By Anurag Tripathi
Ethnic tension in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China is increasing. The tension is no longer limited to Xinjiang but is spreading across the border to other Central Asian states as well. According to media reports, over the past six years at least 1,000 people have died in ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.
To counter these tensions, the Chinese government introduced “re-education” camps in Xinjiang autonomous province. These re-education detention centres bear some resemblance to a typical prison. Around 12 Uyghur Muslims have died in “political re-education camps” recently in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harbouring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule. Researcher Adrian Lenz said there have been reports of "re-education" camps where over 200,000 "suspects" are being held in Muslim-majority Xinjiang.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), in telephonic interviews with Uyghurs, described how significant numbers of Uyghurs were sent to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Reacting to this news, five relatives of reporters from RFA's Uyghur service were detained by Chinese authorities on March 2, 2018. RFA said families were targeted in retaliation for its coverage of Beijing's crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs.
On May 17, 2018, the Washington Post reported an interview with Kayrat Samarkand (an Uyghur from Xinjiang), who was detained, saying his only “crime” was being a Muslim who had visited neighbouring Kazakhstan. He claimed he was detained by police, aggressively interrogated for three days, and then dispatched last November to a “reeducation camp” in Xinjiang for three months. According to a former camp inmate, reported by the independent.co.uk, Muslims were detained in “re-education camps” by China‘s government and made to eat pork and drink alcohol.
Today, in Xinjiang, growing a beard, praying regularly, or contacting people overseas can all lead to one being sentenced to prison or sent to these "re-education camps" to undergo "thought transformation through education". Chinese authorities are reportedly building “burial management centres,” complete with crematoria, throughout XUAR in a bid to subvert ethnic traditions and remove the religious context from funerary rites.
Citing credible reports, US lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.” A leading historian called it “cultural cleansing”.
The Xinjiang region of China today reflects an extreme manifestation of a new ‘Surveillance State’ by the all powerful regime of Xi Jinping. China recently deployed a flock of high-tech drones disguised to look like birds to step up surveillance levels in Xinjiang. Each drone is designed to move like a bird with wings and carries on board a small camera that beams images back to its controllers.
Resource-rich Xinjiang has been on the boil for some years following unrest among Uyghur Muslims over the increasing settlements there of majority Han Chinese from other provinces. The province has witnessed some of the deadliest terror attacks in China. The attacks were officially blamed on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a banned militant group linked to the al-Qaeda.
The situation on the ground, however, did not arise from nowhere. What we are witnessing today is the result of around six decades of policy designed to limit Uyghur political and cultural rights, while implementing the surveillance infrastructure necessary to enforce these very restrictions.
Given the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Xinjiang, the Chinese government encouraged internal migration of majority Han Chinese into this region since 1949. As per the 1953 census, Uyghurs comprised 75% of the entire population and Hans comprised 6%.
This had changed significantly in the 2000 census, which reported 45.21% Uyghurs and 40.57% Hans. Since the 1990s, accusations of marginalisation and discrimination against the Uyghur community by the government started fuelling ethnic clashes between them and the Hans.
It is clear that China is showing its authoritative attitude in the Xinjiang region and is focused on maintaining the region’s national integrity at any cost. They have been using militarist policies to suppress internal dissent and used culture and religion as a tool in their containment strategies.
The Uyghur conflict could get much bloodier than it is today. Some Uyghur Muslims were captured fighting alongside prominent militants groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and it is very likely there are Uyghurs in the ranks of ISIS/ISIL. If they survive, they will be imbued with confidence to fight, will be able to access large-scale financing and will, almost certainly, receive encouragement to take their fight to other regions of China as well.
(The author is Assistant Professor at Christ University, Bangalore. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)