The Chinese government has released three White Papers in a span of six months on Xinjiang. Till 2019 the general frequency for a White Paper on Xinjiang was around once a year. White Papers are generally the medium by which the Chinese government makes its policies and future course known to the outside world, keeping in view the opaqueness of the Chinese system. The quick succession of three White Papers underscore the argument that the Chinese government is keen and focussed to push its understanding vis-à-vis its Xinjiang policy and is also looking for an outlet to counter the foreign media and global narratives.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping there has been an increase in control and monitoring of Muslim communities in Xinjiang. The government has adopted new policies to counter the three evil forces of ‘terrorism, separatism and extremism’. The direction of Xi’s policy became clear during his first visit to Xinjiang in 2014 as the President. During this visit, Xi told a police squad and the military unit stationed at Kashgar that, “You must have the most effective means to deal with violent terrorists”.i In an effort to provide its security forces with better means the Chinese government has progressively adopted tighter controls and monitoring methods in the region.
There are numerous reports that the Chinese government has established several ‘detention centers’ for the Uyghur’s. The official term used by the Chinese government for the ‘detention centers’ has been ‘vocational education and training centers’ for the people of Xinjiang. Such reports suggest that there are around 1 million Uyghur Muslims detained in these centers.ii The rise of detention centers are a ‘quantum’ jump from the earlier government policy of ‘policing’ of Xinjiang.
Chinese White Papers on Xinjiang
The Chinese government has released three White Papers on Xinjiang in 2019. The White Papers are titled, The Fight against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang (released on 18 March 2019), Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang (released 21 July 2019) and Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang (released 16 August 2019). The short gap between the White Papers raises the question of why the Chinese government has published three White Papers in a row? The White Papers issued by the Chinese government are an important insight into its functioning and policy making as well as future directions in the province. The release of three White Papers in six months indicates that today Xinjiang is definitely one of the major concerns for the Chinese government. The central position of Xinjiang in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also an important factor.
All the three White Papers allude to the Chinese government’s idea of the need for the Uyghurs to learn Mandarin for a better life. They know that a major part of the population is unable to use Mandarin and they are also not aware of the existing Chinese laws. They also argue that “Islam is not an indigenous belief of the Uygurs and other ethnic groups, nor the sole one of the Uygur people”.iii The White Paper issued in July further sheds light on the religious aspect and argues that Islam came to Xinjiang because of the rise of the Arab empire and when Islam spread towards the east. It asserts that the Uyghur’s were forcefully converted to Islam and it was a top down process.iv These ideas indicate that there is a rise in the assimilation policy within China and it is being intensified with the push for a ‘common language’. A common language is always a good tool to push for cultural assimilation and promoting loyalty towards the government. It strengthen the argument that the Chinese government is conforming that Islam was forced on the people of Xinjiang.
The White Papers also appear to be an attempt by the Chinese government to counter the current global narrative of discrimination and ethnic control within Xinjiang. All these papers focus on the work undertaken by the Chinese government to improve and better the lives of the people of Xinjiang. It is not surprising then that the first White Paper on 2019 titled The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang which was released in March argues that, “Law-based de-radicalisation has been launched in Xinjiang to deal with illegal religious activities, illegal religious publicity materials, and illegal spread of religions through the Internet, which has effectively curbed the breeding and spread of religious extremism”.v
The second White Paper, Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang, released in July 2019 argues that the culture of Xinjiang is deeply rooted in the Chinese traditional culture and has evolved over time with interaction with the Islamic influence. It further asserts that, “For the ethnic cultures in Xinjiang to prosper and develop they must keep pace with the times, be open and inclusive, engage in exchange and integration with other ethnic cultures in China and mutual learning with other ethnic cultures throughout the world, and play their role in fostering a shared spiritual home for all China’s ethnic groups”.viIt further argues that the Chinese government does not discriminate between religious believers and non-believers and has a policy of “zero tolerance” against people who use religion to create any conflict or dispute.vii It elaborates that the concept of ‘East Turkistan’ is developed by people who want to create problems within China and is driven by anti-China forces residing within and outside the country.viiiThe government’s arguments are very clear and they focus on the overall peace and stability of Xinjiang. The White Paper argues in favour of the long control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while pointing out that even though Xinjiang has historically been part of China, it was liberated in 1949 and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) was established in 1955.
