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The Accusatory-Defense Dynamic of China's Human Rights Abuses in Zinjiang

How can the International Community Break the Deadlock?

Artwork by Andrew Holt for The Colloquium

Features | Maeve Lane

“Where there is no freedom, there is tension. Where there is tension there are incidents. Where there are incidents there are police. Where there are police there is no freedom.”

In 2015, these words were shared on a ‘WeChat’ social-messaging group by Hasan, a 23 year-old Uighur Muslim living in China’s Xinjiang province (XUAR). He is now one of approximately one million Chinese Muslims interned without trial in one of the state’s so-called ‘re-education camps’. This forced internment of predominantly Uighur Muslims, of whom there are just under 11 million in Xinjiang, is part of an even more pervasive surveillance system across the region, which has made Muslims subject to constant police checks, monitoring and racial discrimination. China’s discrimination against its minority factions is by no means a new phenomenon in this North-Western province. Before Communist rule (pre-1949), areas within Xinjiang, which were primarily inhabited by Uighurs, occasionally slipped from China’s grip with brief periods of independence. Consequently, ever since the Communist Revolution, the region has continually tested that grip with sporadic outbreaks of protests for independence and general violence, which have consistently been met by heavy repression and punishment of rebels and separatists by the government.

However, this system of superintendence has become even more suffocating over the past two years, since the implementation of the government’s “Regulation on De-extremification” policy in the region in March 2017. The 2017 regulations are the latest effort by government authorities to prohibit an increasingly broad range of public and private expressions of religious belief, including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting during Ramadan, avoidance of alcohol or, as in Hasan’s case, sharing ‘suspicious’ messages on social media. Under the regulation, these seemingly moderate actions are considered “extremist” and can therefore make one liable to police scrutiny, surveillance or even internment in a camp without trial. The new measures have further complicated inter-ethnic relations within an already delicate ethno-demographic context, in which Xinjiang’s Muslim groups, Uighurs, Kazakhs and Huis, number about 13 million and comprise 56% of the region’s population, with the remainder being Han Chinese (according to 2010 census figures).

In recent months, international pressure on the Communist Party of China (CPC) to abolish the regulation has become more urgent amid an ever-increasing stream of reports from Uighur and Kazakh families, recounting the disappearance of their loved ones. In the face of this international opprobrium, China invariably defends the regulation under three main arguments. Firstly, it denies that it is locking up Muslims without trial, but rather that these ‘re-education facilities’, the CPC’s preferred term for its internment camps, are attended willingly by all those who want to learn more about Chinese traditional culture. Secondly, China denies that it is discriminating against minorities, but rather states that it is merely providing a ‘system of routine checks’ carried out on Xinjiang’s entire population, Muslim or non-Muslim. Finally, the Chinese government has further justified the implementation of the regulation by framing it as a necessary measure in clamping-down on the violence and terrorism associated with Islamic separatism.

Whilst, given the historical context of the region, there will be some element of truth to these statements, particularly in relation to Islamic separatism, there exists much evidence to suggest that the CPC’s defence of its actions in Xinjiang is a gross bending of the truth. First of all, from all the evidence that has so far been gathered through the testimonies of Uighurs and through journalistic investigations, as well as those carried out by NGOs, it is clear that the ‘re-education centres’ are not attended willingly but are, in fact, internment camps by any other name. Secondly, the camps are occupied solely by the XUAR’s Muslim minorities, in other words, there have been no reports of a Han Chinese person interned in any camp. Thirdly, contrary to government claims that they are acting to combat a terrorist threat, their current regulations seem not to target Islamic separatist groups in the region, of which there are not many, and those that exist are relatively inactive, but instead seem to be targeting the entire population of Muslims in the XUAR. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) appears to have an ulterior, and indeed, concealed motive in carrying out its discriminatory policies against Muslims- a contention which has been firmly asserted by nations such as Turkey (who feels especially obliged to defend its ethnically Turkic peoples), the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Given the ethnic discrimination of these policies, and the cultural oppression which they entail, external criticism of China’s current regulations in the XUAR has mainly accused Jinping’s government of a larger nationwide drive to suppress its diverse elements and create a culturally homogenous China. Such a drive has been observed in the PRC in recent years, with a tightening grip on wider Chinese society under President Xi Jinping, one which espouses the belief, mainly through propaganda, that loyalties to family and faith must be subordinate to the only one that truly matters- loyalty to the Communist Party. In fact, this very message is being espoused within the camps themselves with chilling testimonies from former inmates of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’ telling of how they were made to learn Chinese, pledge allegiance to the Communist Party, follow a strict military-style regimen and were punished for speaking their own Turkic language. These testimonies further back up the contention that the PRC’s actions are a drive toward a homogenous China. In February 2019, in response to the emergence of such reports, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy spoke out against this very drive towards cultural homogeneity by the PRC government stating: “the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities towards Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity”.

