THE UIGHUR EFFECT: IMPACTS ON FOREIGN POLICY AND DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS WITH CHINA

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April 10, 2019

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CHINA AND THE ISLAMIC WORLD: HISTORY AND CONTEMPORARY

By Hassanal Noor Rashid

China has had a long spanning relationship with the Muslim world, dating back to even the first Islamic Caliphate as well as the Tang Dynasty which had ruled China from the 7th to 10th Centuries. This relationship came in the form of trade, military/political cooperation and intellectual/ cultural engagement, especially through the era’s fabled silk road trade route.

Malaysia has also shared this long history with the Chinese State, dating back to the Ming Dynasty of China which had protected Malacca and the Sultanate from enemies that had threatened its rule of the trade routes in the Malacca Straits into the larger South China Sea. The cultural influence of the Chinese and how it has shaped itself to be a significant characteristic of South East Asian culture proves this long history.

China itself has 23 million Muslims, with an estimated 13.4 million living in the Xinjiang Province that identify as the Uighur. Even in Beijing, the Cultural and Administrative heart of China there is an estimated 250,000 Muslims who identify as being part of the Hui Ethnic Group. Other ethnic groups consist of the Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks.

However what has perhaps driven the closer cooperation of both the Islamic World and China had followed after the age of Imperialism. With many countries gaining independence in the 19th and 20th Century, the colonial experience had resulted in many injustices that still characterize and fuel much of our contemporary 21st century conflicts. It was only natural that this shared mistrust of Western Colonial powers, which had only sought to dominate and control, would bring the Muslim World and China closer to each other and deepen their cooperation.

Despite on-going sea territorial disputes that continue in the South East Asia Region, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have all had relatively warm and highly economically cooperative relationships as China seeks to establish and actualize its 一带一路 ( One Belt One Road) Initiative, providing and financing infrastructures throughout Eurasia and the Northeast.

Perhaps most significant of all would be the cooperation between Pakistan and China with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor highlighting their ever growing economic and military cooperation. China has also engaged in many cultural outreach programs to Pakistan through the many shared initiatives put forward by the Chinese Government. This is made evident by many students who now go to China in order to learn from Chinese based institutions The two countries have even at one point had their relationship compared to that of Israel and the United States.

Therefore through contrasting this historical backdrop, the question that needs to be put forward is: why would China jeopardize centuries of historical relations just to allegedly persecute an ethnic community solely for a spiritual belief that it is long familiar with, especially considering China is very much aware of the relationship of the larger Ummah and Muslim communities around the world.

Is there perhaps a larger geopolitical game that is being played, one with a more nefarious agenda that seeks to undermine China’s rise as a Global Power? Perhaps it would be best if we look at the nature of the accusations first.

CHINA’S UIGHUR DILLEMA: NATIONAL SECURITY & SOCIAL COHESION

The Uighur in the Xinjiang Province of China has always faced a great degree of suppressive treatment from the Chinese Communist Party for a number of years. As part of China’s strategic industrialization and development, the Communist Party had invested a considerable amount of resources on their modernization program in Xinjiang. This is mainly due to the fact that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is an oil-rich area that borders eight other nations, and is therefore key to the further industrial progress of China.

Before the recent Chinese Industrial boom which saw the Chinese economy grow in a far more significant way, the Uighurs had enjoyed some semblance of autonomy with some even feeling that they should become a separate state.

Criticisms in regards to China’s treatment towards the Uighurs began to emerge around this time as many of these provincial development plans were said to replace and subvert much of the Uighur language and culture, replacing it with Standard Mandarin language and Chinese education. This would fit in line with the on-going Chinese efforts to create a homogenized Chinese culture. Separatist cultures and ideologies that do not follow the line of a single unified Chinese cultural identity are treated as being potentially harmful to the social unity of Chinese society and may cause disruption to governance and daily life.

This fear was further compounded after the July 2009 Urumqi riots which were a series of violent riots that broke out in the capital city of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, which had escalated into violent attacks that had targeted Han Chinese people. The official death toll was around 197 people with many of them being Han Chinese while many other organizations stated that the speculated numbers were actually higher.

What caused the violence is disputed with the Chinese Government saying it was organized externally by the World Uighur Congress who they claim is associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group that has been labelled by the U.N. Security Council as well as the Chinese and U.S. governments a terrorist organization., while the Uighur exile groups stated it was due to excessive police force. The truth however is that poverty, widespread unemployment, and alleged work place discriminations, as well as the considerable and sudden influx of the Han people into the province which had substantially altered much of the province’s demographic and socio-cultural make up during this time were the real cause of much of the local discontent.

