China's Ethnic Minorities

Originally published in the December 2018 journal, Hanging By a Thread, page 12, cont page 40

In China’s newest “vocational education and training program,” participants are taught about vital skills in Chinese life, such as Mandarin, Chinese history and culture, and the Constitution. The camp offers free, nutritious meals, dormitories equipped with radios and TV, and participants are allowed to partake in dancing, singing, and sports contests. Defying stigmas surrounding mental health, the program also offers professional psychological counseling services and pays “high attention” to trainees’ mental health. According to Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in an interview with Xinhua News Agency, the participants never realized “that life can be so colorful.”

Except the Xinhua News Agency is completely state-run, and independent news and human rights organizations are forbidden from observing the programs. These “dormitories” are accessible to only government officials and satellites. The “participants” are forced to attend and, according to a Human Rights Watch report, consist of over one million Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group in China that accounts for 8 million of Xinjiang’s 19 million population. And the mental health services? They are a gimmick used to erase Islamic practice and thought in an attempt to “assimilate” the Uyghur people.

From this information, one might believe that the Chinese government oppresses all religious minority groups. That is not true. There exists another Muslim minority group, the Hui, who are known for being the most “successful” minority group in China. Why does one Muslim minority group get persecuted, and the other is accepted within Chinese society? In short, the Hui are the only minority group in China “for which religion…is the sole unifying criterion of identity”.

The Uyghur have lived in the region for millennia, known before as East Turkistan. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China invaded the region, and in 1955 declared the creation of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This region accounts for onesixth of China’s total landmass. It is also oil rich. In July, the China National Petroleum Corp said it will spend more than 150 billion yuan ($22 billion) by 2020 to boost oil and gas production in the western region of Xinjiang in order to counteract falling production from ageing fields in northeast China. According to Reuters, this new investment would boost output from the region by at least 75 percent by 2020.

The Uyghur people are distinct from the majority Han Chinese. They have their own language, culture, and music, which the government sees as an ethno-nationalist threat. China has tried many assimilation measures since conquering Xinjiang. They have encouraged Han migration to Xinjiang: in 1949, Uyghurs made up 75 percent of Xinjiang and Han only 7 percent, while today Uyghurs are only 48 percent of the population and Han account for 36 percent. The Chinese government has also instituted bans on Ramadan, growing beards, and giving Islamic names to children. Today, Xinjiang is inundated with face-recognition cameras and authorities have established “green channel” checkpoints in some areas, where Han are allowed to pass through without scrutiny, while Uyghurs have to undergo rigid security controls in a separate line. There have even been reports on widespread, illicit organ harvesting of Uyghur prisoners, although officials deny these claims. “It seems people are not allowed to even think without China’s permission,” said Gulnaz Uighur, a Uyghur Muslim who fled China, in a September 2018 column with The Independent.

Despite growing international concern over China’s treatment of the Uyghur people and calls to allow independent counsel into the detention facilities, the Chinese government has long denied that such facilities exist. With satellite images proving otherwise, and an increasing amount of media attention devoted to the human rights atrocity, the government changed tactics. On October 16, it admitted to creating “vocational education and training programs,” releasing a 15-minute news package in a detention facility, showing detainees in tracksuits learning Chinese and trades such as carpentry, baking, and sewing.

Shohrat Zakir and other officials from the Communist Party claim the programs are designed to counter “the three evil forces”: terrorism, extremism and separatism. A speech by the Chinese Communist Youth League’s Xinjiang Branch stated that the purpose of the training is to “eradicate from the mind thoughts about religious extremism and violent terrorism, and to cure ideological diseases.” The speaker later followed with an ominous remark, claiming, “If the education is not going well, we will continue to provide free education, until the students achieve satisfactory results and graduate smoothly”. In fact, most of the imprisoned Uyghur pose no security threat, aside from peaceful practice of their religion and culture. A September 2018 Human Rights Watch report said that it was not uncommon for Uyghur people, particularly from Hotan and Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, to report that half or more of their immediate family members are in political education camps, pre-trial detention, or prison.

If the government sees “extremism” in Uyghur culture and religion, why is the Hui’s practice of Islam non-threatening? The Hui are Han Chinese. They speak Mandarin and their cultural practices are a mix between Islamic and Chinese tradition. Aside from refraining from pork and alcohol, their diets are very similar to the Han’s. However, while the Hui may have power right now, historical precedent shows that ideological compulsion is a slippery slope. First, they came for the Uyghurs. Then they came for the Tibetan Buddhists, and then the Kazakhs. If the Hui do not speak out now because they are not the Uyghurs, or the Tibetans, or the Kazakhs, there may be no one left to speak out for them. China’s decision to acknowledge the existence of reeducation camps and attempts to justify them should cause concern for the Hui. They may be Han Chinese, but they still practice a religion foreign to most Han.

While the Chinese government has committed atrocious human rights abuses in order to control minority groups and usher ideological compulsion, international actors will not take adequate action against China, if they pursue any form of action. China is the world’s second largest economy, behind the United States, and that coupled with Chinese investment in developing parts of the world ensures its place as a major world player for generations to come. Thus, countries will need to seriously consider the potential economic costs of holding China accountable for its actions and the potential for retribution. It seems clear that the most feasible solution lies within China: solidarity among China’s ethnic minority groups. If the Hui utilize what power they have now to organize against reeducation camps, maybe Niemöller’s poem will carry less significance when examining the present situation.

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