However, while diplomats, activists and journalists have been unafraid in publishing reports and articles, publicly censuring China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, there are only a handful of nations that are willing to issue such an open critique. This is largely down to the prioritisation of economic interests over moral obligations. Recently, this was seen most starkly at the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in February 2019, where Britain and Turkey were the only two nations who raised the issue before Chinese delegates at the main session. This failure of the vast majority of the UN member states to intervene seems especially ironic, and indeed saddening, in the context of a Human Rights Council of an organisation underpinned by conventions and charters designed almost exclusively to ensure that no human rights atrocities will again be allowed to occur. Yet despite the gravity of the situation in Xinjiang and its worryingly xenophobic, totalitarian, apartheid-like characteristics, the very countries who established this supposed human rights organisation, are now failing to act on moral conviction over economic interests, while camps continue to be built and racist policies enacted.

International pressure on the Communist Party of China (CPC) to abolish the regulation has become more urgent amid an ever-increasing stream of reports from Uighur and Kazakh families, recounting the disappearance of their loved ones.

This reticence to adequately criticise and sanction China in relation to its actions in Xinjiang due to economic ties with the PRC is explained by Dr Ross Holder, a lecturer within Trinity’s Near and Middle Eastern department: “economic ties have complicated states’ willingness to publicly censure China over its human rights record, including its policies in Xinjiang.” Furthermore, “the PRC government has been effective at using economic coercion as a tool to mitigate international criticism over its human rights record, this can be seen most starkly among Muslim majority states, with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) only recently commenting on Xinjiang despite facing pressure to do so for several years.” Holder further highlighted the Chinese manipulation of its economic power in order to distract from its human rights abuses in another context with “the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo which drew robust criticism from China’s government, resulting in a deterioration in China-Norway economic relations (led by China) until 2016.”

China’s use of economic factors to distract attention away from its human rights abuses has been further facilitated by Xinjiang’s particular economic importance both within and outside of China. The region is China’s biggest domestic producer of oil and gas, and much of the fuel imported from Central Asia and Russia passes through this region on its way to the industries of the east coast. In the context of international economic relations, Xinjiang is now a vital link in the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, a Chinese foreign policy which aims to bind the Middle East and Europe to China via joint infrastructure projects, investment and trade. This important economic initiative has posed a difficult, ‘money vs. morality’ dilemma for China’s trading partners.

Nevertheless, the present climate in which a handful of nations are accusing the CPC of a drive to create a homogenous China that is intolerant of all religious and cultural diversity, with China denying this alongside assertions of ‘self-defence’ and ‘counter-terrorism’, has given rise to an ineffective accusatory-defensive dynamic and ultimately, a diplomatic standstill on either side. Therefore, in order to break through this impasse, China’s critics will have to become both more united and courageous about speaking out. They must also become less focused on their economic interests, bearing the financial cost which may arise from speaking out amongst themselves, and with the pursuit of justice in mind. The more countries that speak out, the lesser the impact on each individual country and, more importantly, the less China can afford to target them for economic punishment. After all, the Chinese cannot punish the whole world economically for speaking out without ultimately shooting their own economy in the foot. This is especially true given that China is not a particularly self-sufficient country and it has a heavy economic reliance on trade, and in particular, exports of consumer goods. Therefore, an “isolationist” policy in response to widespread international criticism would inflict huge damage on its economy.

