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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6 Responses to MICHAEL CLARKE. Some Context on Xinjiang

  1. In the New York Review of Books a few years ago I read a report on a book by an American businessman who had spent many productive years in China and considered that it would be a stronger country if it left Tibet to the Tibetans and Xinjiang to the Uighurs. I think I would have made a note of the title and maybe one of these days I will find it.

  2. Gregory Clark says:

    Of course I regard the imprisonment and indoctrination of over one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang as ugly (‘not very attractive’ is a double entendre which I assumed readers would understand). But following the 2009 killings in Urumchi and elsewhere that targeted Han Chinese, Beijing surely had to adopt some kind of policy to prevent things from getting out of hand. I said that its counter-measures were heavy-handed (just as its previous policy of natural assimilation had been unduly optimistic) and would be delighted some other credible alternative was available. Can Michael Clarke suggest something that did not have the risk of creating a Chechnya situation?

  3. R. N. England says:

    I am not at all surprised that the National Security College, ANU, whose name reeks of laundered sponsorship by the western arms lobby, employs those whose work suits its political agenda.

  4. Mark Freeman says:

    Thanks Michael, I think we can all agree that lots of people are being detained and it’s not a good thing. If the problems are as minimal as you say, why are the PRC government spending such a large amount on it ? Surely there’s an argument that the problem is small and they want to keep it that way in light of what’s happened in neighbouring countries.

    I agree that there are probably better ways to manage matters but I also have my doubts. I don’t share your implied views about religion being benign and the CCP pointedly never has and makes no bones about it.

    The most important bit is that people are being detained not slaughtered. On that metric China is way ahead of both the Russians and western alliance we’ve been a part of. It also gives hope for diplomacy and people’s futures.

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    Many thanks for saying this Michael.

  6. Sam Lee says:

    Prof Clark’s moralising about Prof Clarke’s choice of words (“not very attractive”) seems to bear no self-awareness about his own choice of words (“anti-state and anti-Chinese violence” and “attacks”) referring to the use of violence against ordinary Chinese citizens in pursuit of political aims, which by any reasonably balanced definition would recall the word “terrorism”. Half this article in fact is about redefining and euphemising extremism as pertains to the Chinese’s experience of it before Prof Clark’s final paragraphs denouncing such redefinition.

    This is the context for those of us whose lives and inherent rights ARE impacted by the word-fighting between two professors (which emphatically, is necessary and an intrinsic part of any democratic society). Yes words matter. They matter not just in the phrasing for propaganda and brainwashing, they are much more dangerous in a democratic system where the right opinion can strip one’s right to fair representation in government, to career advancement especially in cutting edge areas and influential positions, in accessing justice especially if such justice were to be delivered democratically by the judgment of one’s peers, and to the pursuit of those intrinsic rights of free association, freedom of speech and thought, freedom from the presumption of guilt by race, freedom from oppression especially from daily defamation, smearing of reputation by race and negativity generated in media accessible by the masses, and the freedom from the threat of violence even those delivered by larrikins who think you can’t take a joke, mate.

    Context and perspective is important. Sometimes one can be so twisted and so involved in oneself that loving one’s neighbour can turn into a Crusade.

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