Issue 3, Semester 2
In Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world is taking place.
Xinjiang is the largest province in China, and contains China’s largest reserves of fossil fuels and natural gas, and more than half the country’s cotton. Bordering Mongolia, Russia, and Central Asia, the region formed part of the historical Silk Road trade route linking China to the Eastern Mediterranean. Today, it is a lynchpin of the Chinese government’s trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative. While little of the province is habitable, it is the historical homeland of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people who are almost entirely Muslim. They are the descendants of the Turks who remained in Xinjiang while other tribes moved further westward into Asia and Eastern Europe.
Economic segregation, forced ethnic and cultural assimilation, and crackdowns on religious observance have resulted in inter-ethnic violence between the state and the Uyghur population, as well as gross inequality in a region which experiences some of the fastest growth economic growth in China.
Since 1949, where Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic of China, there have been many attempts by the Beijing Government at suppressing any separatist sentiment. The State has incentivised the mass migration of Han Chinese people to the region through higher wages and subsidised living costs. As recently as last year, there have been reports of programmes to incentivise intermarriage between Uyghurs and ethnic Chinese peoples, with couples getting 10,000 yuan. There is a lack of halal food when working for better-paying organisations, as well as the need for fluency in Mandarin.
In addition to such assimilationist policies, the state has also engaged in processes of arbitrary detention. Within the last few years, up to a million Uyghurs have been detained in re-education camps, without any due process. Instead, detention occurs on the orders of the police or party officials. The Chinese government denies the existence of the camps, with the Foreign Ministry claiming that it ‘
Equally concerning is the existence of a police state that engages in heavy surveillance of the Uyghur population. Passports have been confiscated to prevent flight from China. In some cities there are new police stations every 300 metres. In one city, all shops and restaurants must have part-time police in them. At checkpoints, policemen scan identity cards, take photographs, fingerprint and iris scans. Phones must be unlocked and police download their contents, women must remove their headscarves. Cars and motorbikes must be fitted with GPS tracking systems. DNA databases have been compiled from blood samples. New technology like smart glasses with facial recognition systems alert the authorities when targeted individuals move 300 metres beyond designated “safe areas”. With such heavy targeting of Uyghurs, it is no wonder that one in five arrests in China takes place in Xinjiang.
In response to Chinese persecution, Uyghur separatism and resistance has grown. As has been the case with every Muslim population subjugated by colonial and imperialist powers, only a minority have resorted to attacks on civilians and police. Last year three Uyghur men with knives killed five people and injured others before being shot dead by police, allegedly after an Uyghur family was punished for holding prayers at their home.
The majority of Uyghurs have used peaceful means of resistance however, often expressing opposition through their Islamic identity. The State’s response has been to come down harder, targeting the expression of Uyghur culture. Uyghurs are now banned from growing long beards, giving their children Muslim names, and sending their children to Muslim schools. The teaching of their language, Uyghurce, has disappeared. Women wearing face veils are reported to the police. Events like Islamic weddings and circumcisions are regarded as suspect. Residents are incentivised to spy on each other – with rewards reaching 200 times the local income per person.
The constant oppression of the Uyghurs will inflame further Uyghur animosity towards the Han Chinese people, who make up 40% of Xinjiang’s population. The Chinese government has been successful in silencing both internal and international critics of their oppression of the Uyghurs. With China ascendant and America further from being a champion human rights than at any time in recent memory, countries like Australia – and we as future decision-makers – should inform ourselves and speak out for the Uyghurs.
This is the work of a JD student.