Its cover finally blown by major document leaks in late 2019, the Chinese government no longer denies that it has built a high-tech surveillance state to control the Muslim Uyghur population living in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang.
Thanks to the work of a small group of human rights activists, academics, reporters, and the Uyghur people themselves, Beijing has shifted strategy to try justify its draconian “Xinjiang Experiment”.
Since 2017, the government has detained over a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in “training” camps, apparently with the goals of sinicising as well as converting them to communism.
The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists delivered the coup-de-grace evidence through hundreds of pages detailing how the government of President Xi Jinping conceived, planned, approved and implemented a comprehensive strategy to create the world’s most sophisticated laboratory for mass control.
Beyond the obvious issue of human rights abuses, the Xinjiang surveillance state raises wider questions for everyone.
Is this the future model of governance for dealing with the threats of ethnic conflicts, public safety, disease control, and competition for resources in a densely-populated planet?
Will this be our collective Orwellian fate if China becomes the world’s leading superpower?
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the lead reporter for the international consortium's coverage of the Xinjiang Cables, reflected some of those bleak sentiments in a podcast interview with SupChina’s Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn on December 5.
“Many countries look to China as a model of governance,” she said, explaining why people in the rest of the world should worry about what goes on in Xinjiang. (@41.25 mins). What happens in Xinjiang won’t stay in Xinjiang, she warned.
The explosive stories most certainly moved the U.S. House of Representatives to vote overwhelmingly—407 to 1—on December 3 to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019.
Among other things, it paves the way for the U.S. government to eventually sanction Chinese officials for human-rights violations in illegally detaining and ‘retraining’ the Uyghurs and other minorities to become more Chinese and communist.
On December 19, the European Parliament passed a resolution for targeted sanctions and asset freezes against the Chinese officials responsible for the Xinjiang policy of “severe repression”.
The stage is being set for the U.S. and China to add Xinjiang to their growing list of bitter disputes. The stage is also set for the opening of Pandora’s box, not just for these two countries, but for the world.
The U.S. question
Allen-Ebrahimian and others have expressed the hope that the International Criminal Court will eventually be moved to prosecute Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping himself. It might take time, she opines, as those seeking justice must contend with China’s growing diplomatic and economic might.
But it’s more complicated than that. As the Uyghurs’ struggle is increasingly dependent on American support, the push to prosecute China’s “crimes against humanity” could raise potentially troubling questions for the U.S. itself:
1. Will the focus on China’s abusive policies in Xinjiang draw attention to America’s own record of war crimes, human rights violations and illegal military actions in other countries? Wikipedia has aggregated a list of alleged US war crimes going back several decades. Already, questions are being asked about both the legality and morality of President Donald Trump’s assassination of Iran’s military leader, Qassem Soleimani, on January 3, 2020.
2. Does the International Criminal Court have the credibility to prosecute Chinese officials given that it has been undermined and threatened by the U.S.?
3. Did U.S. troops commit war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan? If an independent international commission were to investigate Chinese government crimes against the Uyghur people, should there be one to look into U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan?
4. If the U.S. is found to have committed war crimes, which agency should prosecute its cases? As the U.S. is not a signatory to the Rome Convention that created the International Criminal Court, America’s alleged crimes would fall outside that court’s jurisdiction.
These questions do not downplay the horror show in Xinjiang, nor excuse Beijing’s totalitarian grip on the Uyghurs in the implementation of its "war on terror" and the Belt and Road Initiative strategy.
But it would be amiss not to compare the scale of the injustices inflicted by the U.S. and Chinese governments on two separate groups of largely innocent people.
Shortly after the New York Times and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published their Xinjiang stories, the Washington Post released its equally sensational “Afghanistan Papers”. Based on over 2,000 pages of interviews with senior U.S. government officials and others directly involved in the war, the Washington Post documented a long history of U.S. deception and coverup in the buildup and conduct in its ongoing 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post said it had to wage its own legal battle against the U.S. government for over three years to secure the release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Afghanistan Papers complement the Xinjiang Cables in exposing the duplicity of both the U.S. and Chinese governments in suppressing Muslim populations in the name of fighting the war on terror.
Amid the growing call for action against Beijing with the release of the Xinjiang Cables, how should the international community respond to allegations contained in the Afghanistan Papers?
The Kurdish question
Now that their cause has captured world attention, the Uyghurs face questions about their long-term goals, and how they plan to achieve them.
With regard to their dependence on U.S. support, the Kurds provide an important case study as they have a long history of working with, and for, the West. Like the Uyghurs, the Kurds are an ancient people mostly of Islamic faith seeking to establish their own state.
At the behest of the U.S. in the 1980s, the Kurds fought Iraq’s late dictator, Saddam Hussein, and suffered huge casualties that included genocide at the hands of Baghdad. Between 2014 and 2017, Kurdish fighters played an important role in helping the allied forces defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The estimated 35 million Kurds, who live scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, believe that they will eventually be rewarded for their support of the U.S.
It will be a long wait. Last October, President Trump suddenly withdrew U.S. troops from northern Syria that had been a safe zone for the Kurds. Within hours, Turkey, which bitterly opposes Kurdish independence, sent troops in to take over the region.
Whatever motivated Trump’s decision, the shocking move immediately forced over 130,000 Kurds to flee as refugees while reviving ISIS’s fortunes in the region, according to Rolling Stone magazine. Some of the 11,000 ISIS fighters imprisoned by the Kurds broke free during the confusion and are regrouping to resume their reign of terror. The Kurds will be one of their targets in future attacks of revenge.
Yet, Trump’s act of betrayal against the Kurds was not the first by the U.S. According to the Intercept, the U.S. has turned its back on the Kurds eight times since the late 1800s. Writer Jon Schwarz observed:
“…the Kurds are a perfect tool for U.S. foreign policy. We can arm the Kurds in whichever of these countries is currently our enemy, whether to make trouble for that country’s government or to accomplish various other objectives.”
Repeatedly, the Kurds have seen their sacrifices wasted and their hopes dashed after being used to fulfil western strategic objectives to constantly fight the “bad guys”.
With the U.S. and China locked in a long struggle, the Uyghurs must consider the risk that they too could end up as dispensable pawns in a chest game among the big powers.
The Xinjiang question
Once an obscure frontier land, Xinjiang has become a conundrum for the world. As a strategic piece on the Europe-Asia land mass, the 1.67-million-square kilometre resource-rich region is no longer just an Uyghur concern as it is pivotal to President Xi’s US$1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
If the Chinese government succeeds in its goal of eradicating or sinicising the Uyghur identity, it will not just be their culture or religion that is at risk. Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang represents the most advanced working model for totalitarian rule. It is now conceivable for a single powerful politician, armed with the right technology and draconian regulations, to attempt to subjugate and mould a sizeable group of people.
Human rights groups have raised the alarm, but stopping the Xinjiang Experiment is only a short-term goal that raises long-term questions.
U.S. support for protecting the Uyghurs’ human rights and their way of life is crucial at this juncture, but American intentions for Xinjiang are not entirely clear either.
Related to the Kurdish question, will the U.S. support the Uyghurs’ demand for an independent state? Is the U.S. looking at Xinjiang as part of its own geopolitical chessboard to check China’s rise as well as stop Russia’s attempted resurgence?
If the U.S. is not prepared to support Uyghur independence, will that encourage the community to seek support from elsewhere? Could this open Xinjiang to the prospect of long-term political instability?
The Muslim question
“Why aren’t Muslim-majority countries acting against Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?” has become a popular topic of discussion about China today.
In a tweet on January 15, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Maya Wang demanded this of Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population:
“When will you speak up for (the) Uyghurs?”
It was a follow-up to her Jakarta Post commentary in February 2019, which criticized the Indonesian government’s “lacklustre” response to reports about Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Last July, the Washington Post practically accused the Muslim world of supporting China’s “cultural genocide of Uighurs”.
“Aren’t they ashamed?” the publication said in an editorial denouncing at least a dozen Muslim-majority countries for officially endorsing China’s human rights record, including its security operations in Xinjiang.
The criticism is misplaced, as it treats Muslim countries as a monolithic bloc with identical foreign policy interests. It is based on the stereotype that people of the same ethnicity, skin colour, or religious affiliation must think and act alike.
This would be akin to asking why countries with large Christian populations are not collectively demanding that Saudi Arabia allow non-Muslims freedom of worship. Or why countries with sizeable Buddhist populations have not acted against the rise of Buddhist extremism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Each country is guided by its own interest, and religion is not always a key factor in shaping foreign policies.
An even bigger consideration is that Muslim-majority countries today are probably more wary of the West than they are of Beijing, notwithstanding the fact that Islamophobia is on the rise in China.
Since the turn of the century, America has launched or supported devastating wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, destabilizing large swathes of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia in the process. Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has added to the U.S.’s anti-Islam image by making policies that appear to target Muslims and Muslim-majority countries.
If Muslim-majority states are able to unite against China over Xinjiang, what is to stop them from turning on the West? Indeed, if they somehow found unity of purpose, why not turn against both China and the West?
With no clear scenario in sight, many Muslim-majority countries have chosen to stay out of the Xinjiang issue for now. Like other countries, they too are hedging their positions as the U.S.-China struggle plays out.
When the mythical Greek figure, Pandora, opened her proverbial box, she let out the curses of war, disease, death and other evils into the world, but inexplicably, retained one item in the box: hope. The Greeks are still debating why she did that, and the consequences had she freed hope.
The same can be asked of Xinjiang today as gloom descends over the region and its people. For those fighting to shape Xinjiang’s future, what do they hope to achieve?
Worse, what if they succeed?