Uyghur people are seen at a sunday market in Hotan City in southern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
Uyghurs at a market in Xinjiang, China is accused of trying to restrict the number of births among the ethnic group. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, hit back after reports of more than a million Uyghurs being held in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang were deemed “credible” by a United Nations human-rights panel last month.

In a letter to the Financial Times, Liu addressed concerns raised by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its annual review of human rights in China. The UN panel claimed that Beijing, in its efforts to combat religious extremism, “has changed the Uyghur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone.”

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to a Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur minority of some 8 million, out of a total 19 million residents. The region, rich in oil, gas and minerals, has long been traumatized by violence that Beijing blames on Islamist militants and separatists.

Some separatists desire a return to the “Eastern Turkestan Republic” – two such independent states survived in 1931-34 and 1944-49. Chairman Mao Zedong, in an effort to win over Turkic speakers in the territory, even promised “self-determination” and the right to secede from the Communist state, before withdrawing the offer. Mao eventually conceded the title “Xinjiang Autonomous Region” in 1955, although the Uyghurs were not ceded any autonomous localities as were other minorities such as the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Hui, Mongols, Tajiks and Xibo.

In his letter, Liu paints a picture of Xinjiang as a racially harmonious region, based on economic progress, with an ethnic minority as the majority:

Xinjiang represents the vastness of China because it is home to all of China’s 56 ethnic groups. The Uyghur, Han, Kazakh and Hui living in Xinjiang each have a population of more than a million, with the Uyghurs accounting for about 48% and the Hans accounting for about 37% of the entire population of Xinjiang. Xinjiang highlights the beauty of China with its ethnic harmony. People of all ethnic backgrounds respect and love one another, and work together for a better life. This has enabled rapid economic progress in Xinjiang in recent years.

While economic progress may be impressive, many Uyghurs complain that most of the jobs have gone to the recent Han arrivals, many of whom have been granted relocation incentives. While Han Chinese (some 90% of China’s 1.3 billion population) currently represent just 37% of Xinjiang’s population, their population has risen quickly since 1953, when Han represented just 6% of Xinjiang’s population, according to a government census, and Uyghurs represented 75% of the population.

Uyghur groups point to the large-scale immigration by Han Chinese coupled with oppressive religious restrictions and widespread discrimination as the root causes of widespread discontent among Uyghurs. Some of the discontent has led to rioting, knife attacks and suicide bombings in recent years, and been blamed on Uyghur separatists.

In an effort to stem the violence, law-enforcement authorities in the region have smothered Xinjiang with additional security measures and imposed restrictions on Uyghur travel rights, culture and religious practices.

While Liu maintains “Normal religious activities are protected by law” and “It is China’s consistent position to oppose ethnic discrimination of all forms against any group,” there are conflicting reports of students and employees being prohibited from fasting during Ramadan, restricted religious teaching for children, the banning of certain Muslim names for children, limits on Uyghur-language education, and the persecution of people using Muslim greetings, possessing halal food, or growing long beards or wearing headscarves.

Xinjiang now accounts for 21% of all arrests in China, despite having only 1.5% of the country’s overall population, according to China Human Rights Defenders, an activist group. In his letter, the ambassador defends these arrests and the above restrictions, saying, “It is time to stop blaming China for taking lawful and effective preventive measures,” arguing “religious extremism is a common challenge to the whole world” and “every country needs to tackle this challenge effectively.”

Yes, violent extremism is a common challenge, and there is no justification for terrorist attacks on innocent people, but China’s unusual preventive measures do raise some questions. For example, of the 1 million Uyghurs imprisoned for “re-education,” how many are simply guilty of one of the minor infractions mentioned above and how long will they stay locked up? Are China’s preventive measures effective in combating terrorism, or merely inflaming it?

The fear expressed by the UN panel, and others, is that the latest measures implemented in Xinjiang are violating basic human rights, doing little to stop terrorism in China, and only adding to a long history of discontent, discrimination and alienation among an increasingly marginalized Muslim Uyghur population.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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