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China's Uyghurs deserve freedom of religion

Independence sentiment is growing in Xinjiang as Turkic Muslims reach breaking point under totalitarian repression

Anders Corr

Anders Corr

Published: December 28, 2019 08:02 PM GMT

Updated: December 28, 2019 06:00 AM GMT

China's Uyghurs deserve freedom of religion

A demonstrator wearing a mask painted with the colors of the East Turkestan flag attends a protest in Istanbul in July 2018 to denounce China's treatment of ethnic Uyghur Muslims. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP)

This article was first published on March 14, 2019

China has detained one to three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. There is an odd parallel between the contemporary architect of these camps, Chen Quanguo, and Zuo Zongtang of the 19th century.

Both men fought Muslim rebels and separatism in the northwest, and both fought religious movements in the center. But despite the apparent heroics, both men were wrong. They forced politics from the center onto the frontiers, both of the territorial and religious varieties.

People deserve freedom of religion and self-determination. If the Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang feel they have been treated unfairly by China over the centuries, they have the right to their own state if they want independence. They are an ethnic, religious and linguistic nation, and they deserve the freedom to choose their future, whether or not it be within China.

Separatism is not a crime. It is one logical choice resulting from persistent abuse. When the Turkic Muslims were treated as equals and afforded their rights to freedom of religion and language in Xinjiang, they did not demand independence.

Fueling Uyghur campaigns for independence, according to Amnesty International, is discontent due to continued Han Chinese migrants, employment discrimination, dispossession, political and economic inequality, religious and cultural persecution, enforced birth control, crime and official corruption.

One Uyghur told an interviewer in 2007: “There are now too many state restrictions on religion. If you grow a beard, they will force you to shave it off and fine you 20 yuan [US$3]. When a mature, earnest Muslim is humiliated in this way, what can he do? How can he express his resistance? It’s even worth dying to do so.”

To Turkic Muslims, these state intrusions into religious decisions about the person and its adornment are a blasphemous violation of the purity of what they call halal space (the Uyghur body, home and business).

According to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, “anecdotal evidence suggests that a majority of Uyghurs today view Chinese rule as illegitimate, and the PRC state, for its part, sees the Uyghurs as posing a threat of both separatism and violent religious radicalism.”

In a Jan. 31 report, an Al Jazeera journalist spontaneously asked a group of about 20 Uyghur males in Kayseri, Turkey, how many of them thought that the Uyghurs deserved an independent state. They all raised their hands, and some said they were willing to fight for their freedom.

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Adrian Zenz, a lecturer at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, wrote in an electronic communication that trying to estimate Uyghur opinion on independence is speculative. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after all, does not provide the international community with the kind of access to Uyghurs that would be required to credibly gauge their opinions.

But Zenz added that “the less happy a minority is, and the less they feel a benefit from being part of China, the more prevalent such sentiments will be. China has rapidly eliminated any middle ground and alienated those who were well integrated into both worlds and advocated integration. Overall, the number of Uyghurs who no longer want to be part of China is set to have risen dramatically.”

Excuse of terrorism

China’s “counterterrorism” strategy in Xinjiang, which may seem aimed at consolidating CCP control over the region and decreasing the likelihood of violence, is more likely to create that violence and separatism. That Uyghur violence is then labelled “terrorism” by China and used as an excuse for further state violence. Only since 2001, when counterterrorism was in vogue globally, has China labeled as “terrorist” the Uyghurs who support independence (regardless of their tactics).

In 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, leaving hundreds dead. This was used to justify the increased surveillance and detentions in the region that followed.

There are scattered examples of Uyghurs training with terrorists in Afghanistan and Syria. Researchers have interviewed Uyghurs who were radicalized by China’s pressure tactics and in response justified violence as the only practical means to defend their culture in Xinjiang.

We saw the same train of events against the Rohingya in Myanmar, where the human rights of a minority Muslim population is pushed beyond endurance to the point where some villagers justify violence and fight back. There too the government used the language of “terrorism” to all too easily tar a community of Muslims that was reacting under state-directed abuse.

But China’s use of the term “terrorists” to describe abused Uyghurs is not selling in the U.S. and Europe. According to the findings section of sanctions legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, “increased unrest in the Xinjiang region as a result of the central government’s severe repression is used in Orwellian fashion by the government of the People’s Republic of China as evidence of terrorism and separatism and as an excuse for further disproportionate response.”

CCP violates China’s constitution

China has defended the detention centers and religious Sinicization campaigns as prevention of terrorism and a rehabilitation of the Uyghurs.

China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told Reuters in November that the detention centers seek to "turn them [Turkic Muslims] into normal persons [who] can go back to normal life.” On March 5, China’s Premier Li Keqiang said that “we must fully implement the [Communist] Party’s fundamental policy on religious affairs and uphold the Sinicization of religion in China.”

But Chapter II, Article 36 of China’s constitution guarantees religious liberty, so these strictures on Muslim religion in Xinjiang are arguably illegal even by China’s highest law. Yet the constitution is unenforced and other subordinate laws restrict large religious activities and distribution of religious materials. Many categories of Chinese citizen, even outside Xinjiang, are not allowed to attend sanctioned, much less unsanctioned, religious activities. Those forbidden to attend religious activities include military members, children and Communist Party members.

According to the constitution, “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

Some Chinese jurists might argue that elements of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population are influenced from abroad and use religion to “disrupt public order” and therefore the camps are constitutional. But this would be a very small fraction of Xinjiang’s population, nowhere near the approximately 12 percent of the Muslim population currently estimated to be in the re-education camps. For the great majority of Turkic Muslims in the camps who were not influenced from abroad, they would be unconstitutional.

A Chinese constitutional scholar might argue that by its broad targeting of Islam in Xinjiang, the CCP is countering the “use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order.” There is extensive evidence that CCP attacks on Islam in Xinjiang have driven it underground, increased its fervor and caused Uyghur resistance to the state. Thus the CCP itself, not the Uyghurs, has disrupted public order.

The CCP violates Article 37 of China’s constitution as well. Law professor Donald Clarke, who specializes in Chinese law, argues that “Article 37 is the better basis for a claim of unconstitutionality” with respect to China’s Xinjiang detentions. In an article on the subject, he wrote: “Under both Article 37 of China’s constitution and Articles 8 and 9 of its Law on Legislation, the physical restriction of personal liberty is permitted only pursuant to statutes passed by the National People’s Congress or its standing committee.”

The reality is that the CCP in Xinjiang does not operate in accordance with China’s constitution or law. “There is no law, at national or even local level (which wouldn’t be adequate in any case), that authorizes these detentions,” wrote Professor Clarke. “Some people may say that this does not matter, but I think it’s important for understanding the Chinese political-legal system to know that a million people can be deprived of their liberty in a non-secret operation that is illegal under China’s own law. This is not a bug or a temporary and local aberration, but a feature."

Every government has a duty of care to the people within its borders and operates by social contract as manifested in its constitution. The CCP has both violated its constitution and its duty of care in Xinjiang, leading most people in southern Xinjiang to want their freedom. They have that right.

Liberal philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Hannah Arendt have all written on the right of a people to freedom and independence from abusive governments when pushed to breaking point. The Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang are past that breaking point, and the only way the CCP sees fit to maintain order is through totalitarian repression. That is not good governance but tyranny. When governance has devolved to that level, other more responsible governments worldwide should step in and support the legitimate option of independence.

This is the eighth article in a nine-part series on Xinjiang by Anders Corr, who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia. The first seven articles can be found by clicking here.

Uyghur refugees in Turkey indicate their preference for an independent East Turkestan in this Al Jazeera video posted on YouTube on Jan. 31:

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