The third White Paper released on August 16, 2019, addresses the issue of the growing detention centers or vocational training houses in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is following the National Security Law and Xinjiang has modified and adopted two new laws, the ‘Measures of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on Implementing the Counter-terrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China, and the Regulations of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on De-radicalisation’ to establish the ‘vocational centers’ in Xinjiang.ixAccording to the White Paper, the trainees to these centers come from three specific categories of people. First, those forced to participate in terrorist or extremist activities where there was no real danger to other people. Second, people who participated in such activities and posed a real danger to the larger population. Third, those found guilty of participating in violent and extremist activities. The people who have joined the ‘vocational training centers’ are also the people who showed their interest and were keen to participate in these trainings. The basic purpose of these training centers is to help these people find better jobs and also improve their skills.xIt asserts people who have joined the vocational training houses are people who have been involved in violence in some form or the other.xiThe White Paper also includes a number of reports by foreign journalists who toured the region and have also acknowledged the benefits of the ‘vocational training centers’ in improving the lives of the Xinjiang people. “Through field trips, many have realised the truth and understood the urgency, necessity, legitimacy and rationality of carrying out education and training”, the White Paper argues.xii The papers follows the theme that the Chinese government in establishing the ‘vocational training centers’ follows proper law and is not targeting any specific section of the population of Xinjiang.xiii
All the White Papers argue that the Chinese government has never discriminated based on religion and ethnicity and has been undertaking these measures within the purview of the Chinese law with the sole aim of maintaining peace and stability and ensuring development. They also argue that the conditions within the ‘vocational centers’ are more like that in boarding schools.
For the last five years, the Chinese government has magnified its agenda of control by day to day monitoring of the Uyghur people. The main argument used to justify these actions is the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. The government now employs very sophisticated security apparatus to monitor and record the conduct of the Muslims in Xinjiang. A system, developed by the state run defence manufacturer, China Electronics Technology Corporation, “taps into networks of informants; tracks individuals and tries to anticipate potential crime, protest or violence; and then recommends which security forces to deploy”.xiv In 2017, during the National People’s Congress (NPC) Xi wanted the Chinese security forces to build a “Great Wall of Steel” in Xinjiang,xv hinting at further intensification of control. That very year, the Chinese government ordered the people of Xinjiang to download an app on their phones, so that the government can keep a track on their activities. The government has also identified and divided the people in various categories, like being “normal”, “safe” or “unsafe” which is decided by the respective individual’s age, religious beliefs, contacts with foreigners and also how many times they travel aboard.xvi
The intensity of control employed by the Chinese government also stems from the fact that Xinjiang enjoys a very special place in the BRI proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013. Xinjiang borders India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. There is a growing sense that because Xinjiang is crucial for BRI, there has been an increase in the top down control with the aim to make it more conducive to this plan.xviiJames Leibold argued that, “The party needs to convince a weary Han public and foreign governments that the anti-terror campaign has succeeded, and shift the narrative to Xinjiang as the gateway to the new Silk Road and the countless opportunities that await those willing to invest in the region”.xviii No surprise that these White Papers also argue and promote the government’s line that Xinjiang was central to the ancient Silk Road.
In the last year there has been an increase in external criticism on the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang. According to a report in Reuters around 15 foreign ambassadors had written to Chen Quanguo, the top official of CCP in Xinjiang with the hope to express concern about the situation in Xinjiang, however, he did not respond to the ambassadors.xixIn July 2019, 22 countries, including Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand etc., issued a statement and sent a letter to Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking China to stop the mass detention centers in Xinjiang.xx At the United National General Assembly meeting in September 2019, the United States raised the issue of human rights violations in Xinjiang. While discussing this, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said, “The United Nations, including its member states, have a responsibility to stand up for the human rights of people everywhere, including Muslims in Xinjiang”.xxiBecause of the detentions centers, Mike Pompeo had described China as “home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time”, during a conference in Washington in July 2019.xxii In the words of the US State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang are not about terrorism but they look more like a “war on religion”.xxiiiAl Jazeera reported that as per some satellite reports in the last few years many mosques in and around Xinjiang have been either demolished or their domes have been removed.xxivThis indicates that the policies appear to be directed against the Muslim population of the region.
