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As China detains Muslim Uyghurs, its economic clout mutes world criticism

Why We Wrote This

Has China simply become too powerful for the world to protest its human rights abuses? A vast surveillance and detention campaign against a Muslim minority is putting that to the test.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Armed police keep watch in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. Government figures gathered by China Human Rights Defenders, a US-based non-profit, show that 21 percent of all arrests in China last year were made in Xinjiang, though only 1.5 percent of the country’s population lives there.

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New evidence suggests that China’s crackdown in its frontier Xinjiang region, home to the Muslim Uyghur minority group, has reached unprecedented proportions. As many as 1 million people are interned and subjected to political re-education, according to recent reports, and daily life is carried out under one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems. Beijing insists restrictions in Xinjiang are aimed at curbing Islamic extremism, though practices as simple as wearing a veil in public or naming children Mohammed have been forbidden. But as awareness grows worldwide, will it turn to action? In a flurry of statements late last month, senior US officials including Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo denounced the Uyghurs’ treatment. Global response, however, has been muted – including in majority-Muslim countries that have leaped to the defense of the Palestinians or the Rohingya. As China’s clout spreads worldwide, governments eager for a share of its trade and investment may be hesitant to alienate Beijing. “The reason things have gone as far as they have is that China saw no one was going to object,” says Peter Irwin, of the World Uyghur Congress.

Eighteen months after the first reports of a major security crackdown in China’s frontier province of Xinjiang, the world is beginning to wake up to evidence that Beijing is forcing an unprecedented detention and indoctrination program on the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.

A United Nations panel in mid-August heard what one member called “credible reports” that as many as 1 million Uyghurs are being interned and subjected to political re-education. And in a flurry of statements late last month, several senior US officials and politicians condemned China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, citing the same figures.

“It’s an attempt to brainwash an entire people because of their religious and political beliefs,” says Nicolas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International. “The policy aims to marginalize and stamp out an entire ethnic group.”

But awareness is not translating into action – not yet, at any rate.

“The world is starting to pay a little more attention to the fate of the Uyghurs,” adds Mr. Bequelin, but few governments have spoken out and none have taken any firm steps to oppose the campaign. And that may be simply because, as China’s clout spreads worldwide, countries eager for a share of its trade and investment do not dare alienate Beijing. Even governments that have previously spoken up for vulnerable Muslim populations around the world have remained silent, underscoring China’s increasingly pivotal role beyond its neighborhood.

“Governments are not willing to speak up because they would be risking too much economically,” says Peter Irwin, advocacy director for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC.)

Big Brother gets bigger

At the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva earlier this month, Vice Chair Gay McDougall said China had made Xinjiang “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a kind of no-rights zone.” Critics fear the pervasive surveillance state erected in the region may be a testing ground for broader use elsewhere in the country.

Beijing insists that its harsh policies in the restive, mainly Muslim province are aimed at curbing Islamic extremism. Uyghur separatists have staged sporadic bomb and knife attacks, and an editorial in the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper argued recently that Xinjiang “has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’ ” because of “the high intensity of regulations.”

In Geneva, Chinese delegate Hu Lianhe denied that as many as a million people were being held, but explained that “those deceived by religious extremism” were being sent to “vocational education and employment training centers.” He did not say how many such people had been sent to such centers.

But new evidence suggests that the crackdown has reached unprecedented proportions, with over 1,000 detention centers built or enlarged since early 2017. Former detainees have reported being obliged to spend their days reciting Chinese laws, watching pro-government propaganda films, swearing loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and renouncing tenets of their faith. 

Thomas Peter/Reuters
People mingle in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. A UN panel in mid-July heard what one member called “credible reports” that as many as 1 million Uyghurs are being interned and subjected to political re-education.

Outside these centers, Xinjiang regulations ban “abnormal” beards and veils in public, as well as certain names, including Mohammed. Uighur areas have been flooded with police, and live under one the most sophisticated and pervasive surveillance systems in the world. CCTV cameras use facial recognition technology, and authorities are collecting and registering residents’ DNA and iris scans, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

“It is likely that experiences learned in the re-education program will inform social re-engineering practices in the rest of the country,” predicts Adrian Zenz, a Xinjiang expert at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany. “In a more subtle and refined way they could be used against more stubborn pockets of Muslim or Christian sentiment.”

