MICHAEL CLARKE. Some Context on Xinjiang

 Gregory Clark has claimed that we “badly” need more “context” on the situation in Xinjiang before criticising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Clark’s claim both ignores the weight of evidence as to the nature and scale of Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang and the implications of that repression  

Gregory Clark argues that “we badly need some context” on the current situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

He claims that “reports” of Beijing’s destruction of the religious and cultural heritage of the Uyghur people and “locking people up for months, years, of indoctrination” in re-education centres are “not very attractive” and demands that we answer the question of whether “Beijing should risk creating another Chechnya on its volatile central Asian frontiers” before criticising it’s repression.

These are astoundingly ill-informed claims to make.

First, there are no longer mere “reports” about Beijing’s new wave of repression in Xinjiang but abundant evidence for it derived from the Chinese government’s own documentation and procurement contracts for construction of re-education centres, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) own public and internal statements, and open source satellite imagery tracking the construction of re-education centres and the destruction of religious and cultural sites.

Second, to categorise what is occurring in Xinjiang as “not very attractive” is a monumental understatement. What is occurring in Xinjiang, as I’ve argued at length elsewhere, is effectively a cultural genocide in process that bears the hallmarks of the grimmest totalitarian precedents of the 20th century powered by the dystopian potentialities of 21st century technological innovation.

Additionally, not only are at least 1.5 million Uyghurs (and other Turkic Muslims) extra-judicially detained in re-education centres but children are separated from detained parents and placed in state-run orphanages while the re-education centre population is funnelled into forms of forced labour in closely proximate “industrial parks” where companies from throughout China have been incentivized to relocate to. This is not even to speak of the multiple reports of sexual violence perpetrated on the detainee population.

Third, the assertion that Beijing is combating the risk of “another Chechyna” has little basis in fact.

It is true that China has experienced terrorism in or connected to Xinjiang. Yet use of the “Chechnya” label invokes an image of a large-scale, well-armed and organised insurgency. A deeper investigation of the nature and extent of violence in the region since the early 1990s demonstrates that no such scenario has existed. Rather the anti-state and anti-Chinese violence that has occurred has largely been localised, connected to long-standing political, economic and social grievances, and characterised – as even internal statements by Xi Jinping reveal – by attacks with knives, axes and farm implements.

What has occurred however is that since 9/11 China has blamed incidents of violence in Xinjiang as the work of the al Qaeda-aligned (and originally Afghanistan-based) “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) and “Turkestan Islamic Party” (TIP). However, there is little evidence that either of these groups ever successfully mounted an attack in Xinjiang.

Nonetheless, as revealed in internal speeches by Xi Jinping, a number of high-profile terrorist attacks in or related to Xinjiang in 2013 (the so-called ‘SUV attack’ in Tiananmen Square) and 2014 (April 2014 Kunming railway station attack) served as the immediate catalyst for Xi’s declaration of a “people’s war against terrorism” that has resulted in the securitization of Uyghur identity.

According to the Xinjiang regional government’s own March 2017 regulations, for example, “terrorism” is defined as “speech and actions under the influence of extremism, that imbue radical religious ideology, and reject and interfere with normal production and livelihood” and can include fifteen “primary expressions” of “extremist thinking”, including wearing of beards, headscarves, veils and “irregular” name selection for Uyghur children.

“Extremism” is therefore clearly identified as inherent to everyday markers of Uyghur identity resulting in the suspicion and criminalization of “all religious behaviours, not just violent ones”.

Indeed, Uyghurs are now conceived of an almost biological threat to the health of society, with government officials describing Uyghur “terrorism” as a “tumour” to be eradicated and Islamic observance as akin to drug addiction. The “cure” for such pathologies, in Xi’s words is “a period of painful, interventionary treatment” in the re-education centres.

In light of this context, I would conclude by asking Gregory Clark whether he believes: (a) that mass repression of an entire ethnic group can be legitimately justified as a “counter-terrorism” measure; and (b) that the CCP still deserves the benefit of the doubt?

Dr Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, ANU. He is an internationally-recognised expert on the history and politics of Xinjiang, Uyghur separatism/nationalism, and Chinese foreign policy. He is the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia: A History (Routledge 2011) and editor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions (Hurst/Oxford University Press 2018).

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