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What’s next for Xinjiang?

Image credit: Zach Stern (Creative Commons: Flickr)

In China’s north-west lies the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: a vast, remote area that has become the setting of a contemporary cultural cleansing exercise conducted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic people group, have resided in the Tarim Basin region of Xinjiang for millennia, and today make up roughly half of Xinjiang’s population.

Owing to strong Islamic influences and its remote locale in the borderlands of Central Asia, Uyghur culture differs significantly from that of China’s ethnic Han majority. In recent years however, the CCP’s neo-colonial sinicisation policies and crackdown on Uyghur culture have transformed the region into a dystopian police state.

Credible reports from foreign journalists describe the ubiquity of facial-recognition cameras, police checkpoints, security guards, and CCP propaganda that have appeared across Xinjiang. The deployment of such an invasive surveillance apparatus has been coupled with the establishment of a network of re-education camps, the existence of which has been substantiated by the testimonies of former detainees, as well as evidence discovered by amateur researchers trawling through satellite images, government tender notices, and job postings.

Estimates for the number of detainees vary wildly, from several hundred thousand to 3 million. Inside the camps, Uyghurs, and Muslims of Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Hui ethnicities, are allegedly forced to study and venerate the CCP ideology, denounce Islam and Uyghur culture, and perform labour. Reports indicate that torture, rape, starvation and physical abuse occur within the camps.

Outside the camps, Uyghurs exist in the open-air prisons of cities blanketed with surveillance equipment, and are regulated by stringent new laws that prohibit the expression of Muslim identity. Furthermore, the Uyghur diaspora, which includes some Australian citizens and permanent residents, has been harassed and intimidated by various arms of the CCP. The party has used the threat of detaining family members in Xinjiang against Uyghurs on Australian soil in attempts to silence criticism and, in some cases, force them to return to China.

After initially denying the existence of the re-education camps, the CCP altered its narrative in 2018 to instead justify the camps’ existence as part of a “vocational education training program” for the purposes of “counterterrorism” and religious “de-extremification”. However, a more accurate explanation is that increased ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, stemming from Uyghur discontent with the CCP’s repressive policies, has led to break outs of riots, which have been subsequently framed as terrorism and used as pretext for the pervasive restrictions on and gross human rights violations of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang. Moreover, the CCP’s crackdown on Islam parallels its efforts to control Falun Gong and Buddhism, which is paradigmatic of its campaign to entrench the party’s doctrine as the dominant ideology within the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has drawn international censure from a myriad of scholars, Western governments, and human rights groups, yet no government has imposed related sanctions.

However, as the US-China trade war escalates, the US is poised to impose targeted sanctions against individuals and organisations complicit in the Xinjiang crisis. Such sanctions, as well as the ensured protection of the Uyghur diaspora in the US, will be introduced should The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 be passed by Congress. However, evidence that substantiates the claims of human rights violations in Xinjiang has been available for months now, which suggests that perhaps these US sanctions are being deployed as a means to increase pressure on the PRC in the trade war, rather than as a genuine response to the tragedy unfolding in China’s west.

Should the US proceed with sanctions, and even if other Western countries follow suit, the CCP is unlikely to bow to international pressure and suspend its crackdown in Xinjiang. Domestic stability is arguably the party’s paramount objective, and the sinicisation of ethnic minorities constitutes a crucial element of this exercise. The CCP undoubtedly anticipated international criticism for its mistreatment of the Uyghurs, and hence is likely prepared to endure the current opprobrium in order to secularise Xinjiang and propagate ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ as the dominant ideology within the region.

However, it’s possible that the rebranding of the re-education camps as vocational training centres signals that the party intends to eventually release and reintegrate detainees through systems of low-skilled, coerced labour. This could potentially occur through some kind of nationwide resettlement scheme to disperse the Uyghur population.

Nevertheless, the party’s continued persecution of Islam is likely to generate hostility towards China from Muslims worldwide. Just as the US War on Terror arguably fuelled Islamic extremism and resentment of the West, it’s possible that the CCP’s Strike Hard Against Violent Extremism campaign will increase animosity and terrorist threats against the PRC, achieving the very opposite of what the party set out to do.

Similarly, as the suffering of Uyghurs in the PRC continues, the worldwide Uyghur diaspora is likely to grow increasingly anguished. According to a Uyghur Radio Free Asia journalist, every Uyghur Muslim has family in Xinjiang’s re-education camps. The psychological and emotional torment of witnessing a government attempt to purge your homeland of its culture by detaining friends and relatives will shape the psyche of an entire people in years to come.

The reaction of Uyghurs across the world to the Xinjiang crackdown is poised to grow into a crucial dynamic of this crisis.

As the violation of human rights continues in the PRC under the pretext of national security, the party appears to have doubled down on President Xi’s Xinjiang policy. Despite the rising tide of international censure, the outlook appears bleak for China’s Uyghurs. As the party watches Xinjiang, the world watches the party.

Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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