The Things We Cannot Say: Tales of China’s Muslim Minorities Who Fled State-sponsored Persecution
The cell was 1.8 meters high and maybe 80-by-80-centimeters wide. Erkin (pseudonym is used to protect the person’s identity) couldn’t remember the exact size. The four walls were closing in on him so tightly that he felt stuck in a narrow well. His hands were chained, and he could barely move. A guard poured a bucket of water over him as if the harsh winter of Xinjiang wasn’t already cold enough. With a sudden feeling of faintness, he fell.
Erkin was repeatedly punished with solitary confinement for challenging guards over his wrongful detention. During his last visit to China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, police arrested him for having acquired another citizenship (often of a Muslim country), which in fact is not a criminal offense under Chinese law.
“I asked them [the authorities] if I can hire a lawyer and they said, ‘No, you shouldn’t need a lawyer because you’re not [being] convicted. There’s no need to defend you against anything, you’re in a political education camp. All you have to do is just study.’” Erkin recalled his ordeal in an interview with Human Rights Watch after fleeing China in 2017.
Erkin is not alone in claiming the mistreatment of ethnic minorities by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. The region, on China’s northwest border with Central Asia, is home to 11.3 million Uyghur and 1.6 million Kazakh minorities who distinguish themselves as Turkic-speaking Muslims. In a report released this September, the New York-based Human Rights Watch interviewed five former detainees and 48 relatives of current detainees or individuals on Chinese authorities’ watch. A few reports estimate that hundreds of thousands of these minorities could be held in camps like Erkin’s.
Former detainees described these camps as military-style facilities, where they were required to “fold blankets neatly,” attend to a daily flag-raising ceremony and learn songs extolling the Communist Party of China. The detainees must master Mandarin, propaganda songs, and a list of rules and regulations before being released. A Foreign Policy article mentioned 48 red-flag behaviors that could land a Chinese Muslim in detainment, among which are owning knives, speaking native languages, carrying out religious practice, and maintaining foreign ties.
Despite the government’s official discourse of building a “united multi-ethnic nation with 56 ethnic groups”, Xinjiang has in recent years witnessed rising ethnic tension between ethnic Han and Uyghur Chinese. The “Han” referred to here, written as “汉” or “漢,” stands for an ethnic group and differentiates the Chinese or Korean surname “Han” (“韩”, “韓,” or “한”). The ethnic Han make up 37 percent of Xinjiang residents and 92 percent of the national population.
The deteriorating relations reached a climax in July 2009 when riots in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, left 197 dead and 1,721 injured. The incident began with Uyghur protesters calling for a full investigation into the deaths of two fellow Uyghurs in another province, then quickly escalated into violent attacks that targeted Han Chinese. Two days later, thousands of Han residents responded with counter-protest to revenge on Uyghurs. Media reports estimated that at least 1,500 people were arrested in connection with the rampage.
Following the incident, researcher David Tobin at the University of Glasgow conducted a study on ethnic unity and boundaries by interviewing over 100 Han and Uyghurs in Urumqi between September 2009 and July 2010. His findings show that the two ethnic groups tend to identify themselves as different communities: Han Chinese as part of China in East Asia versus Turks of East Turkestan in Central Asia.
Furthermore, many Han Chinese consider Xinjiang as “a wild frontier on the periphery of civilized China” and associate Uyghurs with backwardness. Uyghurs, however, see themselves as a declining ethnonational group struggling in a Han-dominated society. Tobin added that “the obstacle to peace in the region is not their difference, but how the difference is politically organized and manifested” in people’s daily practices and face-to-face interactions, suggesting a policy overhaul is necessary.
China’s current ethnic policy has its origins, at least theoretically, in the Soviet model of managing ethnicity issues. According to sociologist Dmitry Gorenburg at Harvard University, the Soviet Union pursued a dual approach toward its minorities by advocating regional ethnic autonomy and enacting assimilationist policies at the same time. The contradiction can be explained by “Lenin’s belief that minorities could only be brought to support socialism once they no longer felt oppressed by the Russian majority and were given the right to use their native language,” but the ultimate goal remains the merging of all ethnic groups into “a single communist mass.”
In the late 1950s, the communist government of China followed a tough assimilationist policy, enacting a series of radical reforms in Xinjiang as the rest of the country. The Communist Party banned sharia law and gave the Uyghur language a new Latin script. Uyghurs were permitted to occupy certain governmental positions, although the Constitution granted ethnic minorities the right to administer their internal affairs.
