For over two hundred years, the Central Asian Uyghur people have represented one of the earliest and most visible examples of Chinese imperialism. When the Qing dynasty conquered huge swaths of what is now considered northwestern China in the 18th century, they incorporated the traditional Uyghur homeland as the province of ‘Xinjiang’ (New Frontier). Since then, an almost constant tension has existed between the predominantly Muslim Uyghur majority in the region and the Han Chinese central government in Beijing. Several large-scale revolts against Qing rule occurred throughout the Imperial Era and, in the closing days of the Chinese Civil War, an independent republic was briefly created under the banner of the 'East Turkestan Republic'. However, the arrival of Communist troops into the capital, Urumqi, in late 1949, quickly squashed aspirations for an Uyghur ethnostate. In subsequent decades, Beijing quickly began implementing a strict policy of cultural and ideological assimilation. Massive settlement campaigns encouraged the movement of hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese citizens to the region, and a flurry of administrative and educational reforms sought to rid the Uyghurs of their Muslim faith and traditional Turkic-culture in favor of non-religious Communist ideals and ‘Hanized’ cultural norms. However, these efforts only served to stoke the fires of nationalism among many Uyghurs, and have contributed to the rise of violent and terroristic “patriotic movements” within the province. From 1991 to 2001, the Chinese government has reported over two hundred violent incidents that could be attributed to Uyghur paramilitary independence groups. Militant separatist groups like the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” have been responsible for car bombings, assassinations, public knife attacks, and the murder of Chinese police officers and soldiers serving in the province. Beijing has responded with several waves of violent crackdowns, as well as the systematic repression of Uyghurs from positions of political and societal authority. Professor James Millward at Georgetown University pointed out in an interview last year that many government positions at every level of the Xinjiang provincial administration require Han ethnicity as a condition for employment, and that Uyghur cultural practices like the required Muslim ‘Hajj’ pilgrimage to Mecca have been severely restricted by authorities.
Detainees in a re-education camp, 2017. Source: Wikipedia
More recently though, it appears that Beijing has escalated the crisis to unprecedented levels. In April 2017, it was reported by several human rights watchdog groups that the Xinjiang provincial government had begun rounding up large numbers of Uyghurs deemed to hold 'extremist tendencies', and placing them in so-called 'Vocational Skill Education Training Centers' in order to carry out 'anti-extremist ideological education'. Independent media outlets have claimed that, in practice, they are little more than political re-education camps. In a report published in late August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination claimed that over one million Uyghurs had been forcibly detained and sent to such centers, and expressed alarm at such large numbers of people being 'held for long periods of time without charge or trial, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism'. While the Chinese government originally denied that such centers exist, mounting evidence from international organizations has led to the provincial administration quietly (and retroactively) legalizing the centers for the purpose of 'psychological and behavioral correction'. However, official government spokesmen have still maintained that Uyghurs enjoy equal rights and freedoms to all other Chinese citizens and that no religious or cultural suppression has been taking place. Indeed, several informational videos and articles published by the Chinese United Front Work Department showcase happy, contented 'vocational skills trainees' in the centers expressing how thankful they are to have been ‘reformed’, as well as their excitement at being able to become productive members of the Chinese nation. However, other former detainees have reported systematic abuse at the hands of camp guards, as well as mass incidents of 'intensive brainwashing sessions', which former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has labeled as 'straight out of George Orwell'. While the Chinese regime claims they are merely fighting terrorism and religious extremism, many critics have expressed doubts in the efficacy of such an 'extra-legal' blanket crackdown. Such critics (like former Ambassador Haley) have claimed that the regime’s strategy may end up being counterproductive, and create 'the very radicalism they claim to be tamping down'.
Radio Free Asia has reported on one such case, which has the potential to further destabilize the province for the foreseeable future: that of Muhammad Salih Hajim, a prominent Uyghur Islamic scholar who formerly taught out of Urumqi. Hailed by the World Uyghur Congress as 'one of the most respected and influential Uyghur religious scholars', Hajim was arrested for 'promoting terrorism' on 25 December 2017, along with his eldest son and daughter, his daughter’s husband (himself a well known Uyghur poet), and several other members of the extended family. His three youngest children were ostensibly placed in state-run orphanages, but no international observers have been able to locate them to date. Hajim died under mysterious circumstances just forty days later, and Chinese police officials have reportedly informed family friends 'not to hold out any hope' for his imprisoned children. Hajim was widely considered to be a moderate cleric, who sought primarily to promote Uyghur religious autonomy and cultural identity. However, his death has sparked calls for more aggressive militant action against the authorities, thereby creating the very radical behavior and threat of violence that Chinese authorities were trying to pre-empt.
Whatever the effect of further Uyghur nationalist action, the re-education campaign has been disastrous for Chinese prestige around the world. Several UN commissions have published reports formally condemning the behavior of the People’s Republic, and governments from the United Kingdom to Iran have been quick to denounce the perceived ethnic and religious suppression of the Uyghur people. However, given China’s place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as its position as a G7 nation, an outright ultimatum for policy change from the international community is unlikely. For now, all eyes look to the escalating Sino-American trade war, with the thought that any evidence of pervasive human rights abuses will provide Western governments (and particularly the United States) with a major boost in public support for confronting the PRC economically and strategically in East Asia and around the world.