It’s unclear how many people are living in some sort of detention in Xinjiang, the restive region in China’s far west.
Last month, a State Department official testified before a Senate committee that Chinese authorities have “indefinitely detained at least 800,000 and possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Khazaks and other members of Muslim minorities in internment camps” since April 2017. What foreign reporting has been possible in Xinjiang — which Beijing has subjected to a draconian lockdown — has revealed a vast network of “reeducation centers,” barbed-wire-ringed compounds and factories that have housed possibly more than a tenth of the region’s population of Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority.
Chinese authorities wave away the “fake” reports as “hearsay,” arguing that the measures are necessary to curb Islamist extremism among Uighurs and relieve many in the population of their “backwardness.” Last week, in a bid to dispel negative headlines, local officials took a handful of journalists on a tour of three facilities in Xinjiang where interned locals were receiving “vocational training” after falling afoul of Chinese authorities.
“In one class reporters were allowed to briefly visit,” noted Reuters, “a teacher explained in Mandarin that not allowing singing or dancing at a wedding or crying at a funeral are signs of extremist thought.” In another, the detained “students” were compelled to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” in English for the gathered journalists. According to Reuters, inmates are allowed to leave these facilities only when they “have reached a certain level with their Mandarin, de-radicalization and legal knowledge.”
Such facilities are part of an apparatus of control Beijing was building over its minorities, forcing them to turn away from their native languages and religious beliefs. “Witnesses underscored that what is happening to Turkic Muslims is unprecedented in its scale, technological sophistication and in the level of economic resources attributed by the state to the project,” said a report put out by a Canadian parliamentary committee last month.
This week, the government also passed a law to “Sinicize” Islam within the next five years. Government officials, said the state-run Global Times, have “agreed to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism.” Critics say such guidance is simply a project of ethnic cleansing, carried out through all-encompassing surveillance and strict laws against Muslim practices such as the wearing of face veils or refusing to eat [certain meat].
In the West, such acts have provoked months of media outrage — but little else. American and European officials have criticized Beijing for its mass detentions and its attacks on religious freedom, to minimal effect. More troubling has been the relative silence of dozens of Muslim-majority countries, many of which have looked away as China cracks down. The reluctance of these countries — including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan — to speak out in defense of the Uighurs is particularly conspicuous when set against their routine protestations on behalf of Palestinians, Kashmiris and the Rohingya of Myanmar.
On one level, this is a clear reflection of China’s growing geopolitical clout. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged some $20 billion in loans to Arab countries — as well as $100 million in financial aid to nations such as Syria and Yemen. Xi’s announcement coincided with the 70th anniversary of the unveiling of the U.S. Marshall Plan for war-torn Europe.
Take Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who as prime minister a decade ago blasted China’s “genocide” of the Uighurs during a spike in violence. He was a far more circumspect figure last year when he secured considerable Chinese investment for Turkey’s faltering economy. Erdogan, never shy to criticize foreign powers, suggested that China was possibly a victim of “fabrications” in the media.
Similar noises were made last month by Mohammad Faisal, the spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who told reporters that “some section of foreign media are trying to sensationalize the [Uighur] matter by spreading false information.” Pakistan has spent decades stirring international grievances about the plight of Kashmiris living under military occupation in India, but its shielding of Beijing should be no surprise: Pakistan is saddled with debt and is ever more beholden to China as its chief financier.
Observers also suggest that authoritarians in the Muslim world have some sympathy for Beijing’s methods. “The Chinese government crackdown on Uighurs is based on a premise that law and order can be restored by eradicating enemies of the government and traitors within a society,” wrote Turkish scholar and columnist Mustafa Akyol. “This is authoritarian language that most Muslim leaders understand well. It is their own language.”
Akyol suggested that Islamists and Muslim autocrats may be drawn to the idea of a “Confucian-Islamic alliance,” even as they seek to still challenge the West. “China can look like a great model, in which the economy grows without Western nuisances like human rights, free speech or limited government,” he wrote.
All the while, the noose keeps tightening around the Uighurs. A recent report in The New York Times described how dozens of prominent Uighur intellectuals have been rounded up by Chinese authorities.
“Chinese spokesmen sometimes describe Uighur detainees as actual or potential terrorists,” noted a Tuesday editorial in The Washington Post. “But the intellectuals the Chinese government has swept up include figures who openly supported the communist regime, such as Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, an expert on medieval poetry at Xinjiang Normal University. Like other scholars, he wrote an open letter declaring his loyalty to the state but was detained anyway.”
They are hardly dissidents, but their work still makes them suspect in the eyes of Beijing. “As the guardians of Uighur traditions, chroniclers of their history and creators of their art, the intellectuals were building the Central Asian, Turkic-speaking society’s reservoir of collective memory within the narrow limits of authoritarian rule,” the Times’ Austin Ramzy wrote.
Speaking to Reuters, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for a leading German-based Uighur exile group, was blunt about what he saw was taking place: “What they are trying to do is destroy Uighur identity.”
Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.