In an example of terrible overreaction, scattered violence has triggered the abuse of an entire community. Months after news reports began circulating in the global media, the Chinese government has finally acknowledged the existence of a large network of “re-education camps” for Muslim citizens – ethnic minority Uighurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region.
China maintains that distorted notions have given the people in these camps separatist ambitions that threaten Chinese unity under the communist ideology. They must thus be shown the error of their ways, Beijing insists, for their own good and the good of national security. It has assured the detainees’ family members that their loved ones are being well cared for and are not subjected to forced labour, as has been alleged.
There are about 11 million ethnic Uighurs and one million Kazakhs in the historically contested Xinjiang region of northwestern China. They speak a Turkic language and see their roots as being embedded in a wholly different civilisation.
In recent years, activists in the region have sought independence, their struggle incorporating some elements of extremism and making room for radical Muslim groups to grow. This is what sparked the government backlash, but it appears to be a horrible overreaction.
Convinced its own policies are righteous and successful, the Chinese state is uninterested in the reasons behind the separatist beliefs. These are to be repressed at all costs, it has decided, and rebellious minds will have to be changed by any means necessary. Everyone who lives in China must be a patriot, loyal first to the Communist Party, speaking Mandarin and shunning “foreign” beliefs such as Islam.
Quite apart from the disturbing display of totalitarianism, the state authorities are clearly taking direct aim at Islam, the religion of the Uighurs and Khazaks. Media outlets have quoted former participants in the re-education programmes as describing physical abuse, military-style discipline, inadequate nutrition and severe confinement. Some have said they were tortured. Others say they were ordered to denounce their faith and spurn the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Given that word of these centres emerged nearly a year ago, there is cause to speculate that Beijing is admitting to their existence now because social media have penetrated society – and this story – so deeply. Such incidents can no longer remain hidden, and we now see a fairly clear picture of the Chinese authorities pursuing people for being “too religious”. The fact that Uighurs residing elsewhere in China have been ordered back to their home region adds much to the concern. This appears to be part of a long-term bout of repression, and the internment camps can hardly be described as makeshift.
China’s approach to the problem of an armed insurrection is nevertheless short-sighted and unsustainable. It will do nothing to address the multiple root causes, which entail a controversial migration policy that has opened Uighur land in Xinjiang to the majority ethnic Han, the erosion of their cultural and religious freedoms and, of course, stark, unmitigated Islamophobia.
Another important factor that must be considered is Beijing’s need to retain support and legitimacy in the eyes of the Han, by far the largest segment of the Chinese population. If this group perceives a violent threat to their own well-being and to the “Chinese dream” in which all citizens are supposed to share, it will certainly back government moves to eliminate that menace. By rounding up the Uighurs, Beijing is seen to be sternly acting on their behalf and dictating a harsh policy of national unity. the nation (thailand)