China: From Ethnic Diversity to Ethnic Mingling

Xinjiang people uighur

 On June 16 China announced that it had reached a “broad consensus” about counter-terror work with United Nations, after UN’s chief for Counter-terrorism, Russian diplomat Vladimir Voronkov made a visit to Xinjiang from June 13-15. China’s handling of so called terror threat posed by Uighur extremists has been much talked about by western media and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres raised the issue about the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang in April when he visited Beijing and met State Councillor Wang Yi. UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet has been pushing China to allow UN access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detention of Uighur Muslims. Whether China encouraged the UN counter-terror chief to visit to circumvent the pressure it was coming under for its counter-terror measures is difficult to say but the visit certainly helped to ward off, for the time being, investigation by UNHRC team. Except it does not mean that China’s use of counter-terror approach towards Uighur Muslims and measures it has adopted for tackling it are above board.

Infact for years China denied existence of arbitrary detentions and enforced political re-eductaion bases. Then they claimed that these re-education camps were meant only against “minor criminals” and the idea was to “asist and educate” them. Its only since last year that China has begun to accept that “transformation through education” camps do exist in order to eliminate “religious extremism”. Indeed new rules enacted by the ruling Party allows “Governments at county level and above can set up education and trasnformation organisation and supervising departments” such as vocational training centres “to educate and transform people who have been infleunced by extremism” says a new clause in the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region Regulation on Anti-Extremism.

These centres apart from teaching vocational skills are required to provide education on spoken and written Chinese (Mandarin), aspects of law and organise “ideological education to eliminate extremism”. They are also expected to carry out psychological treatment and behaviour correction to “help trainees to transform their thoughts and return to society and their families.”

In March 2017 a law was passed to ban acts deemed manifestation of extremism, including wearing veils, having “abnormal” beard, refusing to watch TV, listen to Radio and preventing children from national education.

Xinjiang situated on ancient silk route is a major logistical hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xinjiang is also rich in oil and other natural deposits. Starting around turn of the century investments in oil, gas and other mineral extraction industry have resulted in influx of Han Chinese settlers to Xinjiang. In 2009 riots had broken out in capital Urumqi since then repression increased. But it took a new turn in 2014 when in the name of combating terrorism and extremism Chinese authorities cracked down on Uighurs. Observers claim that the new Communist Party leader of Xinjiang Chen Quanguo, who was previously posted in restive Tibet and also a key player in the suppression of Falun Gong sect/religion across China, brought in a new grid system under which authorities divided city into squares of about 500 people with a police outpost to keep tab on people. In rural areas every village got a police outpost. The other change he brought in was banning certain names (such as Imam or Mohammed) and long beards and began targetting certain practices and beliefs of Muslims.

It is worth noting that in China there has been, what the Chinese describe, as two-line struggle within the Party on its stance on ethnic and religious minorities. The two lines, were “themes”, “ethnic mingling” versus “ethnic diversity”. Under cultural revolution, ethnic groups had suffered at the hands of Red Guards zealots, thereafter Party had moderated its stance towards minorities. Indeed as late as in 1999 Chinese Government adopted a policy “to preserve the traditional cultures of the ethnic minorities, the state formulated plans or organised specialists for work invloving the collecting, editing, translating and publishing of their cultural heritage and protecting their famous historical monuments, scenic spots, rare cultural relics and other important items of historical and cultural heritage”. However, this policy did not survive for long. This was the period when many Uigurs chose to migrate to Turkey and Pakistan as well as to Central Asian Republics. In particular, some Uighurs joined Al Qaida in Afghanistan or later joined Al Nusrat front in Syria.

While China’s fear of radicalised Uighurs posing a threat to its security and BRI which passes through Xinjiang can not be dismissed. It is equally, if not more true that the way China has gone about handling this challenge is deplorable. Although at Central Ethnic Workshop in September 2014 President Xi Jinping sought to bring the debate between those espousing end to ethnic autonomy and those espousing its expansion, in reality he lay emphasis on promoting collective belonging through Mandarin language instruction, patriotic education in Frontier region, stressed “equality before law of everyone” rather than group differentiated rights under China’s Constitution. Party began to stress residential integration, joint schooling, inter-ethnic mobility and migration as ways of getting around extremism.In the process there is demographic transformation taking place which, given Xinjiang’s strategic location, is a counter-productive move.

It is significant that ‘transformation through education” was first tried out against Falun Gong members, who were Han Chinese and millions of them spread all across China. The same leadership team which undertook this task is also reportedly engaged in the “transformation through education” project today in Xinjiang. Although westerm media and human rights group cite figures of a million, the exact number of people is difficult to verify. While numbers may be exaggerated the coercive nature of this re-education is not. What is disturbing about them is the fact that unlike draconian laws which target ethnic extremists/militants, or ruthless approach towards those using violence, the “transformation through education” targets ordinary Uighurs, or civilians. Even discounting for western media’s biasesd reportage of China and China related news, one cannot ignore the fact that there is mass detention of Uighurs who spend from several months to years in such camps. And these camps, it appears from reports, are not benign since the very idea of transforming people’s attitude is inherently coercive.

What is unfortunate is not just the fact that Chinese ruling Party has not been able to evolve a approach towards ethnic minorities which is accomodative and allows them elbow room to protect their cultural specifity. Instead the Party perceives cultural and political diversity as being a threat, rather than a source of strength. And as a result shows no scruple in practising suppression of ethnic diversity, unmindful of what damage it causes to the people. What is worse is that they are oblivious of enlightened self-interest because had they been alert to it the Party would realise that they are actually sowing seeds of a long drawn out conflict. Because, just as they are unable to stamp out Falun Gong, despite ban and its criminalisation. Uighurs with their ethnic kin in CAR and Afghanistan and Turkey, can nurture their rage and resentment.

Since Xinjiang shares border with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Turkmenistan, trouble in Xinjiang is bound to spill over. Just as trouble in Afghanistan and Pakistan can spillover into Xinjiang. In other words, a wiser course would be for the Chinese Party to return to the Constitutional guarantees offered to minorities, and to policy of respect for “ethnic diversity” lest Xinjiang, strategic logistical hub remain turbulent putting a spoke in China’s BRI project, because ideas do not disappear.

Gautam Navlakha  is a political commentator



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