Dolkun Isa, Secretary General of the World Uighur Congress. Photo: AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno

Canada’s troubled ties with China could be headed for another blow-up in the coming weeks to add to the Huawei political crisis that is still unfolding in Ottawa.

The president of the World Uighur Congress (WUC), who Beijing regards as a leading terrorist, said he is preparing for a first visit to Canada after Ottawa cleared him of any security threat by granting him a five-year entry visa.

Dolkun Isa, whose visa application was approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) last December, said he plans to meet Canadian officials in Ottawa as part of his nation-wide tour tentatively scheduled from late March or early April. He will use the opportunity to speak about the plight of the estimated nine to 10 million people from the Uighur minority group living under China’s increasingly oppressive rule in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

There have been growing evidence and reports over the past year that the Chinese government has forcibly placed a large number of people, mostly Uighurs and other Muslims, in “re-education” camps in resource-rich Xinjiang. Beijing has resorted to mass arrests, enforced detentions and intensive surveillance to try to quell growing separatist sentiments among the locals. A people with a long history in the region, the Uighurs are Muslims whose ethnic ties are closer to the Turks than China’s majority Han people.

“I will speak about this issue (of Chinese repression) during my visit to several Canadian cities,” he said in a 65-minute interview in his office in Munich, Germany on January 4. Apart from meeting with Uighurs living in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, he is likely to also visit the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research which has started a Xinjiang documentation project.

While the Uighur population in Canada numbers less than 2,000, the timing of Isa’s impending visit is significant as it coincides with the lowest point in China’s relations with Canada and the West since the 1970s.

Canada has found itself in the middle of a giant geopolitical tussle between China and the US centered on Huawei, a company that Beijing regards as one of the country’s most important for its role in developing the next generation of wireless telecommunications technology.

Canada is on the hook for two huge Huawei-related decisions. First, its justice department must rule on its American counterpart’s application to extradite Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou to the US on criminal charges including money-laundering and bank fraud. Meng, a daughter of the company’s founder, remains detained in Vancouver following her December 1 arrest by the Canadian authorities on behest of the US government. China views the arrest as politically motivated and has blamed the Canadian government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for triggering this unexpected turn of events.

Second, the Trudeau government is under growing domestic and international pressure to follow the lead of the US, Australia and New Zealand in banning Huawei from participating in building the country’s fifth-generation telecommunications networks. The 5G systems will form a crucial part of the world’s economic infrastructure. Some experts believe Huawei is an espionage tool for the Chinese government to infiltrate the political, economic and military systems of other countries.

Largest mass internment program

Isa’s planned visit to Ottawa will take place in the midst or aftermath of both decisions. His presence will add a powerful Orwellian dimension to the Huawei debate: China’s use of cutting-edge technology to physically control people on a scale and intensity unprecedented in human history. In just over two years, China’s communist party has turned Xinjiang into a living laboratory for the world’s largest and most advanced mass internment project.

The Chinese government, which initially denied this was happening, has interned three million people in Xinjiang, Isa claims. This is far higher than the United Nations-endorsed estimate of one million that his sources say is way too low.

But even the one-million figure, which has also been denied by Beijing, is astounding by any measure as it was achieved largely over two years. Masterminded by Chen Quanguo who became Xinjiang’s communist party chief in August 2016, it dwarfs the Auschwitz operations in Poland which at its peak in 1944 had 40 camps with the capacity to hold a total of 135,000 prisoners. Nazi Germany took over four years to build Auschwitz into the largest of its numerous concentration camps, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.

Isa “credits” Chen’s ruthless efficiency and ambition for the scale and speed of the implementation of the Xinjiang mass internment program.

“It was implemented very quickly. The world did not know this was happening until the last few months,” said Isa.

Chen developed his programme as part of Beijing’s brief to hasten the “integration” of minorities into mainstream Chinese society when he was head of Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016. Described by scholars Adrian Zenz and James Leibold as “an ethnic policy innovator”, he has pioneered a hybrid strategy of mass control that combines pervasive high-tech surveillance and traditional heavy police presence on the ground with British colonial policies of the past to impose order on “the natives”.

According to Isa, the government invested heavily to recruit security personnel, establish checkpoints, and build new police stations in the main urban centers like Urumqi and Kashgar shortly after Chen took office. The “investment” was later extended to smaller towns and rural areas. The community policing system which intensified the monitoring of residents’ activities had been tested and implemented in Tibet with great success. For reducing the number of anti-China protests including headline-grabbing self-immolations by Buddhist monks, the 63-year-old rising political star was promoted to rule the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The softer aspects of the program’s social control include ‘ethnic unity’ measures with the state encouraging Han and Uighurs to live and work in close quarters with one another, inter-marry, and learn each other’s languages and culture. Isa said there has also been a surge in Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur proportion in the region’s estimated population of 21 million.