Thus it is no surprise that the Chinese government is trying to counter this global narrative at every level. The deputy foreign publicity director of the region, Ailiti Saliyev, while writing for Xinjiang Daily argued that, “Muslims living in Xinjiang are the happiest in the world”.xxv In another development, the Xinhua reported that ambassadors of around 50 countries to United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) had sent a letter, voicing their support for Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.xxvi
The path adopted by the government seem to be one where the Uyghur’s completely lose their ethnic uniqueness and almost become one with the Han population. The Uyghur’s have faced a consistent push from the central government which continues to look for ways to counter their uniqueness. More and more Han people migrating to Xinjiang and the drive to teach Mandarin further makes the Uyghur’s marginalised in their own region. In 1949, the Han population was about 6 percent of the population in Xinjiang but by 2011 it had risen to 38 percent. In addition, the Chinese government also employed new ‘hukou’ (household registration system) policy to encourage the Hans to migrate to Xinjiang.xxviiWhat needs to be questioned is how long such top down control will work to maintain the peace and stability in this region. The more Uyghur’s are pushed the more they might push back, the past violent incidents hint in that direction.
Contrary to the White Papers, reports based on the description provided by people who have managed to move out of the detention camps make out the situation as very difficult. The detainees are forced to express their loyalty to the CCP and live in almost ‘prison’ like conditions.xxviiiThe people are expected to show their loyalty to the CCP and are also forced to eat pork (an act which Islam prohibits). Some people who were detained in this centers have argued that the primary focus of was to “strip detainees of their religious belief”.xxix
The gap between the Chinese narratives and reporting on Xinjiang and the international narrative is wide. What is however noteworthy is that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has issued statements in favour of the Chinese policies in Xinjiang.xxx As China continues to invest heavily around the world under the BRI, it will manage to successfully silence any criticism about the allegations of growing human rights violations within its territory. China has always argued that the situation in Xinjiang is its internal issue and it is always antagonistic towards nations attempting to discuss developments in the region.
* The Authoress, Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council's.
i, South China Morning Post, China, 29 April 2014,https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1499803/xi-makes-rare-visit-xinjiangs-restive-south-bolster-anti-terror-campaign (accessed 16 August 2019).(2014), “President Xi Jinping delivers tough message to ‘frontline of terror’ on visit to Xinjiang”
iiMaizland, Lindsay, “China’s Crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang”, Council on Foreign Relations, 11 April 2019, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-crackdown-uighurs-xinjiang (accessed 16 August 2019).
iiiThe State Council, “Full text: The Fight against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 18 March 2019 http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2019/03/18/content_281476567813306.htm (accessed 21 August 2019).
ivThe State Council “Full text: Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 21 July 2019 http://www.china.org.cn/e-white/ (accessed 21 2019).
vThe State Council (2019), “Full text: The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 18 March 2019, http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2019/03/18/content_281476567813306.htm (accessed 16 August 2019).
viThe State Council (2019), “Full text: Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 21 July 2019, http://www.china.org.cn/e-white/ (accessed 16 August 2019).
viiThe State Council (2019), “Full text: Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang” The State Council, The People’s Republic of China, 21 July 2019, http://www.china.org.cn/e-white/ (accessed 22 August 2019).
ixThe State Council (2019), “Full Text: Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/16/c_138313359.htm (accessed 23 August 2019).
xThe State Council (2019), “Full Text: Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/16/c_138313359.htm (accessed 16 August 2019).
xiThe State Council (2019), “Full Text: Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/16/c_138313359.htm (accessed 21 August 2019).
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xiiiThe State Council (2019), “Full Text: Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang”, The People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/16/c_138313359.htm (accessed 23 August 2019).
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