Time to Unwrap the Bubble Thrown Around Xinjiang and Confront China’s Persecution of Muslim Uyghurs

Uyghur-China Dialogue
Marco Perduca and Rebiya Kadeer

China’s horrific treatment of Muslim Uyghurs (also spelled as Uighurs), which the state has been desperate to keep under wraps is increasingly becoming more apparent.

At a recent sitting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which commenced a review of China’s record, it was disclosed that more than a million Uyghur Muslims are estimated to be in detention. A shocking number and while it may sound incredible, it tragically is true.

Held without due process in what’s been described as “counter-extremism centers”, ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities face an uncertain future in perpetual captivity.

A recent profile on Xinjiang by the BBC situates it as China’s largest province. Though it experienced a short-lived period of independence, Xinjiang was never allowed to entrench and consolidate its sovereign power. China took control in 1949 when the Communists took power.

Rich in natural resources, Xinjiang is strategically located and bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan as well as Tibet Autonomous Region and the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. China has turned it out as its northwest doorway to Central and West Asia.

Despite this, Xinjiang’s 12 million Uyghur Muslims, are subject to a Chinese designed apartheid. In addition, Israeli-styled checkpoints severely impact on free movement which essentially ensures that they remain cut off from the outside world. That it resembles a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy is also reported to be a sort of “no rights zone” as per the UN.

The region which lies in the heart of the Silk Route, has seen regular outbreaks of state-sponsored violence, ostensibly to root out “extremism and separatist movements”.

Reports reveal that close to two million have been forced into so-called “re-education camps” for political and cultural indoctrination. Radio Free Asia recently obtained an official Chinese Communist Party recording which characterizes Uyghur Muslims in the most derogatory terms.

It claims that those who have been sent for “re-education” are “infected by an ideological illness”. The 12-minute audio clip in Uyghur language offers a rare glimpse into Beijing’s justification for mass jailing.

The crackdown on free speech and freedom of religious practices has become intolerable. In fact, human rights groups who under difficult conditions have been documenting state-sponsored terrorism, claim that the crackdown has gone too far.

Controls over religious practices and cultural expressions have increased. Those under the age of 17 are forbidden to enter mosques or make unauthorized pilgrimages to Mecca.

China’s emergence as a preeminent power and the special status it enjoys within South Africa’s domestic and foreign policies, ought to make it imperative for local analysts to take a closer look at its practice of oppression against Muslim Uyghurs.

Questions about why over the last two decades, the unrest in Xinjiang has intensified and the causes and form of the current rise of Uyghur nationalism, need to be probed in order to dispel Chinese propaganda which seeks to justify its aggressive conduct by relying on arguments that it is fighting “Islamic radicalism”.

The recent Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit held in South Africa rolled out the red carpet to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. His state visit and pledges to inject billions of dollars into SOEs attracted a great deal of publicity and debate on whether the ANC-led government has left the door open for China to dominate and overwhelm us.

A necessary debate by all means. Unfortunately, in the haze created by trade and economic opportunities, questions about human rights hardly featured. Even Khulu Mbatha, an adviser to President Cyril Ramaphosa, in an effort to idealize the importance of the summit, emphasized developmental objectives.

To be fair the BRICS Declaration does incorporate reference to promote and protect human rights. But does such a footnote, which implies that by including it as an afterthought, give any hope to Muslim Uyghurs that China will suspend it hostilities against them?

Unless more is known about China’s sledgehammer approach to silence Muslim Uyghurs, the chances of applying pressure on Xi Jinping will be zero. And so too with regards the sentence to life in prison for Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti. Compared to Nelson Mandela, Tohti, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing, was found guilty of “separatism” – an absurd charge usually leveled against Uyghurs.

Though two years have passed since his conviction by a Chinese court, Tohti’s incarceration is seen as a warning to all other Uyghurs: if you agitate for freedom from Chinese domination, you’ll either end up in “re-education detention centers” or face life in prison. In other words, activism for human rights will face the severest of punishments.

While China is intolerant of public scrutiny of its persecution of Muslim Uyghurs, and to counterbalance this extraordinary repression, it showcases Hui Muslims as free and equal citizens. The Hui population which number about 12 million, form a sizable minority in mainland China. They are descendants of Persian and Arab merchants on the Silk Road, who arrived in China over 1,200 years ago. As China’s “preferred” Muslims – a distinction analysts point to, some Hui live a life culturally and religiously indistinguishable from Han Chinese in first-tier cities such as Shanghai or Beijing.

However, to confuse Hui with Uyghur will result in losing the focus on Xinjiang’s battle for self-determination. Merely advocating such an idea is punishable by death or life imprisonment.

The bubble which China has created to insulate itself from attacks by human rights groups needs to be unwrapped.

Is South Africa the country in which to do so? I say yes it is and no need to wait for another BRICS summit to begin contesting China’s militarization of Xinjiang.