Why Xinjiang? Why now?

Guess that is what you get for not reading corporate, state-owned and ‘independent’ media in places like Australia. Within one day after returning, a number of people have been brought me up to speed on what is not merely selective sensationalism in regard to Xinjiang, but what can only be described as wilful misinformation. I have heard talk in the media and by government figures of ‘camps’ (invoking Nazi concentration camps), of ‘brainwashing’, of a whole minority nationality – the Uyghur – being subjected to ‘human rights abuses’.

My initial reaction was to think that this was a large science fiction plot, with another earth-like planet and a place called China, about which fanciful narratives had been developed. It is certainly not the China in which I live and work for a large part of the year. But then I realised that such narratives are supposedly speaking about the same place. So I enquired further and found that the following information is systematically not made available in this part of the world, even though one can easily find it (and not merely in an earlier post).

Ever since the incorporation of Xinjiang into China in the mid-eighteenth century, it has been a restive part of the country on the western border. However, from the 1990s, these problems have become more acute. The reason was a notable increase in influence from Islamic extremism from further west, with a number of outcomes.

To begin with, there were a spate of terrorist attacks. If we take only the period from 2008, we find: an attempted suicide attack on a China Southern flight in 2008; in the same year there were threats to launch attacks on the Beijing Olympics; a car ramming in Tiananmen Square in 2013, with injuries but no fatalities; a knife attack Kunming Railway Station in 2014, killing tens of people and injuring many more. All were perpetrated by radical Muslim Uyghurs. Further, some Uyghurs were discovered training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and had developed links with militant groups in restive parts of Pakistan. Radical fronts outside China were passing weapons, explosives and militants along drug routes. The list could go on, but the situation is quite clear: some Muslims among the Uyghur minority were engaged in organising and carrying out terrorist activities.

The question arose: how to deal with this distinct and deadly problem? It is not a problem facing China alone. In countries like Australia, there are strong pushes to have people stripped of citizenship and expelled. But this is hardly a solution, for it passes the problem onto someone else. In other places, the response is to lock them up and throw away the key. But this serves to radicalise them even further. More brutally, some countries send armed forces to the supposed source of terrorism, invade and destroy the country in question and thereby foster with even more extremism.

Some places, however, have decided to try a different approach. The primary problem was with mostly young people from a range of backgrounds. They may have been fighting in the Middle East, been to training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, married an extremist husband, or been radicalised at home and formed part of a cell. Upon returning home or having the their cell discovered, the problem was to find a way to help them fit back into their local communities. In close consultation with Muslim leaders, programs were set up. Given an often low level of education, the programs included classes to improve educational levels. Often unemployable and poor, they were give vocational training in skills for future work. Contact with outside radical groups was closed or monitored very closely. And – most importantly – a long process of cultural, ideological and theological education began, led by local experts and Muslim leaders, to try and get these young extremists to see that Islam is not about what they had been led to believe.

This approach has been and continues to be tried in many places around the world, with different emphases and different levels of success. For example, the city of Aarhus, Denmark, undertook a such a deradicalization program, albeit not without some controversy inside Denmark, since a good number wanted them expelled for good. Turkey has had significant success with its program, France some success, the UK perhaps less so and Australia even less. In fact, ‘deradicalization’ has become an in-word, journals have been established, businesses have tried to cash in. As is their common practice, Chinese scholars and government officials (both national and local – in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region) studied these approaches carefully and came up with one that is similar in some respects and unique in others (more information here, here and here). The Chinese prefer to call them ‘de-extremism’ activities, given the dangers of separatism, extremism and terrorism.

Of course, we may criticise one or another approach. None is perfect in dealing with a persistent problem shared by many countries. Some times they are too heavy-handed and alienate young people further. At other times they are too soft and make not enough difference. But the underlying purpose in a Chinese situation should be forgotten: the recovery of a person’s life so that they may re-enter as a productive member the society they left not so long ago.

As I have mentioned before on a number of occasions, these programs are only part of an immediate response to a profound challenge to social and religious harmony (hexie), stability (wending) and security (anquan). But what is unique about the Chinese method relates to the basic human right to economic wellbeing. Thus, the longer term approach is to deal with the systemic poverty in Xinjiang, based on the position that poverty provides a breeding ground for radicalism like this. Not all such approaches in the past have worked so well, so now Xinjiang receives a massive amount of preferential economic incentives for people to innovate and find their own ways out of poverty. It is also a significant feature of the Belt and Road Initiative, for which Xinjiang is the pivot.

This raises the double question with which I started. Why Xinjiang? Why now? For a minority of ‘Western’ countries, Tibet used to be the flavour of the month, but now it is Xinjiang. Are the de-extremism programs new in Xinjiang? No, the programs in various forms have been under way for four or five years, although they were revised and updated in April 2017, with new regulations and the expansion of vocational and training centres. The more significant poverty alleviation projects span decades. So why do media outlets and some government figures in a relatively small number of countries focus so much attention on Xinjiang?