Dr. Zenz published research three months ago – based on studies of Xinjiang government procurement bids, eyewitness accounts, and interviews with officials – estimating the number of Uyghurs undergoing “transformation through education” (as Chinese officials call it) at possibly 1.1 million. That is around 10 percent of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. 

The Chinese government has offered no legal justification for the detentions, nor is it clear whether there are any official criteria governing detainees’ release.

“The goal is to produce long-term change through intimidation in an entire ethnic and religious population,” Dr. Zenz says. “It is hard to compare it with anything else” in recent history.

US 'deeply troubled'

The Chinese campaign has caught little international attention until now, partly because before Zenz’s report most evidence was anecdotal, and from politically motivated groups like the WUC. Foreign journalists have found it almost impossible to report from Xinjiang, and Uyghur exiles are afraid to speak for fear of what might happen to relatives in China.

But last month, in connection with a State Department-organized international conference on religious freedom, US officials broke their silence with a spate of comments.

Though President Trump’s administration has shown little interest in human rights abroad, and has a history of controversial comments toward Islam, “religious issues are something that the Republican Party very easily gets behind,” says James Millward, an expert in Uyghur affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. “The US has traditionally been concerned about religious freedoms abroad.”

At the conference, Vice President Mike Pence accused Beijing of “holding … possibly millions of Uighur Muslims in so-called re-education camps, where they’re forced to undergo round-the-clock political indoctrination.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leveled a similar accusation, and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, speaking at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that the Uyghurs’ “religious and ethnic identity is literally being extinguished by the Chinese government.”

The day before, a senior US diplomat had told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that “the United States is deeply troubled by the Chinese government’s worsening crackdown” in Xinjiang and called on other countries to join in Washington’s denunciations.

“We have been quite disappointed at the lack of response,” says the WUC’s Mr. Irwin. “The reason things have gone as far as they have is that China saw no one was going to object so they pushed things further.”

European diplomats say they raised the Uyghurs’ plight at a human-rights dialogue with Chinese officials in Beijing last month, but that was as far as the issue went.

Majority-Muslim reactions

Most striking is the silence from Muslim countries and organizations that have in the past leaped to the defense of other Muslim peoples, such as the Palestinians or the Rohingya.

“Over the years there have been really muted reactions from the Middle East” to events in Xinjiang, says Dawn Murphy, an expert in China’s relations with the Middle East at the US Air War College in Alabama.

Many Arab countries, not eager to draw attention to their own human rights records, “appreciate China’s respect for the principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs,” Professor Murphy suggests. “And looking broadly at their relations with China, they have likely decided that their economic and political interests are more important” than the Uyghurs’ human rights.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has said nothing about Xinjiang since 2015, when it protested a government edict forbidding civil servants and students from observing the holy fast of Ramadan.

Closer to China, the last Malaysian government cooperated with Beijing to deport a number of Uyghur asylum-seekers. In return, says Ahmad Farouk Musa, head of the Islamic Renaissance Front think tank in Kuala Lumpur, the Chinese government appears to have paid off significant debts held by the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

“Business speaks louder than a humanitarian crisis,” Dr. Musa says. But the new Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamed, has promised a more independent line towards Beijing, Musa points out. “Now we are not scared to stand up to China.”

Meanwhile the Turkish government – traditionally the region’s strongest supporter of the Uyghurs, their ethnic cousins – has been tight-lipped over the “re-education” program. The increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, turning East in his search for allies, is seeking Turkish membership in the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and is thought unlikely to needle Beijing amid a bitter political and economic dispute with Washington.

Some activists say they still hope that as news from Xinjiang spreads, it will spur pressure on China, despite Beijing’s economic clout.

In the past, the WUC’s Mr. Irwin points out, “states did not really believe the figures we were talking about. Now that there is a firmer basis for them we hope there will be more of a reaction. The issue is filtering up the system in the US, at least.”

In November, China is due to undergo its five-yearly “periodic review” by the UN Human Rights Committee. Uyghur activists hope their nascent momentum will “push the international community to make strong statements” at that meeting, Irwin says.

“But getting governments to pass laws” to punish China, he adds ruefully, “is another story.”

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