The stakes in Xinjiang are far greater than in Tibet as the largely Muslim-populated of China’s far-western region is key to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe into a giant economic corridor under Beijing’s leadership. Before Chen’s arrival, Xinjiang had been rocked by a series of deadly ethnic clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese amid rising anti-Islamic sentiments in China.

One of the immediate measures undertaken by the new government to end the cycle of violence was its imposition of severe travel restrictions on Uighurs and Xinjiang’s local Kazakhs.

“The government started confiscating passports so that Uighur people could not leave China,” Isa said. Then, it became almost impossible for Uighurs to obtain passports as the government demanded applicants to explain why they needed to travel abroad.

He said the restrictions were later extended to movement within Xinjiang and to other parts of the country. Uighurs needed permission to even visit friends and relatives living in nearby towns and villages as the government grew increasingly paranoid about both separatist and terror activities, especially following the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq in 2014.

The travel restrictions – effective outright ban in many cases for Uighur men – along with complete surveillance on all forms of communications succeeded in reducing politically-linked violence in Xinjiang. But they also deepened the anger and resentment of the local people.

The restrictions explain why the Xinjiang government was able to quickly build and fill up those large internment camps in near-complete secrecy, said Isa.

The local Uighur and Muslim population could not inform the outside world as their movements and activities were now completely monitored and controlled. Many could no longer contact relatives and friends living abroad.

“Chen Quanguo tested how far he could go with his measures,” said Isa. When he realized he had succeeded in shielding the project from the world, he accelerated the construction of camps to ‘re-educate’ a greater number of Uighurs to be loyal to China and the communist party. Inside the camps, they were taught to renounce Islam, learn the Mandarin language, and pick up vocational skills to help combat radicalization and violent behavior.

There are also allegations of torture along with reports by Uighurs living abroad that they have lost contact with family members and friends believed to have been incarcerated.

The world became aware of the extent and ambition of the Xinjiang internment program last year, thanks in part to the work of a law student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) located outside Vancouver.

While Isa and his staff at the World Uighur Congress do not know much about the UBC work, the mention of Shawn Zhang elicited broad smiles of recognition.

In early 2018, Zhang, a Chinese national on a student visa in Canada, began his own independent investigation into Xinjiang’s camps after reading about the mass detention of Uighurs on social media.

Initially, he thought the claims were exaggerated as he could not believe that this was happening in the 21st century, he told ChinaFile’s Jessica Batke.

Using Google search, he has compiled a list of the camps scattered across Xinjiang that he was able to verify through online information such as government tender notices from 2016 and 2017 that invited contractors to build re-education and detention centers.

He has downloaded satellite images of camps that show watchtowers and compounds “surrounded by razor wire fences” and corroborated his findings with news reports and other sources. He said he has received information from people in Xinjiang giving him valuable updates that he includes in his blog.

Zhang, who has already crossed Beijing’s path with his Twitter postings about Tibet, is aware his research on the Xinjiang camps makes him a potential target of the regime.

He hopes his work provides evidence to address doubts expressed by many Chinese nationals that the Xinjiang camps are capable of holding a million people.

“China is building a lot of detention centers…in Xinjiang. I hope my project can show the massive scale of the detentions,” he told Batke.

Zhang attended last October’s launch of the Xinjiang documentation project by the UBC’s Institute of Asian Research (IAR) and was applauded by the audience that included a group of Vancouver-based Uighurs.

Timothy Cheek, a UBC professor of Chinese history, is leading the documentation project to record the events related to China’s contemporary rule in Xinjiang.

In an interview, he said: “Many of us are concerned about the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. While I cannot be an activist or an advocate, as director of the IAR in the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA), I felt the appropriate thing we can do is what universities do best. And, that is to collect knowledge, to assess knowledge, to preserve knowledge, and to disseminate it.”

Cheek, an expert on Chinese intellectuals and the Communist Party, said the IAR is looking to collaborate with other universities and organizations to deepen their research on the subject.

“Our primary goal is not immediate publicity. “Our primary goal is the social responsibility of the academic and the scholars to collect, preserve and assess the facts,” he said.

“We’ll be glad to meet with Dolkun when he visits Vancouver.”

Originally published by OnePacificNews

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