The first part of an answer is that 2018 marked the first real signs of significant success of the Chinese approach in Xinjiang. A minimal standard is that no terrorist activity has taken place since 2014, compared with 1,136 across the world in 2017 and 639 in the first half of 2018. More importantly the perception in China and abroad is that Xinjiang is now safe for travel. A few years ago I mentioned to a few people that I would like to travel to Xinjiang. Too dangerous! They said. Don’t go there. Now there is no problem. This year more than 100 million Chinese and foreign travellers flocked to Xinjiang. Further, with the Belt and Road Initiative, economic activity has noticeably improved, with investments doubling over the last two years and Xinjiang growing in 2017 by 7.6 percent. As has been pointed out again and again and again and again and again, stability has returned to Xinjiang as a result of the programs.

The second part of the answer comes from a Turkish perspective: 2018 saw the official launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, with close and pragmatic cooperation between all Central Asian countries, a number of European countries, nearly all countries in Africa, and many in other parts of the world. The initiative has been running already for some time, but 2018 was the launch. A significant plank in the initiative is Turkey, for whom China is its second largest trading partner (Germany is still the first, for now). Given the importance of both Xinjiang and Turkey in the Belt and Road Initiative, the rhetoric and misinformation concerning Xinjiang is seen – quite strongly in Turkey – as an effort by some ‘Western’ countries to drive a wedge between China and Turkey.

Turkey is of course not the only Muslim majority country to be involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. It includes Pakistan, the countries of Central Asia, some in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. Noticeably, these countries have not joined the rhetoric and misinformation from a handful of ‘Western’ countries. But the Turkish perspective may give us an insight into why Xinjiang has become the flavour of the month among some ‘Western’ countries.

The catch is that the effort will not succeed. The Muslim majority countries are singularly unimpressed with some ‘Western’ countries, which have consistently demonised Islam for a good while, now trying to irritate China over its treatment of Muslim extremists. And the Chinese are confident enough that the Belt and Road Initiative has already developed too far for anyone to derail it.

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What about the Uyghurs?

I begin with a caveat: for more than six months I have not read corporate (sometimes called ‘western’) news sources. Instead, I read more reliable and in-depth sources, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. I find corporate news sources given to selective sensationalism, in which they select a few items, give them a twist and distort them, so as to produce a sensationalist account that does violence with the facts, fits into a certain narrative and attracts a certain readership (some ‘western’ Marxists among them). It is like a toxic drip into the brain, with which I can well do without.

By word of mouth and from reliable sources, I have heard that it has become fashionable in some quarters to switch from the ‘vegetarian between meals’ (Dalai Lama) and focus on the Uyghurs, mostly concentrated in Xinjiang province in the far western parts of China. Supposedly, the whole of the Uyghur minority is kept under what some call a ‘police state’. The reason why is never articulated, except perhaps the inherent evil of the Communist Party of China.

Let us have a look at the facts.

To begin with, there is the simple historical question. Xinjiang was incorporated into the Chinese state in the 1750s and eventually became a full province in 1884, marking the western border of the Chinese state under the Qing. Obviously, Xinjiang has been part of China for centuries.

Further, for some international critics, the claim that radical Muslim Uyghurs are involved in terrorism is a smokescreen for the suppression of the Uyghur. But let us see how selective the terminology of ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’ is. From one perspective, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 is ‘terrorist’, while the efforts by some in Tibet and Xinjiang are peaceful and ‘separatist’, seeking independence. In short, any attack on western sites are ‘terrorist’, but any attack in other parts of the world – whether China or Russia or Syria – are ‘separatist’. From another perspective, the attempted suicide attack on a China Southern flight in 2008, threats to attack the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a car ramming in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and the deadly knife attack in Kunming railway station – all perpetrated by Uyghur radical Muslims – are ‘terrorist’ acts. To add a twist to all this, the Chinese government typically uses a three-character phrase, “separatism, extremism and terrorism,” which indicates that they see a continuum and not an either-or relation.

Third, it is clearly not the case that the whole of the Uyghur minority nationality is engaged in separatism, extremism and terrorism. I have encountered a good number of Uyghurs who assert strongly and passionately that they are Chinese and decry the small number of their nationality who engage in terrorist activities. The fact is that a very small number of Uyghurs, influenced by radical Islam, have engaged in terrorist activities. By far the vast majority of Uyghurs see themselves as part of China and seek to contribute positively to it.

