In contemporary times, China, it appears, is mostly brought up in mainstream news for either its rapid growth, its economic tussle with America in regions like Africa, its machinations in the South China Sea, or its sinicization of the Uyghurs. The latter being the most vicious and the topic of deliberation here.
Sinicization is the practice of placing traditionally non-Chinese people under the influence of the primary ethnicity, the Hans, so that the former can adopt the Hans’ traditions, lifestyle, and culture.
The Uyghurs (or Uighurs) – a Turkic ethnicity – have historically lived largely in Central Asia and in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Notwithstanding the Hans, who form around 92% of China’s immense populace, there are 55 ethnic minority groups in the state, which includes the Hui, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and so on. The Uyghurs are primarily Muslims and speak the Uyghur language (a Turkic language). Tragically, the history of the conflict between the Uyghurs and the Hans dates back centuries to dynastic China. This article, however, focuses on the modern-day sinicization endeavors by the Chinese state particularly those after 9/11. Xinjiang is officially an “autonomous” region, however, its freedom “has largely been diminished in the wake of Chinese government’s repressive policies to de-radicalize Uyghur Muslims living in this region”.
Post-9/11: China & the Uyghur’s
Post-9/11 and the American-led war on terror, China’s motivation on battling the “three evils” i.e. terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism intensified. China has traditionally maintained that foreign actors have leveraged the Uyghurs to inflame problems in the state – however, after 9/11, this narrative was emboldened and China employed it to “bandwagon” on the war on terror to validate their ignominious machinations and activities against the Uyghurs. Under the pretense of extremism, the Chinese chastised the Uyghurs by employing harsh policies.
This “bandwagoning” scheme served two objectives for the state – first in mobilizing public support nationally by building a narrative that branded any call for autonomy as “terrorism”. Secondly, it aimed to diminish the international pressure that China faced due to their treatment of the Uyghurs by leveraging the worldwide apprehension over Islamic extremism. In other words, China sought to show the world that they were being “rightfully” strict against extremism and not the Uyghurs in general.
Subsequently, the latter has deepened the already existing schism between the Uyghurs and the Hans (and thus the state) and has therefore led to terrorist attacks by each ethnicity on the other as well as other forms of violence (such as communal rioting). Although, the “bandwagon” strategy rewarded China with a few short-term dividends – for example, the state was able to catalog the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as an international terrorist organization, but unfortunately, in the long run, they further shunned the Uyghurs and ironically internationalized their suffering. Today, one of the primary points of contention the international community has with China is their treatment of the Uyghurs.
Furthermore and even more ironically, China’s ostracization tactics and terrorism-related narrative shift post-9/11 has fueled a radical mentality in Xinjiang. By painting the totality of the Uyghur community with broad-brush strokes, China further disenfranchised the Uyghurs and thus made some of them more susceptible to the grip of terrorism. The mistreatment of the Uyghurs allowed terrorist groups space and a recruitment tool to radicalize Uyghurs against the Chinese state. China used a risky stratagem in antagonizing the Uyghurs as a whole and failed to foreshadow the Uyghurs’ shift from political objectives such as cultural tolerance and more autonomy, to extremism.
The Uyghurs Versus the Hans
In contemporary times, ethnic violence and terrorism at the hands of the Hans and the Uyghurs has intensified. Most tragic of all were the riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in 2009, which took the lives of around 200 people and injured over 1,700. The violence stemmed from a rumor floating in the Guangdong factory that two Han women were raped by six Uyghur men (no evidence was found to corroborate this rumor), which incensed some Han workers who then murdered two Uyghur co-workers. The Uyghur community was enraged and pointed fingers at the Chinese authorities for not arresting the men responsible for the murders. This led to a cascading effect and in following riots that engulfed Urumqi, the rioting Uyghurs retaliated by killing some Hans. Two days later, the police were deployed by the state and this time Han mobs armed with axes and hammers attacked Uyghur Muslims. Following the Urumqi riots, the state’s security and intelligence agencies mobilized leading to the disappearance of hundreds of Uyghurs who remain missing.
Notwithstanding the Urumqi riots, there have been other terrorist activities as well – this includes the 2010 Aksu bombing which saw a Uyghur igniting explosives which led to the deaths of 7 people. In the following year, 2011, two Uyghurs commandeered a truck, killed the truck driver, and subsequently drove into pedestrians. Following their extreme joyride, they proceeded to stab 6 people to death.
China has unfortunately responded to the aforementioned events of domestic terrorism by buttressing their security apparatus in Xinjiang, especially in the autonomous region’s capital, which likens a police state. This unrelenting behavior from the Chinese state will only breed more violence. The Chinese must learn from the Sri Lankan experience. The Sri Lankan armed forces did eventually end up defeating the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in 2009 but did so with brute force and indiscriminate means. Today while the LTTE stands defeated, the injustices against the Tamils persist and their circumstances remain grim. In other words, rather than using military means where necessary and “winning hearts and minds” vis-à-vis the civilians, the Sri Lankan government opted for indiscriminate targeting which can become the seed for future rebellions and insurgencies.
