Beijing’s Xinjiang behavior


The Chinese government says it is wrestling with three forces of evil in its northwestern province of Xinjiang. These it lists as terrorism, extremism and separatism. No one could question its dedication to eradicating the scourge of terrorism to which all civilized nations have committed themselves. And separatism clearly represents a danger in a country of such varied ethnicities as China. Just as the United States sets out to instill patriotism in all its citizens, whose forebears lived all over the world, so Beijing wants all its people to be proud of their country and its long and remarkable history.

Where the Chinese approach to Xinjiang becomes murky, if not indeed troubling, is in what the authorities term “extremism”. The restrictions imposed on the ethnic Uighur population of this supposedly “autonomous” province include men having “abnormally” long beards, women wearing veils in public places and anyone refusing to watch state television channels. And the compass of “extremist behavior” runs even wider. Uighurs can actually be arrested for speaking their own Turkic language, refusing to give blood and DNA samples and even arguing with officials or disobeying their instructions.

These are far from petty proscriptions. There is indisputable evidence that Uighur deemed to have broken the rules are immediately seized. The fates of some of these people have not been established, giving rise to fears they may have been tortured and killed. It is, however, known that a large number have been bundled off to internment camps. Beijing angrily rejected reports earlier this year that up to a million ethnic Uighur had been interned in vast camps. This week, however, though not admitting the numbers held in the camps, a senior local official admitted their existence.

The chairman of the Xinjiang government, Shohrat Zakir said that the detainees had been undergoing a “vocational education and training program” which had been established under a new Chinese law. Zakir said that the purpose of the program was to allow “trainees to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism”.

In that Beijing would seem to be copying the Kingdom’s ground-breaking program to rehabilitate terrorists who have not been directly involved in horrific crimes, this terrorist reeducation is clearly beneficial. Unfortunately, the government’s definition of “religious extremism” is more open to criticism. It cannot be extremist for a man to sport a beard or a modest woman to wear a veil. Yet these are the grounds on which Uighurs are being picked up off the street and sent to these camps.

Moreover, if there are indeed around a million Uighur incarcerated in “re-education” stockades, it is frankly impossible to believe that every one of them has been involved in terrorism. It would seem far more likely that many of these prisoners have been condemned for their adherence to their Muslim faith. The Chinese constitution guarantees the freedom of “normal religious activity”. There is nothing abnormal about the country’s largest Muslim minority performing their Islamic duty.

Beijing is seeking to undermine the Uighur on their own lands by sending majority Han Chinese to effectively colonize the region. To deal with the highly predictable local pushback they are using these “re-education” camps. As in George Orwell’s 1984, Beijing wants Uighur “Winston Smiths” to realize that they love Big Brother.