The subsequent Anti-rightist Campaign, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution purged Uyghur officials and destroyed the regional economy. It was also during this era when Han Chinese from other provinces joined the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and flooded into the region. The economic and paramilitary organization has since dominated the regional economic development, responsible for farming, animal husbandry, and infrastructure construction.
After the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader and promoted Hu Yaobang as the Party’s General Secretary. The new leadership adopted a moderate approach toward Xinjiang following the economic opening-up. New mosques and religious schools were built, and pilgrims could visit historical worship sites. Uyghurs were allowed to use the Arabic alphabet again, and publications in the vernacular language flourished.
Recovered old manuscripts, historical and biographical literature “created a selective nostalgia for supposedly glorious moments in what came to be seen as a millennia-deep Uyghur history,” wrote historian Rian Thum in his research The Uyghurs in Modern China.
This cultural renaissance took place amidst economic growth. The territory is well endowed with arable oases and hydrocarbon resources. The majority of Uyghurs were farmers who benefited from state subsidies and small-scale mercantile activities. The overall regional economy, however, remained dominated by the state-run enterprises and the paramilitary corps, which employed every few ethnic minorities.
“Many members of minority groups have been ‘marginalized’ in the recent developmental process, and they are facing many barriers and obstacles to participating in social and economic development,” according to sociologist Rong Ma at Peking University.
He added that Communism and Marxism have significantly lost their privilege and influence in Chinese society since the Cultural Revolution, and economic reform had created a market economy and diverse ownership forms in China. As a result, “the effectiveness of governmental policies toward minorities has also been weakened. Soviet theory can no longer cope with current social issues and attendant ethnic tensions,” Ma said.
The reawakened Uyghur identity and economic inequality are believed to have led to more visible political actions during the reform era. Along with the democratic movements in the rest of the country in the 1980s, reports of protests also emerged from Xinjiang. After the Tiananmen Square Crackdown of 1989, an uprising in the Uyghur village of Baren broke out with demonstrators “attacking police with firearms and homemade bombs,” historian Thum recounted.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent independence of neighboring states have further fueled Uyghurs’ aspiration for self-governance. Riots, bombings, and assassinations have persisted since the 1990s, causing Chinese authorities to revert to its radical assimilationist approach.
“Instead of resolving a longstanding political dispute between Uyghurs advocating independence and the Chinese government, this system has deepened Uyghur discontent and exacerbated conflict.” Gardner Bovingdon summarized in his study Autonomy in Xinjiang: Han Nationalist Imperatives and Uyghur Discontent.
Regardless of the academic consensus on readdressing Uyghurs’ political and economic grievances, top Chinese officials in Beijing continue to believe religious extremist and separatist ideologies were at the root. The official position is further strengthened by its nationalism rhetoric of foreign involvement in the separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet, which can easily rally public support from nationalist Han Chinese.
Following the 2014 Urumqi train-station bombing that corresponded to President Xi Jinping’s visit to the city, Chinese authorities have carried out a “Strike Hard Campaign” in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch called these anti-crime measures abusive, “because police and other officials are encouraged or pressured to achieve high rates of detentions, they are even more inclined than under ordinary circumstances to disregard basic rights guaranteed under Chinese law.”
Moreover, the government has divided the Muslim minorities into three categories: trustworthy, average, and untrustworthy, subjecting to different levels of restrictions and surveillance. From travel discrimination to religious suppression, electronic monitoring to bio-data collection, native language restriction to frequent police interrogations, the Muslim population has faced unprecedented repression.
In December of 2017, the Xinjiang regional government launched a “Unity Week” campaign to deepen mutual understanding and enhance ethnic unity. Han Chinese officials were paired with local rural Uyghur families and are required to sleep under the same roof for at least five days every two months. Human Rights Watch says Uyghurs consider the intrusive compulsory visit and stay of officials a way of home surveillance and further control.
In the wake of recent accusations of China’s mass detentions, Beijing initially denied the existence of these camps. On October 9, however, the regional government of Xinjiang passed a revision of local law backing the practice.
According to the newly added Article 33 of the “Xinjiang Regulations Against Extremism,” “educational transformation institutions” shall teach the common national language, laws and regulations, and vocational skills. These centers “should organize and carry out anti-extremist ideological education, psychological correction, and behavior correction to transform the thinking of the trainees to help them return to society, and to their family.”
At the end of his interview with Human Rights Watch, former detainee Erkin said in order to be freed from the camp he had to sign two statements stating he would never speak of his detention. “We have our spies out there, and we will know if you’re talking to people,” warned the guards.
The scenes at the camp still haunt Erkin. “I don’t want to recall it. Because once I start thinking about it, I can’t stop it. I want to push it out… I can’t work, and I’m incapacitated.”