Xinjiang: The Surveillance State
“Convenience Police Stations” armed with facial-recognition cameras are present every 200 meters in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi. Rather than appearing like a city, Urumqi resembles a “police lab” where Muslim Uyghurs are treated as test subjects in an Islamophobic experiment. Metal detectors can be found at the entrances of all residential areas as well as shopping malls – checkpoints too have increased in numbers as have the number of policemen in the city. China has even utilized city/urban renewal projects in Urumqi, which has effectively destroyed the lower-class areas that housed many Uyghur Muslims – this has, in turn, enabled an exodus of many Uyghurs from the city.
The Chinese state’s advanced but highly invasive security system is the pinnacle of “the surveillance state”. Resembling something out of a sci-fi movie, it can identify residents as “normal”, “unsafe”, or “safe” based on factors such as age, foreign contacts, and religion etcetera. The authorities have made the collection of biometric data such as DNA and voice samples compulsory and subsequently use artificial intelligence to profile and track people. Tragically and indelibly Muslim Uyghurs are most susceptible to this intrusive system. Mosques are relentlessly scrutinized via surveillance and Chinese security officials make Uyghurs go through a face-scanning mechanism before entering mosques to pray.
Mosques have also fallen victim to sinicization endeavors as domes and other Islamic architectural facets (that are commonly present in mosques) are disallowed and must instead exemplify Chinese features. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), (published in September 2020) utilized images via satellites and on-the-ground reporting to showcase the destruction of Islamic shrines and mosques as well as the construction of detention camps in Xinjiang. Due to the destruction of many mosques, the report states that currently Xinjiang has the lowest number of mosques in its history since the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, the report noted that an estimated 8,500 mosques had been demolished. Also since 2017, 30% of integral Islamic sites such as shrines, cemeteries, and pilgrimage routes) had been demolished across the Xinjiang region while 28% had been altered or damaged in some way or the other.
There are even reports by human rights advocates that the state has barred Islamic robes, veils, and long beards. Contentious state-run initiatives like the Islamophobic “Project Beauty” have been used to acclimatize Uyghurs to the Chinese way of life. The Islamophobic initiative discourages Muslim women to veil – instead, it propagates that Muslim women should show off their beauty by wearing Han-centric clothing as this is “modern culture”.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect for Muslim Uyghurs is the outlawing of religious practices such as group readings of the Quran, discoursing on Islam, reading Islamic literature, teaching Islam to kids, and watching religious shows etcetera. These actions are punishable with imprisonment in internment camps (discussed ahead). Even the eating of halal food, marrying or burying the dead via Islamic tradition have virtually become crimes.
Internment Camps: Brainwashing, Torture, and Rape
Perhaps the most controversial thing of all is the creation and usage of internment camps in Xinjiang. Billions of dollars have been spent in the securitization of Xinjiang, which includes the creation of detention centers/internment camps (which China calls re-education camps). In these internment camps, Uyghurs that have been earmarked dangerous are given sinicization lessons – this includes educational classes on Chinese culture, language, and history. According to many sources, there are over 1 million Uyghurs detained in these internment camps by Chinese authorities. Children become defacto orphans due to their parents undergoing “proselytization sessions” in internment camps. Detainees are forced to sing Communist Party songs, attend self-criticism classes, learn about Chinese law and the “dangers” of Islam. There are many accounts of the ignominious treatment of detainees in these facilities. For example, Kayrat Samarkand describes his experience: he says that he was detained in a cramped cell with dozens of other people; he and other Muslims were made to sing Xi Jinping’s praises before they could eat; detainees were ordered to memorize “126 lies” about religion. Samarkand says that he was even tortured once. He recalls that a guard ordered him to make his bed – and when he did so the guard would mess his bed up again. The fourth time this happened, Samarkand picked the mattress and hurled it at the guard which resulted in Samarkand having to wear “iron clothes” – a meatal suit that weighed over 50 pounds. The plight of Uyghur women in these facilities is even more ineffable. Recently many reports have come out detailing the plight of the Uyghur women in these internment camps. In 2021, the BBC talked to one ex-detainee named Tursunay Ziawudun who spent 9 months in China’s internment camps. She states that women were from their cells every night and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. Horrifically, she was tortured and even gang-raped on three instances – each time by two or three men. Another woman, Gulzira Auelkhan, in the Uyghur detention camps states that she was forced to strip Uyghur women naked and then handcuff them for the Chinese men.
In conclusion, the state-sanctioned sinicized path to Islam and Uyghur culture now commands every aspect of the Uyghurs’ existence. Opting to follow Islam and/or the Uyghur tradition lands people in prison to be “re-educated”.
The state’s project requires Uyghurs to adopt a completely novel set of rules so that instead of the Islamic faith, the Uyghurs must obey China’s 12 secular values. To progress or at least survive, the Uyghurs must rescind their religion, dressing, language, and culture and sinicize completely to resemble the “archetype” Hans and become state-approved people of China.
China is making headlines (primarily negative ones) around the region and the globe, whether it is through movements in the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative, or its border disputes with India, but if its Uyghur treatment remains unchecked, they might be ironically planting seeds of discord and insurgency in the future. The shocking silence of many Muslim countries on the Uyghur situation coupled with the UN and the West’s inability to do anything except raise concerns has meant that China’s actions will run unabated and the Uyghurs will tragically continue down the painful path of sinicization.
*Sarmad Ishfaq works as a research fellow for the Lahore Centre for Peace Research. He has a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he graduated as the ‘Top Graduate’. He has several publications in peer-reviewed journals and international magazines in the areas of counter-terrorism/terrorism and the geopolitics of South Asia and the GCC.