Fourth, a crucial feature of Chinese sovereignty is the resistance to all forms of foreign interference. This approach to sovereignty arises from the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which Chinese independence from semi-colonialism developed a strong sense of the need to prevent foreign intervention. (It also influences China’s dealings with other countries, in which it avoids any effort to change political, economic and social patterns.) Thus, there has been a profoundly negative effect from the CIA’s intervention in Tibet in the 1950s, funding the Dalai Lama and inciting the ill-fated uprising in 1959, in which tens of thousands of Tibetans died and the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled to India. CIA operations wound up in the 1970s, only to be replaced with western propaganda, funding and organisation – especially by the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy that carries on the work of the CIA – of protests in Tibet, all of which are based on a particular interpretation of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. These activities have also focused on Xinjiang, with the added dimension of a distinct increase in influence from Islamic radicalism from further west in the 1990s. The discovery of Uyghurs training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or links with militant groups in restive parts of Pakistan, as well as various radical fronts focused on Xinjiang and passing weapons, explosives and militants along drug routes, made it clear to the Chinese government that another form of foreign interference had arisen. All of these efforts are seen as profound challenges to Chinese sovereignty.

Fifth, it is asserted by some that Uyghurs are subjected to facial recognition cameras, social credit systems and political arrest. Let us set the record straight. Facial recognition cameras, first developed reliably in China (as with so much technological innovation these days) are used for the sake of social security – a fundamental feature of Chinese culture. I am told that some corporate media reports make much of the fining of jaywalkers. This is laughable. If the Chinese devoted their valuable time and energy to this pursuit, billions of fines would be given every day, for the Chinese love to jaywalk. Instead, facial recognition cameras are used for more serious purposes: criminal networks; fugitives from justice; or terrorist cells.

Social credit: the best example is a recent announcement on a high-speed train. The announcement stated that if you had not bought a ticket and did not contact the conductor as soon as possible, it would reflect negatively on your social credit record. In other words, the system is geared to ensuring conformity with the laws of the land.

Arrest for political purposes: this is usually framed in terms of ‘prisoners of conscience’, who are supposedly subjected to ‘brain-washing’ techniques. Again, let us deal with the facts. The fiction that one million Uyghurs are in ‘internment camps’ – spread by dodgy news services – is precisely that, a fiction. China has abolished re-education labour camps, although it could be argued that in certain circumstances (international interference) that they can be a good thing. Instead, a central feature of high-school and university is ‘ideological and political education’. This entails being taught the basics of Marxism, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and now Xi Jinping Thought. All worthwhile subjects that need to be taught well. And all Chinese people – including the 55 minority nationalities and even theological colleges – must study such subjects

Sixth, some sources – such as the ‘Human Rights Watch’ (affiliated with the US state department) trot out a standard ‘western’ approach to ‘human rights’. This tradition typically focuses on civil and political rights, such as freedom of political expression, assembly, religion and so on. In an imperialist move, this specific tradition of human rights is assumed to be universal, applying to all parts of the globe. Because some Uyghurs are denied Muslim practices, expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment, and subjected to ideological and political education, this is deemed to be a violation of ‘human rights’.

The problem here is that such an approach systematically neglects alternative approaches, such as the Chinese Marxist one. This tradition identifies the right to economic wellbeing as the primary human right. So we find that in relation to Xinjiang, Chinese sources have identified the deep root of the problem as poverty. Thus, when unrest in Xinjiang rose to a new level in the 1990s (under foreign influence), much analysis and policy revision followed. The result was two-pronged: an immediate focus on comprehensive security (which is a core feature of Chinese society at many levels); and a long-term effort to improve economic conditions in a region that still lagged behind the much of eastern China. Not all such incentives have been as successful as might have been hoped, with the various nationalities in Xinjiang – not merely Uyghur, but also including Han, Hui, Kazak, Mongol and Kirgiz – benefitting at different levels. The most significant project to date is the massive Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2014. Although its geographical scope is much vaster than the western parts of China, the economic effect is already being felt in these parts. In light of all this It is reasonable to say that there has been a marked improvement in the economic wellbeing of all those who live in these and other regions, such as Yunnan and Guizhou. The basic position is that if people see that their living conditions have improved, they will more willingly see themselves as part of the greater whole

The outcome: in the short-term the Chinese government has instituted various measures to ensure that the terrorist attacks of 2008, 2013 and 2014 do not happen again. The fact that they have not happened in the last few years is testimony to the effectiveness of these measures. In the long-term, previous policies to develop Xinjiang economically have been assessed and found wanting, so a whole new approach has been developed in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Finally, we should be aware of the deeper level of the ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ in relation to all of the 55 minority nationalities in China. Since its revision in the 1990s (after careful studies of the breakup of the Soviet Union), the policy has developed two poles of a dialectic. On the one hand, autonomy of the minority nationalities was to be enhanced, in terms of economic progress, language, education, culture and political leadership. On the other hand, China’s borders were strengthened as absolutely inviolable. Secession is simply not an option. A contradiction? Of course, but the sense is that for the vast majority of the nationalities, it is precisely the benefits of increased autonomy that has led them to appreciate being part of China.