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The Uighur tragedy: cultural suppression not counter-terrorism

ByReuben Bharucha

Dec 8, 2019

On November 24th, what have become known as the ‘China Cables’ were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These Chinese Communist Party documents revealed that the facilities the Chinese government had labelled “re-education camps” in Xinjiang Province in the far West of China had been envisioned as brainwashing facilities from their conception. The leaked documents also shed light on the operation of the camps, corroborated by the accounts of Uighur exiles who had fled the camps. Chinese officials were swift to respond. The Chinese Embassy to the UK labelled the documents “pure fabrication and fake news” in an article published in the Guardian. Whilst this reaction was to be expected, the question arises as to why these camps exist in the first place.

The Uighur ethnic group is a Turkic speaking Muslim minority numbering approximately 12 million that is native to the oil-rich Xinjiang province. They have their own language, practice Islam and have a distinct cultural identity from the rest of the Chinese population. Since 2016, the Chinese government has made efforts to weaken Uighur cultural identity, encouraging Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang, inserting some Han Chinese into Uighur families, replacing Uighur with Mandarin in schools, curtailing their religious freedoms, splitting apart families, destroying cultural and historic sites and placing restrictions on beard length and baby names. 

The reason for these restrictions? Separatist violence, according to Beijing. Xinjiang has been a region fraught with violence over the past decade. In 2008, a truck was driven into a group of paramilitary officers in Kashgar, in the far West of the province, killing 16. This was the first of four attacks that year blamed on Uighur separatists of the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’. Riots followed in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, mirroring riots in Lhasa, Tibet the previous year. 2014 also saw numerous terrorist attacks blamed on Uighur separatists. In Yunnan Province, mass stabbings in Kunming train station claimed 33 lives and injured over 100. In Yarkand, Xinjiang, an estimated 100 people died in terror attacks that summer, the precise details of which are unknown. In response, China clamped down on security in the region, framing it as part of the global war on terror.

Then in August 2018, UN experts accused China of detaining over a million Uighurs in Xinjiang in ‘re-education camps’. The Chinese government denied the accusation entirely, stating that they were only rehabilitation centres for minor criminals. However, one month later, the story changed. Instead of flat-out denying their existence, the camps were re-framed as voluntary vocational training camps. Combating terrorism was once again in the forefront. They were there to “eliminate terrorism activities before they can take place” according to the governor of Xinjiang. 

Survivors who had fled China told a different story, one that was corroborated by this weekend’s leak. The ‘China Cables’ revealed details about the size and level of security in the camps, in which the detainees were to be monitored 24/7. Reasons for being detained in the first place could be as minor as owning a Quran and the minimum detention duration was one year, after which they were to be transferred to another level of labour skills training camps for further six months. Contact with family was strictly limited and could be curtailed for punishment. The key goal was “ideological transformation,” which was measured in a points system. There have also been allegations of torture, rape and abuse by survivors.

Mass incarceration and the elimination of a cultural identity do not seem to be the most effective ways of ending domestic terrorism. It is more likely that the crackdown on the Uighurs is to an extent part of a larger pattern of consolidation within China. In recent years, various regions with cultural political autonomy have been met with strong opposition and push-back by Beijing. Tibet and the practically autonomous Republic of China (Taiwan) have long been regions of conflict and tension for China. Most recently, protests erupted in Hong Kong after attempts to bring it closer to mainland China, which has led to an increasingly volatile situation. In light of this, China may have been desperate to bring Xinjiang under control to consolidate its North-western periphery. However, its heavy-handed approach has resulted in the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic-religious group since Nazi Germany.

Image: via Iran Daily

By Reuben Bharucha

Film and TV Editor