Pedestrians walk past anti-terrorism propaganda posters in Urumqi in Xinjiang on Sept. 16, 2014. Chinese Communist Party repression in Xinjiang has led to retaliatory violence by Islamists outside Xinjiang. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)
Most of Xinjiang’s population used to be Turkic Muslims but they are now only a majority in the southern region around the Tarim Basin. According to Chinese government statistics, Uyghurs, the largest Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang, are now only 46 percent of the region’s 22 million inhabitants. Hans and Kazakhs make up 40 percent and 7 percent respectively.
Brutal ethnic assimilation has been perpetrated in Xinjiang at an increasingly quick pace since Xi Jinping presided over the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of the region in August 2016. Since April 2017, between one and three million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been illegally warehoused in detention centers, dressed up with adjectives like “re-education,” “counter-extremism,” “training” and “vocational.”
This human rights abuse is taking place under President Xi’s arguably totalitarian watch, and he has doubtless had a say in its execution. Indeed, many of the worst policies in Xinjiang came after Xi took national control in 2013 but before Chen took over Xinjiang’s government in 2016.
After repression of Tibetans and Falun Gong, Chen Quanguo comes to Xinjiang
Chen came to Xinjiang after close association with some of China’s worst human rights abuses, including against Tibet’s six million population starting in 2011 and, prior to that, against tens of millions who follow the Falun Gong spiritual practice. Falun Gong, frequently discriminated against not only in China but abroad, is part of the Buddhist schools and draws on Taoist philosophy. It was defined as a religion by Judge Jack Weinstein in the U.S. federal district court in 2018.
For almost 20 years, the CCP has sought to extinguish the Tibetan and Falun Gong identities, including through extreme forms of human rights abuse. This has included indefinite detention, rape, torture, assimilation and organ harvesting that kills the prisoner from whom the organ is forcefully removed.
Like Xinjiang, Tibet has become a virtual colony of China, a people under surveillance, where the Tibetan language and religion are systematically eradicated by the CCP in an attempt to consolidate the fringes of Beijing’s power. By some accounts, Chen’s tactics worked to reduce protests and self-immolation by Buddhist monks in Tibet, but at a huge cost to already eroded human rights and civil liberties.
It didn’t have to be this way in Xinjiang. In 2011, some CCP officials sought out a well-respected Uyghur economics professor, Ilham Tohti, for advice. He made suggestions about how Uyghur complaints could be addressed and tensions decreased. But the CCP rejected them and imprisoned Tohti for life in 2014 for promoting separatism. Over a dozen U.S. Congress members, including senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders, nominated Tohti for a Nobel Peace Prize in January.
New Silk Road in Xinjiang a template for One Belt, One Road?
There are chilling parallels between the CCP’s colonialism in Xinjiang, which was pushed by the New Silk Road and other development initiatives, and the current One Belt, One Road development initiative globally.
In both cases, locals have had their lands taken and societies partitioned by new zoning. Chinese immigrants and settlement have accompanied Chinese commerce and infrastructure. This has included natural resource extraction and industrial farming that permits and incentivizes exclusion of local people to make way for Chinese settler developments and corporations. Inflation, poverty, desperation, police brutality, job competition, protests and instability result.
The state in Xinjiang responded to Uyghur protests, including deadly riots, with repression and further dispossession of minorities, producing “a cascading spiral of conflict between Uyghur civilians and the police and [Chinese] Han civilians, both in the province and in other parts of the country,” according to Darren Byler at the University of Washington.
“These incidents, which have been universally blamed on Uyghurs in state discourse, were generally spontaneous, small in scale and defensive responses to police brutality and state violence, rather than anything that resembled an organized insurgency.”
Uyghurs, terrorists and other false comparisons
Researcher Joanne Finley Smith has also assembled evidence that contemporary Uyghur violence in Xinjiang is in direct reaction to the CCP’s excesses against Muslims.
In 2013, 46 people were killed in Lukqun, Turpan Prefecture, after they attacked police and government buildings. The week before, 19 Uyghurs were imprisoned for “religious extremism.” An imam then referred to the attackers as “terrorists” and was stabbed to death. Two weeks earlier, he had supported the government’s campaign against beards.
Also in 2013, Chinese police and “community workers” broke into Uyghur homes and forced women to unveil and men to shave their beards. The CCP tried to claim that the Uyghur homes were bomb-making factories, but this allegation belied earlier reports.
CCP repression in Xinjiang precipitated retaliatory violence by Islamists outside Xinjiang, including a vehicular attack in Tiananmen Square that killed five and injured dozens. In 2014, Uyghurs attacked and killed over 30 people at Kunming train station, wounding 141.
Uyghur protests in Kashgar Prefecture on July 28, 2014, met with state violence. Uyghur sources claim that government forces killed 1,000 to 2,000 Uyghurs at the demonstration. Faced with such repressive measures, some Uyghurs have fled China and joined Islamist fighters in Afghanistan and Syria, fueling China’s story that Uyghur dissent is taking a turn towards international terrorism.
Xi Jinping in 2015 endorsed a program to Sinicize religion in China, including both the Christian and Islamic religions. This included encouraging incorporation of Chinese symbols and practices such as calligraphy into liturgies and sermons.
In 2016, Xi increased the CCP’s repressive measures in Xinjiang, not least by appointing Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary. In Xinjiang, he massively increased the hiring of auxiliary officers, including both Han and Turkic Muslims. Xinjiang’s police force increased more than five times between 2007 and 2017, according to researchers Adrian Zenz and James Leibold. The current Xinjiang “counterterrorism” operations by Chen include unprecedented levels of surveillance, home stays, detention of millions, torture and political indoctrination.
The Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, granted an interview to Reuters last November. He compared China’s actions in Xinjiang with U.S. counterterrorism against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, claiming that U.S. criticism was a double standard.
Yet U.S. counterterrorism in these and other locations looks nothing like what is reported from Xinjiang. U.S. soldiers deployed to these regions typically must follow local cultural rules, such as no consumption of alcohol, discouragement of eating and drinking in front of Muslims who are fasting, removal of shoes on rugs used for meetings and meals, not asking about the family members of Muslims, and averting one’s eyes when in the proximity of Muslim women or children.
There are plenty of cultural mistakes by coalition forces, but compared to the relatively politically correct atmosphere of the U.S. military, the actions of the CCP in Xinjiang and Tibet are shocking.
While the U.S. bent over backwards to show cultural sensitivity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the CCP is actively destroying culture in its own “frontier” regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. I put “frontier” in quotes because they are only frontiers to Beijing, not to the Tibetans and Turkic Muslims who for centuries have called those places home.
This is the fifth 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 four articles can be found by clicking here.
Tomorrow: Ethnocide of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang