REPORTS SUBMITTED BY by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that up to 1 million Uighurs are being held in camps in Xinjiang ‘under the pretext’ of counterterrorism sent this Bystander to our archives. In April last year, we wrote:
China’s anti-terrorism policies are based on the same techniques as Beijing uses to crack down on political dissent, which may betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem being faced.
We have also noted the shortcomings of such an approach when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Religious restrictions only serve to feed a vicious cycle of repression and violence. If counter-terrorism policy aims to alleviate the conditions and reduce the underlying factors that give rise to radicalisation and recruitment among the domestic population, then characterising all Uighurs as being somewhere on the terrorist/separatist spectrum is not going to achieve that.
Beijing denies the allegations that Uighurs are held in detention camps and accused foreign media of distorting the Committee’s deliberations, but has made a rare admission that “those deceived by religious extremism… shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education”.
It could be in this particular case that an original accusation that the extensive state security presence in Xinjiang has turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp has morphed into an allegation of detention camps being set up. For the record, the UN committee’s published comment of concern was:
The arbitrary, prolonged and incommunicado mass detention of Uighurs under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism, with estimates of the numbers of detained ranging from “tens of thousands to upwards of a million”.
Such accusations are long-standing. There is no denying the massive security operation and mass state surveillance in Xinjiang that reaches into every aspect of daily life and that Uighurs are detained for what authorities call ‘preventive security measures’. The lower end of the range cited by the UN committee could be accommodated without the need for special camps.
Authorities argue that their actions have prevented Xinjiang becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’, That strikes this Bystander to be over-egging the pudding by the output of a battery farm.
True, Beijing has been fighting a low-level but increasingly violent insurgency in its natural-resources-rich western reaches for decades. Today, that self-evidently poses a threat to Xinjiang’s role as a critical logistics hub for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Yet, the 8.4 million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang, mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, are far from universally supportive of the tiny separatist groups that would like to re-establish a republic of East Turkestan.
They do resent the growing Han dominance of the province, which was once more four-fifths Uighur but is now majority Han Chinese, and a majority that does not understand why the new minority does not feel more grateful for being forcibly made more Chinese.