Beijing’s Uyghur policy violates human rights, sets back war on terror

Uyghurs demonstrate in front of UN in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov 6, 2018

BY TED GOVER
OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
11/29/18 11:00 AM EST

China’s draconian campaign against its Uyghur population in the western Xinjiang Province violates human rights and has failed in its objective to curb Islamic extremism. This policy blunder on the part of Beijing has provided a self-fulfilling prophecy of fueling violence, dealing a setback to the war on terror.

The extensive system of internment camps that China has constructed for its Uyghur Muslim population — believed by some analysts to be the largest network of detention centers in existence today — is the source of widespread mistreatment of an estimated 2 million Uyghurs, or just over 11 percent of China’s Uyghur population, according to estimates.

This extreme approach to address Beijing’s stated problem with Islamic extremism has been wrong in spirit, ineffective in outcomes and a public relations disaster for China. It also is beginning to complicate efforts in the fight against terror by driving young men to the ranks of ISIS fighters.

Analysts estimate that the number of Uyghur detention centers under construction in Xinjiang has been increasing over the past two years.  

According to some Uyghurs who have been able to escape China, there are accounts of whole families who have been taken away, and individuals can be detained for nearly any reason. Some have shared that merely citing an Islamic verse is enough to justify imprisonment in some cases.  

Scant are reports of Uyghurs being released from the camps over the past three years, and Chinese police have a reputation of imprisoning and harassing family members of Uyghur activists who live overseas.

Some of the more common techniques used against the Uyghur detainees have involved patriotic training, indoctrination, de-extremification, brainwashing and attempts at assimilation — all conducted under the threat of violence.

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This current stepped-up campaign targeting Uyghurs is part of a longer, tension-filled rule of Xinjiang by Beijing that is approaching 70 years. Over this time, hostile policies have engendered resentment among locals. Controls have ranged from requiring all Uyghurs to turn in their passports to authorities; the banning of beards and use of Muslim names; and restricting of Quranic recitations, religious attire and various rites.

Chinese authorities deny they are forcibly imprisoning Uyghurs. They assert that the Uyghurs enjoy the camps and that the facilities make their lives more “colorful.” Footage on state TV shows Uyghurs attending job training and lectures on avoiding religious extremism; interviews quote detainees as being appreciative for the opportunities afforded by the programs.  

In their efforts to justify the camps, officials often cite the string of Uyghur attacks against Han Chinese in 2013-2014, in which over 100 were killed, and the continuing danger posed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uyghurs that the United States and Britain have listed as a terrorist organization.  

Chinese officials have explained that the tough approach towards the Uyghurs is necessary, given that measures used by the West have failed to stem Islamic terror on their own soil, such as the attacks in France and Belgium.

Uyghur resentment of Beijing, it can be argued, did not arise from a vacuum. In recent decades — reminiscent of what was done in Tibet 10-12 years earlier — state planning has resettled Han Chinese in what was Uyghur-majority land in Xinjiang, pushing Uyghurs out of employment opportunities and select residential properties. This has resulted in Uyghur demonstrations and in some cases, violence. 

While China seeks to degrade and control the Uyghurs by forcibly relocating their populations within China, the camps are part of a larger campaign to pacify Xinjiang. Bordering eight countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Mongolia), Xinjiang’s strategic value has risen in recent years with the advent of President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative that seeks to create a China-centered trading network by connecting Asia, Africa and Europe through state-backed infrastructure projects involving 71 countries.

Yet, the result of Beijing’s heavy-handed Uyghur policy has been a rise in the existing grievances against Beijing in China’s Uyghur community and, increasingly, among both Muslim countries and Islamist organizations. In some cases, these resentments have radicalized individuals and attracted the ire of hardened terrorist outfits in the broader Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For its part, China’s closest Muslim ally, Pakistan, has criticized Beijing’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs, warning that its repressive policies breed extremism.

There also are accounts of Uyghurs targeting their ire at Beijing by joining ISIS and other jihadi organizations. A February 2017 ISIS video featuring Uyghur militants in Iraq is one such example. The footage highlights an Uyghur soldier pledging allegiance to ISIS while threatening to flood China with “rivers of blood,” and heavily armed Uyghur children are shown training and murdering an “informant.”

Tragically, these developments indicate how Beijing’s severe policies towards its Uyghur community have had the opposite effect of their stated objective of eradicating Islamic extremism. This is especially unfortunate, given that China’s Uyghurs, while having resorted to violence in past years to protest their treatment, typically had shunned violent jihadist terror and alignment with international terror networks.

No longer, it appears.

For the sake of human rights and the prosecution of the war on terror, China must reform its repressive Uyghur policy. It’s time to end this violation of the Uyghur community’s dignity and reverse the dangerous trend of Islamic fundamentalism that Beijing’s abusive programs have unleashed in China and beyond its borders.

Ted Gover, Ph.D., writes on U.S.-Asian relations and foreign policy. He is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University in California, and an instructor of American government at Central Texas College, where he teaches political science for the U.S. Marines Corps at Camp Pendleton, California.

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