Since 2009, the Chinese Party-state has increasingly suppressed the Uyghur community in its northwest province of Xinjiang. However, in the last year, three new concurrent trends have emerged: the situation for Uyghurs both in Xinjiang and for the Uyghurs living abroad has gotten much worse; academics and journalists have been working extremely hard to document and expose the human rights violations against the Uyghurs; and, the international community has finally started to take notice of the abuses inflicted on a Muslim minority population by the Chinese Party-state in a remote region of the People’s Republic of China. Yet, although the current extralegal incarceration of upwards of one million Uyghurs has managed to elicit a strong rebuke from the United Nations and the United States Congress, there has been almost no condemnation from Muslim heads-of-state or from states with large Muslim populations.
Will predominantly-Muslim nation-states who are heavily invested in Belt and Road Initiatives with China continue to turn a blind eye to these cruelties to ensure cordial relations with the Party-state? And, what about the Saudis? Recent reports indicate that the Chinese government is tracking Muslims who go on hajj from China with GPS-like devices. As technology and state control become increasingly intertwined in China, will host-states like Saudi Arabia continue to permit these types of infringements on the rights of Muslim Chinese citizens abroad? In order to come to terms with some of possible reasons why Muslim-majority countries are not acknowledging the unlawful incarceration, torture, and human rights violations committed against the Uyghurs, I provide a summary of the current situation, and then offer some insights into the possible motivations behind this ongoing silence.
The Uyghurs are one of China’s fifty-five non-Han minority groups, and one of eleven official state-sanctioned Muslim minority groups. The region in western China where the majority of the Uyghurs live was violently incorporated into the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century, and after the Republican Revolution in 1911, the territory was essentially beyond the control of the Chinese central government until it was re-incorporated by the Communists in 1949. In terms of geo-strategical importance, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shares a border with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, both with sizable Muslim populations. There are approximately ten million people who are officially designated by the People’s Republic of China as “Uyghurs”, and there are also sizable populations of Uyghurs who live in neighboring post-Soviet Central Asian states, primarily in Kazakhstan.
Before the establishment of the PRC, there were attempts to create independent Muslim states in the region, the first was the short-lived First East Turkestan Republic (1933-1934) and the second ten years later was the Soviet-backed Second East Turkestan Republic. These efforts highlight the desire of the people who inhabit these border regions to live beyond the purview of Chinese state power. But since 1949, no matter if the state’s goal was socialism under Mao, or market authoritarianism under her successors, the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups like the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs have been subject to concerted efforts to assimilate minorities in Xinjiang, including enforced Mandarin schooling at the expense of minority language-learning in schools, sending Han settlers to Xinjiang to dramatically increase the presence of Han Chinese in the region, the forced settlement of nomadic groups, and the establishment and expansion of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (C. bing tuan), a quasi-military state-run company established in 1954 with the purpose of developing frontier regions that operate directly under the control of Beijing.
The Uyghurs, who were at one time the largest minority group in the region, have long resisted these state-directed policies. Yet, after 9/11 and George W. Bush’s global call for a “war on terror”, the CCP adopted an increasingly hardline approach towards the Uyghurs, and began casting them as Islamic terrorists and jihadists. Although there was a fair amount of discord and discontent among the Uyghurs owing to these assimilationist policies imposed on them by the Chinese state, there is little evidence of widespread links to terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Yet, in the public discourse within China and in the international community, the Chinese government’s public relations strategy of branding the Uyghurs as terrorists definitely worked.
In the summer of 2009, there were ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and in surrounding cities, leading to an increased police presence in the region. Since then, the police state has become omnipresent. In the past year, however, scholars and activists began to voice concern over the forced removal of Uyghur men from their communities, and their unlawful mass internment in what the Chinese government innocuously terms “re-education camps”. There are now estimated to be upwards of ten percent of the Uyghur population—or one million Uyghurs—in these camps which have been compared to Soviet-era gulags, or concentration camps by foreign journalists and observers in the media. Uyghurs who live overseas are not immune to the long reach of the PRC state either. At the behest of the Chinese government, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt have all returned Uyghurs who were living within their borders. Recently, Uyghurs who live abroad have been denied passport renewals and commonly-processed travel permits, forcing them to return to the PRC.
The Chinese state was able to round up and illegally detain around one million Uyghurs for two reasons: advances in technology and a lack of response from the international community. Improvements in facial recognition software, along with the tracking and monitoring of all devices and vehicles, paired with an unprecedented number of police have led some to describe Xinjiang as an Orwellian laboratory, where the state is testing technology that it then selectively exports to other parts of China—and to foreign countries—in order to control and subdue restive populations. Some Muslim states with authoritarian-leanings might be observing developments in Xinjiang with a keen eye, interested more in the ways that the Chinese state is able to monitor and control almost every single aspect of their citizens’ lives than the oppression of Muslims living in the region. The exporting of Chinese AI technology to Latin American and African countries has already sounded a number of alarm bells among tech watchers who are weary that the CCP will use their advanced facial recognition software to both leverage and further enable dictatorships around the world.
As these human rights abuses are exposed and documented by journalists and academics, the world is starting to take notice. In late July, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China hosted a hearing called “Surveillance, Suppression, and Mass Detention: Xinjiang’s Human Rights Crisis,” where human rights activists and academics testified before the CESS, which is co-chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ). Then, in early August, the United Nations offered their own condemnation of the Chinese state citing that they had “credible reports” of Uyghurs being held in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” Most recently, a bipartisan letter signed by Marco Rubio and fifteen other Senators and Congress-people, was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to take more direct action and issue Magnitsky sanctions against a growing list of Chinese officials who are complicit in the human rights violations in Xinjiang. In response, the Chinese government has lashed out against foreign correspondents and the western media, claiming that foreign elements are fostering Islamic terrorism and irredentism in the region. They recently denied a visa-renewal request for a foreign correspondent who was an outspoken critic of their policies in Xinjiang.
As the United Nations and the United States press China to end the internment of their own citizens unlawfully, there is growing attention to a lack of response from Muslim states around the world. In places like Pakistan and Indonesia, which rely heavily on China for trade and investment, the silence is perhaps understandable. Pakistan too, relies on its relationship with China as a way to counter-balance India. But even in places like Turkey, once an adamant and vocal supporter of the Uyghur diaspora, and Saudi Arabia, there has been no condemnation. Economics and the potential for Chinese investment surely plays a role, but there are likely other factors as well. This silence from Muslim states resonates with observers who were concerned about the lack of response from certain Muslim leaders with the Muslim “travel ban”.
In many ways, the Saudis imagine themselves as protectors of a certain vision of Islam, and the Uyghurs fall outside the purview of this narrow vision. In Central Asia and Turkey, China is often seen as a counter-balance against Russian influence in the region. It seems that at this time, when the future of the Uyghurs looks extremely bleak, none of these political or economic factors has yet outweighed concern for China’s human rights violations against a Muslim minority group. There are some promising sings for the future, as Anwar Ibrahim, who is set to become Malaysia’s premier sometime in the next year, has condemned both Beijing’s internment of the Uyghurs and the silence surrounding the issue from Muslim states in South Asia and East Asia. In this regard, Ibrahim is likely onto something, and a coordinated political response from Muslim states seems like one of the most effective ways that the world community could actually exert pressure on the Chinese government.
Kelly A. Hammond is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Arkansas.