After months of speculation, China has admitted to holding numerous Muslim Uighur citizens of Xinjiang in ‘vocational training centres’, apparently aimed at ‘countering extremism”. Exiled Uighurs say as many as a million Uighurs are forcibly detained in what they call ‘re-education camps’. Nicholas Nugent, who has visited Xinjiang, reports.
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is, by a long margin, China’s largest province. Once known as Chinese Turkestan, it was incorporated into the People’s Republic in 1949 as its westernmost territory. The region’s largely Uighur population hashistorically experienced episodes of independence,like the Buddhist citizens of its south eastern neighbour, Tibet, which was incorporated fully into the People’s Republic in the 1950s. The name ‘Xinjiang’ literally translates as ‘New Frontier’.
Uighurs are a Muslim people who speak a Turkic language and are closely related to their neighbours, the people of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, all now independent republics. The estimated 8 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang were at first given a large measure of autonomy; then state-sponsored migration of Han Chinese into this vast and sparsely populated region, much of it taken up by the Taklamakan Desert, changed the demographic balance. There are now two and a half times as many Chinese as Uighursliving in Xinjiang.
Due to Xinjiang’s strategic location, the Chinese government are nervous about any revival of the separatist movement that saw bombings in cities as far away as Beijing and Kunming in 2013-4. Sitting on the fabled ‘Silk Route’ that connected China with Europe, Xinjiang has borders with eight countries including Mongolia, Russia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and three of the former Soviet Central Asian republics.
As China pushes ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), once dubbed ‘the new Silk Route’, many of its infrastructural transport projects cross Xinjiang to connect China to South Asia and Europe. For example, a prominent BRI investment is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),which will give China direct access to the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar – by road, railway and oil pipeline. China envisages importing oil from the Persian Gulf through this pipeline.
Another pipeline to the north of Xinjiang brings natural gas from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to fuel Chinese industry. Long-distance trains run regularly across former Soviet territory to distribute Chinese exports to Western Europe, while land-locked republics such as Uzbekistan use the same rail link to export their produce and manufactured goods via the Chinese port of Shanghai.
Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, has beenbound more closely to the Chinese heartland with the inauguration in 2015 of a high-speed rail link to Beijing and Shanghai. China’s westernmost city of Kashgar is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing.
China’s strategy towards Xinjiang was to invest and encourage settlers from the more densely populated Chinese heartland to settle there. Now Beijing has decided that part of its ‘extremist’ or ‘separatist’ problem lies in Uighur culture, which no amount of inward investment and job opportunities will solve. Hence they have taken to detaining Uighur citizens in camps for a programme of educationin which loyalty to the Chinese state and fluency in Chinese are taught. Uighurs who have been through the process and subsequently gone into exile say there is no option about attending these courses.
Four years ago I saw plenty of activity at Kashgar’s mosques but open worship is now reported to have declined considerably. Muslim women are not allowed to wear headscarves and men are banned from growing beards. The authorities see as much of a threat from militant Islam as from separatism, the desire to restore independence to Chinese Turkestan.
A weak point on China’s border is thought to be the very route to Pakistan in which China has invested so heavily, the CPEC Karakoram Highway, which links Kashgar and the southern city of Tashkurgan – where the population is not Uighur but Persian-speaking Tajiks – to the Pakistan capital, Islamabad. It is already a trading route and China fears the highway allows Uighur militants – encouraged into militancy through contacts with both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, andsettled in lawless regions of Pakistan close to the Afghan border – to travel easily to China. Chinese workers in Pakistan helping to build the CPEC infrastructure doubtless have their ears close to the ground, assessing any potential threat to the People’s Republic.
The best known campaigner for Uighur separatism is 72-year old businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, who heads the World Uighur Congress. She became wealthy trading between Xinjiang and Russia and was a delegate to the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The Chinese authorities arrested her for sending secret documents on the fate of Uighurs abroad. Later she was released into exile in the United States where she now lives with her family.
A recent BBC report compared satellite images around the Xinjiang town of Dabancheng, an hour’s drive from Urumchi, to show that a large camp had been created there since 2015 which is believed to house Uighurs undergoing ‘vocational training’. The BBC reporter spoke of a ‘mini-city sprouting from the desert and bristling with cranes… row upon row of giant, grey buildings – all of them four storeys high’. A resident of Dabancheng told the BBC: ‘There are tens of thousands of people there now. They have some problems with their thoughts.’ Dabancheng is believed to be one of at least 40such camps.
Victor Gao of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation think-tank defended the Chinese government’s move, telling broadcaster Al Jazeera it was within its rights to combat what he calls the three evils of ‘terrorism, extremism and separatism’. But the United Nations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have all spoken out against Chinese policy in Xinjiang, which allegedly includes a ban on teaching the Uighur language in schools. Amnesty International said in September that‘hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart by this massive crackdown… it is time the Chinese authorities give them answers’.