Protests are growing around the world over the forced detention and “re-education” of the Muslim Uighurs in China’s far west Xinjiang Province. It is important to frame our response in terms of our commitment to the protection of civil and political rights. The Uighurs are not terrorists as Beijing propaganda has painted them.
Large numbers of Uighurs and other Muslims from ethnic groups in far west China are being detained and forcibly re-educated. This is simply the latest demonstration of tension between the Chinese State and Islam. Of the five officially recognised religions in China, Islam presents the most problems to the State, and has done so for centuries. There are over twenty million Muslims in China, constituting 1-2 percent of the population. They have been there since the seventh century and can be found in every province but particularly in the west and northwest. They are mostly moderate Sunnis. In history, their uprisings have not been inspired by religious fervour but by famine, by loss of traditional lands to Han migrants, and by heavy-handed attempts by the government to regulate religion and cultural practices. A recent article in the New York Review of Books by long-term China resident Ian Johnson, who researches the practice of religion in that country, gives a useful summary of the historical background https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/11/23/the-uighurs-and-chinas-long-history-of-trouble-with-islam/.
The nineteenth century saw several large-scale uprisings against a background of economic disasters and the collapse of the Qing imperial rule. The Nian Rebellion in north China lasted over a decade. The Du Wenxiu Rebellion in southern Yunnan Province was put down in 1872 after sixteen years. In the 1860s and 70s some Sufi Hui people in the north mounted the First and Second Dungan Rebellions.
Xinjiang Province was incorporated into the Chinese empire in the 18th century. It had been home to several Muslim ethnic groups whose civilisations dated back many centuries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were some desultory attempts to wrest back control of parts of the province with support from Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union (part of the Great Game). When a deal was done between the Soviet Union and the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the leadership of the East Turkestan Republic perished in a mysterious plane crash.
In the early years of the PRC, Xinjiang religious practices and local cultures were accorded fairly liberal treatment, while army units were settled in the north and state farms established, but later political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Socialist Education Movement disrupted the region’s traditional economy and created tensions between Han settlers and local people. During the Cultural Revolution there were armed clashes involving tens of thousands of Han people. Only after Deng Xiaoping initiated political and economic reforms across the country did peace return. Even so, ethnic relations were fraught, as I personally have witnessed on several visits from the 1980s onwards.
The Uighur people have cultural and linguistic links with Turkey but the Turkish government, even before the ascension of Urdogan, has not supported them politically or financially. Among several outside aid donors, we note the Aga Khan Foundation, which has links to Iran through Shia Nizari Ismailism. It has contributed to poverty alleviation and built mosques and schools in Xinjiang but Shia have only gained a minor foothold in the region. Generally, Uighurs have not been involved in international terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS before this decade, although Beijing was quick to sign up to George Bush’s “War On Terror” in 2001. As the Chinese domestic economy has grown, Uighurs did not think of joining radical Muslims to their south and east but instead moved east to work in the booming industries along the sea coast.
Things changed dramatically in 2009 when there were large-scale riots in Urumqi, the provincial capital. These were provoked by an allegation – later denied by the authorities – that two Uighur men had raped a girl in south China. Police action in Urumqi received wide publicity in China. The government blamed the disturbances on the overseas Uyghur Congress, which opposes what it calls Chinese occupation of Xinjiang, and which in turn is funded by the CIA through the US National Endowment for Democracy.
From 2009 onwards there has been increased surveillance and repression of Uighurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, culminating in the present detention and “re-education” of thousands. From 2016 the State has also implemented the “Becoming Family” policy under which Uighurs must host Han Chinese in their homes for five days every two months http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1126378.shtml. All these policies are blamed on “extremism,” “separatism,” and “terrorism.”
There have indeed been terrorist incidents carried out by Uighurs. Such actions increase under oppression. Recently some Uighurs have left to fight in Syria but a Chinese official envoy admits he has no accurate figure https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-china/china-envoy-says-no-accurate-figure-on-uighurs-fighting-in-syria-idUSKCN1L508G. Chinese government repression however predates this involvement and is clearly based mainly on “separatist” activities. As for “extremism,” official documents do not define this term. It appears to cover Islamic observances such as eating halal food only and praying five times a day.
The international community is increasingly concerned about the plight of the Uighurs. Scholars around the world have signed a statement condemning their mass detention https://concernedscholars.home.blog. A US State Department spokesperson has said that the US is considering sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. The Australian representative at the recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council considering China’s report on human rights called on China to end detention and allow foreign media and officials to visit Xinjiang https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/162/99/PDF/G0916299.pdf?OpenElement.
Australia has maintained a dialogue with China on human rights issues and, although there has been no formal meeting since 2014, the process must surely be reactivated soon. Xinjiang will have to be on the agenda. Talks would be more effective if those engaged understood the historic background to the present situation.
Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95. She was the founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17.