is one of the fundamental reasons for the unique nature of the Uyghur people within China. Xinjiang continued to play host to the developing culture of the Uyghur people as the group further diverged from the ethnically Chinese people through religion, language, and customs. The region was then controlled by various groups such as the Zhungars, Ottomans, Persians, Mughals, Tsarist Russia and Qing China.
The Qing dynasty established a precedent of zero-tolerance for rebellion in the region as they exterminated the Zhungar people who attempted a rebellion early on in the Qing’s rule. This rebellion forced the Qing government to attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into Chinese society, an action that only led to a solidified cultural division between the two groups.
Growing resentment toward the Chinese and increased trade with the Soviet Union developed a strong connection between the Uyghur and the Soviets. The Uyghur people were eventually encouraged by the Soviet Union to stage two rebellions in an attempt to break away from the Qing. The rebellion only ended as a result of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
From the establishment of the People’s Republic until 2008, both the Uyghur and the Chinese limited their hostilities toward one another. However, this peace ended in 2008 when a prominent Uyghur businessman was arrested for his relationship to promoting Muslim schools. This man later dies in Chinese custody, sparking riots and violence from both the Uyghur and the ethnically Han Chinese. Eventually the central government massively increased their presence in the region and began the current suppression of the Uyghur people.
Figure 1: This graph details the rapid growth in the number of arrests in Xinjiang (most of which being Uyghur people) in comparison to the number of total arrests in China. This is done so to detail the disparity between the large amount of arrests and Xinjiang’s small population.
While the current suppression of the Uyghur people is wide-ranging, it can largely be categorized into three unique areas: forced reeducation of Uyghur people in order to strip them of their cultural identity, mass incarceration of Uyghur people deemed to be political enemies or terrorists in the Xinjiang territory, and widespread surveillance of Uyghur people. These practices all serve to fulfill the same end goal of squashing any opposing force in the region in order to facilitate Xi Jinping’s modernization.
With regard to the force reeducation of the Uyghur people, the goal of this endeavor is to “rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities.” The Chinese government has actively sought to suppress the influence of Islam within the region as they see the religion as they main dividing force between the Uyghur and themselves. An estimated 10% of the eight million Uyghur people who live in Xinjiang have been “reportedly forced to chant slogans, watch propaganda videos, denounce their religion and pledge loyalty to the communist party in overcrowded cells.”
The most publicized example of this reeducation is from Omir Bekali, a Uyghur political leader, who was starved, beaten, and tortured to force his compliance after he resisted the reeducation described above. Bekali described the “psychological pressure [as] enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking – your own ethnic group.” The experience was so traumatic that Bekali was and still is haunted by the time he spent in the camp, often pondering suicide.
Chinese incarceration of Uyghur people has been more widespread than the reeducation with an extremely conservative estimate of 120,000 Uyghur people currently incarcerated or missing and over a million total incarcerated since their persecution began. Maya Wang, a member of the Human Rights Watch, analyzed the situation as “a black hole which people are added to and don’t get out of.” With many people simply disappearing from the Chinese prisons, never to return to their families, the families of the incarcerated are left unsure if their loved ones are dead, banished, or still in prison.
The reports coming out of the region also suggest that the already heavily monitored area has become more and more of a surveillance state with some accounts claiming that “Uyghurs’ DNA is collected during state-run medical checkups. Local authorities now install a GPS tracking system in all vehicles. Government spy apps must be loaded on mobile phones. All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content. When Uyghurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code.” The Uyghur people have become the subject of a police state in which every action they take is in some way monitored by the government.
While the information coming out of the region has been extremely limited, even for Chinese standards, through censorship and travel bans, these types of surveillance tactics have been utilized for years with people being arrested for using blacklisted words, sending Islamic texts, and moving outside their usual work and home areas.
The rationalization for this policing and suppression of the Uyghur culture is to bring the Xinjiang region into compliance with President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xinjiang has been described as the “crucial gateway for the Belt and Road Initiative, as it borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India.” This border would then “expand China’s trade and ties not only with these neighboring nations, but also with Europe and beyond.” China is attempting to transform the region of Xinjiang through this initiative. Having already spent $66 billion in just Xinjiang, Xi Jinping is under increasing pressure to bring the region, and the Uyghur people under his control.
The rational actions to halt this cultural genocide are unfortunately unrealistic due to the current political climate and international reluctance toward military action. One of these actions would be attempting to incorporate the Uyghur people into the Chinese government system in order to promote a degree of self-autonomy. This solution is unrealistic, however, due to the centralized nature of the Chinese government that limits regional autonomy and does not allow the incorporation of separate political parties. The other unrealistic solution would be a United Nations backed military task force put together in order to halt crimes against the Uyghur people. This solution would most likely only come about if open and clear ethnic genocide began but even then, the global climate has shown an indifference toward military action in other countries if it is not in their immediate interests.
More realistic solutions focus on instigating a United Nations investigation into the situation in Xinjiang that could result in possible sanctions or condemnation. The issue with this solution is that these sanctions would most likely fail to make a significant impact on the Uyghur’s current situation and would only serve as a public display of disapproval.
The most impactful solution within reason would be the creation of a coalition including the countries and companies working with Xi Jinping on the Belt and Road Initiative and other global leaders of industry to work in conjunction to halt the progress of this project. While it would be difficult and unlikely to bring every country and company into this coalition due to allegiances to China but this coalition would send a strong message. Even if China was able to complete the rest of the initiative with their own funding, the project would be made extremely difficult and send a strong message from the global community on to China on a zero tolerance toward ethnic and cultural violence.
China has become a superpower that economically rivals the rest of the globe, but this development has come at the expense of its people. One such example of this is the attempted cultural extermination of the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region. With a massive modernization attempt underway, the United Nations and the global community must make a stand that human rights come before economic expansion. With Xi Jinping’s attempt to form a common culture in the region through forced reeducation and incarceration of the Uyghur people, the United Nations has stood passive as an entire ethnic group is subjugated to violations of their most basic rights. In the globally interconnected world we live in economic expansion and enhancement is vital to bettering the lives of all involved but this development cannot come at the cost of a group of nearly 10 million people simply due to their cultural identity.
Featured Image Source: Pacific Standard