Regardless of the cause, the violence had put the Uighur people under suspicion and gave a sense of validity that a separatist ideology that is not part of the fold of the wider Chinese Society is harmful to the wellbeing of the nation, its governance and its people. It was the perfect justification to introduce increased levels of surveillance and suppressive policies into the region itself. In 2015 China did just that by passing its Counter-Terrorism Law which allows Beijing to take all necessary measures to put down any activities which it sees as threatening state security and sovereignty in order to rid the state of the “three evils”- terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

It would be another 9 years however before this controversy would hit a new crescendo when mainstream news such as Reuters, CNN, BBC, the Intercept to name a few, in the month of August 2018, had highlighted a statement by a UN Committee calling for the end of the mass internment camps in the Xinjiang Province in China to be closed down, on the grounds of gross human rights violations. News reports much like that from mainstream sources like the ABC stated that “The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited estimates that up to 1 million Uighurs may be held involuntarily in extra-legal detention in China’s far western Xinjiang province”.

The Geneva based panel argued that much of Xinjiang has been turned into “something resembling a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone”. An Editorial on the 8th August 2019 from the Washington Post even goes on further to suggest that “Inside the Camps detainees are bombarded with propaganda, forced to recite slogans and sing songs in exchange for food, and pressure to renounce Muslim Practices”. This is to further support the claim of mistreatment as alleged by former inmates who say that they were made to “eat pork and drink alcohol”.

While there were many notable reactions from various elements of civil societies and Human Rights/ Social Justice groups who protested against these mistreatments, one could say that the Muslim World on a political level was largely silent on the issue with many Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia adopting a non-interference posture.

However when Turkey broke the silence with a declarative statement in February 2019, denouncing China for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities in the Xinjiang Province” the issue was thrust into the forefront of Muslim consciousness once more.

China has of course denied many of these allegations and in many instances there is a case to be made as to why in the past decade, many claims and accusations should rightly be treated with suspicion and scepticism.

THREATS WITHIN AND WITHOUT: TRUTH, TRUST AND MISINFORMATION

As far as International Relations and Geopolitical Affairs go, China’s rise as global Power has largely been a peaceful one with the nation state having undergone significant industrial development that has seen its local economy and the wealth of its people grow tremendously. It has placed emphasis on cross-cultural exchange and engagement, as well as developing closer economic and military ties with its neighbouring countries as part of its on-going efforts to deepen ties and expand its cultural sphere of influence.

There have undeniably been many territorial disputes, especially those pertaining to the claims made in the South China Sea, but China has not undergone any overt military operations in other sovereign territories unlike certain other superpowers and has sought understanding through dialogue and diplomatic channels.

China is also one of the founding members of BRICS, a multi-country initiative that seeks to create an economic system that challenges the dominance of the U.S dollar as the currency of trade.

These exercises in soft diplomacy are undoubtedly all part of the larger geostrategic aim to counterbalance against what China sees as external threats against its sovereignty.

With all of China’s initiatives, and cross regional and continental economic investments and initiatives, its rise as a formidable global power has naturally caused some uneasiness with those who wish to maintain their dominance on the global world order. There are many forces that wish to undermine the progressiveness of the PRC and one could make the argument that the Uighur issue, while having many legitimate concerns, has been appropriated for that very same reason.

It is a fact that the Uighur has been the target of China’s widespread surveillance and anti-terrorism campaign and it is a fact that many of the internment Camps that continue to house many of the Uighur communities are operated in a highly secretive manner. In fact that it is the highly secretive nature of how China has conducted itself, especially in regards to the Uighur issue that has made the rebuttals of the Chinese officials very difficult to be taken as legitimate truths.

However, as a Chinese saying goes 三人成虎, which teaches of the danger of how repeated rumour can be perceived as fact, we must therefore fully investigate to discern the truth, we must in our own pursuit of truth and balance look as to where the criticisms and attack on the PRC originates from; because as mentioned before there is a truth to the claim that there are many mischievous groups that seek to undermine the integrity of China in order to pursue their own agendas.

One such example that brings doubt to the accusations towards China began with the very UN report that had stirred up the controversy. While it is accurate that the claim was made by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what was not mentioned by many media sources was that the statement was made by a member of the Committee who does not speak for the UN as a whole and happens to be the only American, Gay McDougall, on the committee with no background or scholarship or research on China. The claim was then echoed by a Mauritanian member, Yehelhe Mint Mohamed.

Furthermore, much of the accusations which the report had cited, were based on thinly sourced reports made by a Chinese opposition group that received funding from foreign governments that is closely tied to exiled Pro-U.S activists and videos of the session confirm that McDougall provided no sourcing for her claims. It is also worth noting that much of the information about the Internment camps housing one million Uighurs originated exclusively from media outlets and organizations funded by the American government.

One such example is in fact groups like the World Uighur Congress itself whose offices are not only based in Washington D.C., they are also funded by the U.S State Department via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) who have a notorious reputation for funding activities to undermine governments as part of the U.S regime change strategy whereby they encourage and cause social chaos in countries that the U.S considers a threat to its hegemonic endeavours. One just needs to point to two specific grants offered by the NED which encourage to raise awareness of the Uighur issue and to conduct “outreach” to Chinese citizens. These mischievous groups continuously undermine and cause social chaos in order to further the aim and interests of the U.S hegemonic empire while wearing the farcical garb of promoting freedom and advocating human rights.

