Along with restrictions on halal food, Islamic dress, and general religiosity, the ongoing crackdown has primarily affected the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who historically were the majority in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang defended recent measures at a press briefing Thursday, saying “taking measures to prevent and crack down on terrorism and extremism have helped preserve stability, as well as the life and livelihood of people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”
While the strategies Beijing is taking are new — and include a state-of-the-art surveillance regime — they echo a longtime paranoia about Xinjiang and a deep suspicion of its non-Han population among China’s rulers which have historically resulted in oppression and rebellion.
While the East Turkestan independence movements (and their successors today) were largely based on ethnonationalist arguments about a homeland for Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, since the turn of the millennium Beijing’s chief concern has been the potential spread of radical Islam in the region, and the alleged influence of international terrorist organizations.
This was despite there being such little information available on ETIM at the time or evidence supporting Beijing’s claims that some openly questioned whether it existed as a coherent group at all.
Even as the authorities were focused on Islamic terrorism, the biggest unrest in Xinjiang in recent years appeared to have nothing to do with religion.
Internet access to all of Xinjiang, along with international phone and text messaging services, was cut off for almost a year in the wake of the violence.
Since the 2009 violence — which came shortly after unrest in Tibet — restrictions on the lives of ordinary Uyghurs in Xinjiang have increased, even as the space to criticize and push for alternative policies has narrowed.
The region has a multitude of problems deserving of discussion beyond security and ethnic unrest. Xinjiang is one of China’s poorest areas, and development has lagged other parts of the country. Uyghurs and other minorities complain of discrimination in employment and education, and corruption is rife within state-controlled industries that continue to dominate the local economy.
Increasingly however, any criticism of these issues — particularly anything which touches on ethnic or religious matters — is cast as advocating for independence or seeking to undermine the government.
No way out
Beijing’s paranoia about terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang is real and understandable.
But despite numerous warnings about this resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the authorities’ reaction has only been to crack down harder and restrict Muslim life further.
This narrative has been used to justify not only restrictions on Islam, but the massive securitization of Xinjiang, with armed police manning checkpoints across cities, surveillance cameras everywhere, and citizens unable to leave the region.
That approach reached its zenith in the past year with the expanding network of “re-education camps,” where predominantly Uyghur internees are forced to attend “anti-extremist ideological” classes and their behavior — particularly religious behavior — is tightly controlled.
“Detentions are extra-legal, with no legal representation allowed throughout the process of arrest and incarceration,” according to the World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based umbrella group for the Uyghur diaspora, which recently submitted evidence to the United Nations about the camps.
While the Chinese government initially pushed back against these claims — saying “Xinjiang citizens including the Uyghurs enjoy equal freedoms and rights” — the apparent acknowledgment and legalization of the camps this week, as well as increasing discussion of the issue in state media, indicates Beijing may be doubling down on its policies in Xinjiang in the face of growing international condemnation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu rejected US criticism at a regular press briefing Thursday, saying people had “been creating lies and launching baseless accusations at the appropriate counter-terrorism measures taken by the Xinjiang authorities.”
Just as in Hong Kong, where China’s heavy-handed approach arguably inspired support for independence, Beijing is left with a problem that it created, but one that perversely justifies its earlier approach.
Charting an alternative path of reconciliation and respect for human rights would require a subtlety in dealing with dissent that Xi’s administration has so far not shown evidence of.