On July 5, 2009, unrest erupted in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in response to the murder of two Uyghur laborers by Han colleagues in Guangdong. Clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, including the police, lasted until July 7, 2009, resulting in the deaths of nearly 200 people. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used the language of extremism and terrorism to justify its assault on the region’s Muslim population.
Xi Jinping, on his first visit to Xinjiang as president in 2014, labelled the region the “front line against terrorism.” During and after his trip, in a series of conversations with party officials, Xi laid the groundwork for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism.” He urged his comrades to show “absolutely no mercy.”
No mercy has been shown. In subsequent years life in Xinjiang has been radically transformed for Muslims. Surveillance has been stepped up and internment camps, euphemistically called “vocational education and training centers” by the regime, introduced. Yet the party line remains the same. All of these “efforts” are made, as one spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government put it last month, in the name of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism.
Twelve years on from the unrest in Urumqi the Chinese government, through their media mouthpieces, have patted themselves on the back for bringing about stability. Authorities claim that as of now “Xinjiang has had zero cases of violence and terrorism for four straight years” and that “the infiltration of extremism has been effectively curbed.”
Deploying this narrative, one which ups the threat to China and its people’s security, gives the CCP’s policies both domestic and international legitimacy. For a foreign audience Beijing has even attempted to present their actions in Xinjiang as part of the global War on Terror, launched by the United States and its allies following the 9/11 attacks.
Such a comparison is unwarranted. China’s actions in Xinjiang have more in common with its policies in other potentially rebellious regions, including Tibet and Hong Kong, than with other countries’ battles with Islamist extremism.
For one thing, as Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn has pointed out, “jihadis have been largely quiet about the Chinese concentration camps and brutal repression of fellow Muslims.” For another, so much of what Beijing is doing in Xinjiang is about aggressively assimilating Uyghurs, and other Muslims, rather than security. Why else would the CCP target non-extreme expressions of faith and culture?
According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, whose researchers analyzed satellite imagery from the region, largely from 2017 onward over half of Xinjiang’s mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies. The Uyghur script, based on an Arabic alphabet, has been outlawed on street signs, in restaurants, and in other public spaces. Beijing’s policies, in true totalitarian fashion, have even impacted people’s lifestyles choices. For example, restrictions on “abnormally” long beards and the wearing of veils in public places have been introduced. As part a “Becoming Family” campaign, launched in 2016, Communist Party cadres have been dispatched to live with Muslim families – meaning, in the words of Human Rights Watch senior researcher Maya Wang, these families were “literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eye of the state.”
If the depth of China’s intrusions did not already give the lie to Beijing’s national security claims, then their breadth should underline the point further. Despite ostensibly being in response to violent attacks carried out by Uyghurs, the CCP targets all of China’s Muslim minorities. For example the Hui, an ethnic group previously seen as more integrated and less political, have begun to experience interference, similar to that experienced by the Uyghurs, in their religious and cultural practices.
All this points to sinicization, not security, driving China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang. Rather than routing out terrorists Beijing is attempting to drive out ideas and symbols that they deem insufficiently Chinese.
Regardless of this evidence, a growing number of countries appear to have bought Beijing’s line or, at the very least, are prepared to regurgitate it. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan does not even try to pretend otherwise. “What they [Chinese officials] say about the programs in Xinjiang, we accept it,” he remarked in a recent interview.
Pakistan, sadly, is not alone. Last year, a coalition of countries rallied to defend the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Xinjiang at the United Nations. Speaking on behalf of 45 countries the Cuban delegate proclaimed: “We note with appreciation that China has undertaken a series of measures in response to threats of terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law to safeguard the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”
The speech also dismissed accusations of human rights abuses as disinformation, while simultaneously stressing the importance of state sovereignty (in other words: nothing to see here but even if there was it’s none of your business). Similar remarks were echoed at the U.N. by Belarus last month, this time on behalf of 65 countries.
Fortunately, some liberal democracies have challenged China at the United Nations. In fact, Belarus’ recent intervention was in direct response to a joint statement, delivered by Canada, expressing grave concerns about the situation in Xinjiang. At the Human Rights Council Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the abuses in the region as “taking place on an industrial scale.” His U.S. counterparts under two administrations have labelled it genocide.
As well as drawing attention to serious allegations against the Chinese government, liberal democracies should do more to challenge Beijing’s narrative that their policies are designed to root out terrorism and extremism. That’s all the more important as China attempts to present its concentration camps and Western countries’ de-radicalization problems as one and the same.
Terms like “terrorism” and “extremism” have great weight and need to be used carefully. Other countries should critique how China is using them. No doubt some would question how Western governments have deployed such words. Yet whatever one may think of Western counter-extremism policies, it is nothing like what is happening in Xinjiang. By adopting this language of the global war on terror China has sought a cover, a cloak of protection, from outrage at the crimes they are committing. China’s fast and loose use of “isms” can no longer cover up their true motives.