Numerous researches and reports claimed in the couple of past years that about 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang (northwestern China) have been involuntarily sent to internment camps.
The Chinese Communist Party came clear about the existence of those camps – which it nevertheless characterizes as “vocational education camps” – in mid-2018, following pressure from the United Nations and the proliferation of satellite images that proved the government’s prior denials false.
A German researcher, Adrian Zenz, found that the Chinese government had initiated constructing the camps in Xinjiang in March 2017. By August 2018, U.N. experts estimated the number of the camps rose to 1200.
In early May 2019, an investigation led by the Guardian and Bellingcat disclosed new evidence of a further large-scale form of repression on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang: the government’s unexplained destruction of several Islamic worship places throughout the province.
More than two dozen Islamic religious sites have been “partly or completely demolished since 2016”, the investigation found. The satellite imagery revealed that two pilgrimage sites (the Imam Asim and Imam Jafar Sadiq shrines in Hotan, southwestern Xinjiang) and 31 mosques underwent substantial structural damage, if not having been entirely erased. Some of the sites, such as the Yutian Aitika mosque, dated from as far back as the 13th century.
Second Class Citizens
Home to over 12 million Uyghurs, Xinjiang borders Muslim-majority Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as Mongolia and Russia to the east and north, and India to the south.
Uyghurs, as well as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz (other Muslim minorities present in Xinjiang), speak Turkic and hold cultural particularisms that are by far more akin to neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan than to the rest of China. The vast majority don’t speak Mandarin Chinese, and their language is rather written in Arabic characters.
The region that is today Xinjiang began going through major conversions to Islam in the 10th century. Xinjiang, meaning “new land” (or “new border”), was named as such by the Qing dynasty when it was reconquered in the 18th century.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, autonomist movements in Xinjiang – Muslim and Pan-Turkist for the most part – came into sight, as they nurtured ideals of a distinct identity and Islamic nationalism. But the ascension of Mao Zedong to power in 1949, and policies before and during the Cultural Revolution, placated their aspirations of re-founding what they denominate “East Turkestan”.
The destruction of mosques under Xi Jinping (sitting president since 2012) in Xinjiang recalls the burning of shrines during the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But it is particularly under Xi that Muslim minorities in the province have known so much repression.
There are more than 20 million Muslims throughout China and over 35,000 mosques nationwide. Yet the case of Xinjiang appears to be particular. Some analysts are convinced that these practices draw from Xi’s broader design of making of China the world’s leading power.
The Geopolitics Behind Xinjiang’s Case
Specialized in mining and agricultural production (cotton and tomatoes, inter alia), Xinjiang is an energy hub as well. Its reserves of coal, natural gas and other fossil resources account for over 20% of China’s energy reserves, whereas it holds over 38% of the country’s coal mines. With some 24 coal fields throughout Xinjiang, local authorities now invest in liquefied coal —as well as in setting some of the country’s major solar and wind farms.
Most importantly, however, Xinjiang stands in a prime, strategic geopolitical position, compared to other provinces. The most significant Silk Road transport corridors (gas and oil pipelines, highways and railroads) pass through the province, reaching as far as the Indian Ocean and even Europe.
To China, the stability of its western bordering countries is essential. It relies on Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as its sine qua non Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) allies. Regional uprisings of radical Islamism not only could bear upon Xinjiang, but could also imply a U.S. interference at close quarters.
Hence, perhaps, the draconian security measures and the repressive “Sinicization” policies that the government put into action in a context of “fighting the Three Evils” —terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, as defined by the Party. Whatever concession, be it solely ideological or ideally territorial, seems out of the question to China.
Xi Jinping’s “Strike-Hard” Security Campaign
After his becoming president in 2012, Xi Jinping initiated stern security measures in Xinjiang, leading a “Strike-Hard” campaign. Authorities in the province have reportedly doubled the security budget since 2014, and law enforcement services have recruited more than 90,000 officers between summer 2016 and 2017 only (12 times more than in 2009).
The province’s surveillance apparatus is one of the country’s largest and most complex. In 2016, the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security confirmed having implemented the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” (IJOP).
The platform gathers intricate and wide-ranging information of individuals from their smartphones, computers or even security checkpoints and CCTV cameras with facial recognition. It identifies and classifies subjects according to their level of loyalty and anticipate the security risks they may represent. In many cases, since 2013, the Party even deployed “fanghuiju” officials, who visit a given family and stay with them to gather data, which they later submit to IJOP.
Criteria of suspicion include staying in one of the 26 “risky countries” (Muslim-majority countries), speaking with foreigners or downloading WhatsApp. Wearing a beard, not drinking alcohol or not smoking, eating halal, fasting during Ramadan, not eating pork or giving one’s children Muslim names deemed subversive, like Mohammed, are also indicators of potential risk.
Although about 1.5% of China’s population lives in Xinjiang, 20% of the whole country’s criminal arrests took place in Xinjiang in 2017. Organizations like the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) had claimed most of the terror attacks that took place in the province in recent decades. The Communist Party even accused the Al-Qaida-affiliated organization of instigating the 2009 Uruqmi riots that had left 197 dead.
Other following attacks in Xinjiang were of significant casualties too, but the year 2014 was the deadliest, with over 300 victims of terrorism.