However, in publicly censuring China, countries must focus on adopting a more factual, legalistic basis to the pressure that is put on China, rather than getting too emotive and partisan. This logical response includes recognising that China does, from time to time, have to deal with issues of national security and therefore are entitled to some sort of security measures in the XUAR while simultaneously pointing out that the PRC has overplayed these facts, producing a response that is extremely disproportionately heavy-handed- a response that is racist, breaches International Law, eradicates cultural and religious diversity and is underpinned by propaganda and lies. This approach of external solidarity in publicly criticising China in a manner which is both pragmatic but firm will prove both more effective and more conducive to a spirit of cooperation than the current accusatory-defensive correspondence. If both sides can negotiate, voice their concerns, provide explanations, and take measured steps forward, in the absence of a moral high ground or superior position on either side, this will ensure that both sides can draw incentives for and eventually benefit from a resolution to the issue in Xinjiang.

On China’s side of the argument, it must be recognised that in recent years there have been significant bursts of Uighur unrest and violence, which have been met by justified police intervention, not only in the XUAR but across the country. In 2009, there was bloody inter-ethnic violence in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi, in response to the murder of Uighurs elsewhere in China. This attack sparked a series of later acts of Uighur retaliation, for example, in 2013, a Uighur suicide-driver crashed into pedestrians in Beijing. In 2014, a knife-wielding Uighur gang slaughtered 31 travellers at a train station in China’s southern Yunnan province. Later on in 2014, unrest in Yarkant (Xinjiang) led to a hundred deaths and an attack at a coal mine in Aksu (Xinjiang) killed 50 people.

Furthermore, Chinese authorities are keen to point out, and are not unreasonable in doing so, that there are links between Uighur separatists and global jihad groups, especially amongst the Uighur diaspora in Turkey. Both Chinese and Syrian officials claim that 1,500 Uighurs have fought with Islamic State (IS) or Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In 2016, a defector from IS provided a list of foreign recruits- 114 came from Xinjiang. Furthermore, in 2001 a group called the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) was established in Xinjiang, demanding independence from China for the North-western region. The presence of threats such as the ETIM, however non-operational it is, and the bloody Uighur-led attacks that occurred between 2009 and 2014, would suggest that the Chinese government does indeed have the right to enforce security measures in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

If both sides can negotiate, voice their concerns, provide explanations, and take measured steps forward, in the absence of a moral high ground or superior position on either side, this will ensure that both sides can draw incentives for and eventually benefit from a resolution to the issue in Xinjiang.

Yet it is the disproportionality of the security measures, and the fact that since 2017 Chinese authorities have begun targeting the Muslim population at large rather than merely rebels or terrorists, which makes the ‘national defence’ narrative doubtful. The deaths of a couple hundred Han citizens, due to sporadic attacks all over the country, over a period of five years, none of which were linked to any separatist group such as ETIM, does not call for the unlawful imprisonment of almost one tenth of the Uighur population of Xinjiang, the constant monitoring of the lives of all Muslims, nor the demonisation of largely inactive terrorist organisations in order to justify such actions.

When Hasan wrote the words, “where there are police there is no freedom” back in 2015, he provided a startlingly fatidic and accurate summation of the PRC’s current policies in the XUAR. They appear to mark a fundamental shift in the Chinese government’s approach to ethnic religious minorities- separatism is no longer treated as a problem concerning a few isolated individuals, but as a problem inherent within Uighur culture and Islam in general. The abundant barbed-wire internment camps and inescapable police presence in Xinjiang have indeed led to a crippling existence for Xinjiang’s Uighur inhabitants, an existence which we should not stand by and let Muslim minorities continue having to bear. The international community has a moral obligation to act on this undeniable evidence now, working together to provide a unified, pragmatic and firm response to the PRC’s crimes against Uighurs, and other Islamic minorities. Our freedom of speech should not be inhibited by economic fears, our moral judgements should not be clouded by ignorance to the evidence, and real, Uighur Muslim people, like Hasan, should not be punished because of our inaction.


Originally published 18.04.19 in Vol. 2 No. 2.


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