While China has vehemently refuted these claims, even going so far as to share a video interview with an Uighur resident within the camps going by the name of Abdurehim Heyit, who in the video has made a claim that he has never been abused by the Chinese authorities during his internment. Its rebuttal has been met with a large degree of scepticism and rightly so as the video was published through the Chinese state owned media mechanisms. This scepticism and lack of trust towards China and the Communist Government has much to do with the trust deficit it has earned for itself given the nature of the issue and the highly secretive approach it has adopted when dealing with matters pertaining to the Uighurs’ treatment at these camps.

China could be telling the truth about how it has treated the Uighurs thus far and the nature of the camps they are housed in but there is a very good chance that no one will believe them. China throughout its long history of secrecy and suppression of information and its attempts to exercise tight control over freedom of discourse and its alleged espionage and covert information gathering activities has undermined its integrity as a power that can be trusted. This has also negatively affected its relationship with its own close allies, namely the Muslim majority countries who have had long history with the Chinese state, who while willing to embrace closer ties with China, do so with extreme caution and circumspection.

This is a reputation the PRC has earned and if any meaningful resolution and progress is to be made it needs to address this first and foremost.

TRUST AND COOPERATION: TOWARDS A MEANINGFUL RESOLUTION

As various critics have rightly pointed out, the West is “engaged in full-scale irregular war to destabilize China. The U.S created the Uighur problem in Xinjiang by sponsoring terrorists there, the same tactics used in Cuba, Venezuela Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya” and in many instances one can see the hand of the NED working here. There have been many critical attacks by civil society organizations who are genuinely concerned for the well-being of the Uighur groups, whether it be through solidarity through a shared belief or out of genuine concern for their human rights and well-being, and if Beijing is not careful with how it handles the matter, it may find that secrecy will not be a formidable enough defence against those who wish to see the PRC toppled.

The Uighur issue presents a potential fault point for exactly this to happen, but it may also present the perfect opportunity for China as well to help rebuild a lot of lost trust.

The Chinese have a saying, 耳听为许,眼见为实, which roughly means, what you hear may be false, what you see is true. This proverb tells us that we should not believe rumours so easily, but instead it is more reliable if we verify it ourselves.

As the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) had previously stated, it is in “Beijing’s interest to resolve the Uighur issue in such a manner that the identity and dignity of the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are protected and enhanced. To convince everyone that the Chinese government is willing to address genuine Uighur grievances it should invite representatives from civil society in a number of Muslim majority countries to undertake a fact-finding mission to Xinjiang whose primary purpose would be to examine and analyse the actual situation on the ground facing the Uighur and other alleged victims of persecution. The mission should have maximum access to the Uighur community and to the authorities in the province. Members of the mission should have the full freedom to visit the re-education centres and conduct interviews with detainees past and present. The mission’s report should be submitted to not only the authorities in Xinjiang and to the leaders of the Uighur community but also to
the government in Beijing. The countries from which the members of the mission are drawn from, and the world at large should also have full access to its findings. Most of all, one hopes that if the recommendations are feasible, Beijing and Xinjiang will try to implement them with sincere trust. If that is done, it is quite conceivable that the chapter on the Uighurs will be brought to a close”.

The global community is looking for an alternative to the existing system, away from the dominance of U.S. Western hegemony, and many see China as being pivotal for that most needed change. But its trust deficit impedes it from making any meaningful progress.

This negative perception towards China could also have long term negative repercussions for China’s One Belt One Road initiative since it also involves many Muslim majority countries, who are also monitoring the Uighur issue and may potentially face a lot of domestic pressure, especially from their local civil society groups, which will affect relations with China and future economic and political developments.

Therefore the Chinese Government, in the interest of continuous cooperation and growth, should allow for representatives of civil society groups to come and see for themselves what is happening within the camps, to be open and transparent about its conduct and be accountable.

The world is tired of the lies, secrecies and mistruths already presented by the existing hegemonic empire of the United States and the global system of dominance it seeks to perpetuate.

The Uighur issue is one of China’s greatest tests and resolving it will secure China’s economic position and fortify its global role as an alternative power to promote meaningful change, especially in the area of enhancing human dignity, but only if it is willing to embrace this opportunity to show that it is a trustworthy power.

Hassanal Noor Rashid
Programme Coordinator
International Movement for a Just World
9 April 2019

About the Author: Hassanal Noor Rashid is the Program Coordinator for the International Movement for a Just World. He has recently completed a one year course studying Mandarin from the Beijing Language and Culture University, China. He also has a Master’s degrees in International Relations from Monash University, Australia.

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