It is a lengthy conflict between Uyghurs and the modern Chinese state in settling Xinjiang, an area of importance for China’s both economic and ethnic policy. Using digital surveillance and placing Uyghurs in camps, the state is conducting a “slow genocide” in Xinjiang. However, the issue is not just a domestic one. China has been working to put psychological pressure on the large Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, and therefore the relations with Turkey are very important for China.
These are some key takeaways from the discussion “Understanding China´s Power and its Abuse in Xinjiang” organised by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute (EFPI) at the ICDS on 18 March 2021, and moderated by Frank Jüris, Research Fellow of EFPI/ICDS.
The discussion with Sean R. Roberts (US), Darren Byler (US) and Ondřej Klimeš (CZ) focused on three questions:
- Why and how has the ethnic minority issue in Xinjiang been framed as fight against terrorism?
- How has the building of police state benefitted both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and some big tech companies operating in the region?
- How has the CCP been able to muffle the Muslim-majority countries about persecutions of Turkic speaking minorities in Xinjiang?
Sean R. Roberts, Director of International Development Studies at Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU, concentrated in his talk on unfound Uyghur terrorist threat and cultural genocide against Uyghur people by the Chinese government, while stressing that the term ’counterterrorism’ is used as a justification for its actions by the latter. Roberts refers to the events taking place with Uyghurs and other indigenous people in Uyghur area as ’reminiscent’ of what has happened to other indigenous people in the world. The Chinese state considers all Uyghurs as potential terrorists and extremists, while justifying its actions against Uyghurs by picturing the latter as existential threat, caused by extremist Islamic ideas.
Roberts brought out the reasons why this is happening to Uyghurs now:
- firstly, it is a lengthy conflict between Uyghurs and the modern Chinese state in settling Xinjiang;
- secondly, the issues of sovereignty and governance of the area that Uyghurs consider their homeland;
- thirdly, it is affected by Xi Jinping’s authoritarian term and China’s second generation’s ethnic policy;
- finally, the economic importance of Xinjiang and its role in the Belt and Road initiative.
Darren Byler, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, started off by explaining the historical background of the issue. China started a ’colonial capture’ of Uyghurs in the 1990’s when it built infrastructure to have access to the region’s national resources. It has gradually developed into capturing Muslim minorities, monitoring their behaviour for data harvesting and using them for forced labour. Turning point was 2014 Kunming attack, after which the Chinese state launched a de-extremification campaign against all Uyghur population, that conflated religious practise with political violence.
Byler brought out examples of digital surveillance that has been carried out by Chinese state officials in order to convict Uyghurs for misdoings that has no legal ground in Chinese or international law e.g., watching Turkish TV. The Uyghurs are sent to re-education camps and after graduation to work in factories below minimum wage (1/6th of minimum wage), without the possibility to refuse or leave. This has created a system of unfreedom and destruction of Uyghur people, that according to Byler leads to “slow genocide” since Chinese authorities want the Uyghurs to be productive while the state is destroying their ethnicity and culture.
Ondřej Klimeš, Researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences pointed out that Xinjiang’s policies have become detrimental to its political interest both home and abroad. One case in particular is Turkey, where CCP has been consistently trying to refute the information distributed by the large and active Uyghur community, whose existence is essential for the survival of Uyghur culture. The pointing of Liu Shaobin, a former Head of China’s Foreign Ministry External Security Affairs Department, as a new Ambassador of China to Ankara is a clear example how important are relations with Turkey for China, notably security-wise. According to Klimeš, China has been working to put psychological pressure on Uyghur diaspora, by targeting business people, students in exile as well as Uyghurs living in Xinjiang to ask them to spy on their fellow exiles in Turkey and restrain from participating in protests. Legal measures that China has been trying to institute for the future debate on the ratification of the extradition treaty which Turkey has concluded with China in May 2017 and which has been ratified by China in December 2020, waiting to be ratified in Turkish National Assembly. China has been active to steer the narrative in its favour by employing the different actors of its propaganda and united front work systems active in Turkey.
The first discussion in the series was held in February 2020. We discussed China’s long-term goals for trade and investments in Europe with Philippe Le Corre, a Research Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Find out more here.