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History: The Xinjiang Conflict

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Trigger Warning: Descriptions of physical and psychological torture

In order to understand what’s happening in Xinjiang right now, we need to understand its past.

Xinjiang is a central Asian region geographically within China, but politically autonomous. The Xinjiang Conflict was an ongoing separatist issue that began in the 1950-1970s, with state sponsored Han-Chinese migration into Xinjiang, which was inhabited by Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group. [Separationist: advocacy of a state of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from the larger group.] State policies attempting to push for ‘Chinese cultural unity’, which really meant erasure of freedom to cultural expression, led to a surge in Uyghur separatist organizations. There have since been activists speaking out on restrictions against Islam, including strict control over religious schools and clampdowns on peaceful religious activity. Economic instability also caused unrest amongst the Uyghur population; many developmental projects in the Xinjiang region attracted Han workers who filled up employment opportunities, and complaints on unjust pay gaps have also stirred Uyghur resentment. In the early days of the conflict, demonstrations broke out, and were portrayed as violent by Chinese media, peaceful by western media.

In the following years, consecutive terrorist attacks and bombings created turmoil in Xinjiang as extremist organizations took the place of peaceful Uyghur activists in protesting against cultural infringement and the influx of Han immigrants. There was no single Uyghur agenda; some groups desired an independent state and some desired political integration with China while maintaining a distinct culture. The major parties involved were the Turkestan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and other organizations with links to Al Qaeda. The most common attack strategies included bus bombings, suicide bombings and knife attacks on Han civilian workers, with frequent insurgent attacks on railways and markets; two large-scale attacks included the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and the bombing of a Thai shrine.

The response was a crackdown in 2009 by the Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army at the time, and led to on-sight shootings of assailants, captured suspects being sentenced to death. After the events of 9/11 and the capture of Uyghur groups fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, large-scale crackdowns and repression were labelled by the government as counter-terrorism measures. The cycle of extremist attacks and military suppression triggered a change in policy in which Chinese nationalism would be promoted as a unifying ideology in order to reduce the oppressive implications of communist integration. Beijing’s first official publicization on the issue was more a solution to domestic politics and a forced address to military suppression, rather than to dissolve any real external threat. The death count from these incidents, however, did not begin to drop until late 2017 as terrorist attacks continued.

Crucial to understanding the basis of Xinjiang today, the Xinjiang Conflict is not distant from our times. In fact, the reminders of it are so alive that bomb detection is a necessity in public buildings, and household knives are etched with a QR code derived from the passport/ID number of the holder and chained to the floor.

Despite the fact that the level of control in Xinjiang affects both the Han and the Uyghur population, bias and segregation have been unfairly prevalent towards the Uyghur group due to perceptions based on the history of the conflict. Narratives pushed by the Chinese government have also disregarded the Uyghurs’ cultural validity as an ethnic group and created sentiments of nationalism within the Han population living in Xinjiang. Overall, extreme levels of safety control and surveillance in Xinjiang have become normalized along with the perpetual ethnic tension and systemic marginalization of the Uyghur minority.

The present situation

Officially known as “Xinjiang Re-education Camps”, evidence for large scale detention facilities in Xinjiang have been coming to light in recent years. Allegations of indoctrination practices have existed as early as 2017, but were shut down by the Chinese government on the basis that all those held in the camps were participating voluntarily and were part of counter-terrorism measures.

The number of detainees since 2018 range from several hundred thousand to more than a million, but no news source has been able to provide an exact value due to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency, meaning that the real numbers could very well exceed the million. These allegations were rejected a second time at UN 2019, by China along with 54 other nations, despite a resurgence in footage and government documents being leaked. A majority of these nations were in fact Muslim, but economic and political ties meant they were unable to condemn China without losing the benefit of economic uplifting. “Economic interests reign supreme… Ideological differences proved no barrier to doing business,” wrote Tamara Qiblwai, CNN producer.

An overwhelming majority of detainees have been reported clean of any criminal charge, and the reasons for imprisonment range anywhere from having links abroad, to accusations of non-complacency to the Chinese government and rejection of ‘cultural unification’.

Almost all accounts of the camps from released detainees as of late 2018 place emphasis on practices that push for brainwashing of Han cultural unity and erasure of the Uyghur identity. Activities such as daily self-criticisms, being forced to remain standing or sitting for hours in stress positions, and constant surveillance are the most commonly mentioned. It is no hidden knowledge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), dating back to the Mao era, has a history of employing such measures of mass self-criticisms and political indoctrination on its people.

In addition, detainee accounts report being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol as a process of denouncing the Uyghur Muslim culture and religious freedom. Regarding the treatment of women, there have also been reports of sexual abuse and forced contraception. Extreme accounts such as live organ harvesting, and various torture methods such as electrocution and flaying have been under question since emergence concerning their verity. However, the evidence that does exist as of the present, at the very least, demands for transparency on the issue.

Last month (August 2020), BBC released photos and videos taken and smuggled to his family by current inmate Mergan Ghappar.

“A third of the room was taken up by chairs for the duty cops. The rest was men on the right, women on the left, divided and locked up in cages,” reads one of Mergan’s text accounts to his family. The videos capture him being handcuffed to the bed, while a loudspeaker system can be heard outside, broadcasting political propaganda denying the status of Xinjiang as a legitimate East Turkestan state. Further text accounts entail physical abuse from the guards and psychological abuse from listening to the screams of inmates in adjacent holding cells.

Beyond the individual accounts of the brutal conditions inside the camps, is the fact that the Chinese government is in the motion of inciting possibly “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today,” as addressed by a US commission.

Over a third of Uyghur religious sites have been destroyed and taken off maps, including graveyards, and this is yet to be addressed officially by the government. Practices such as systematic pregnancy tests and sterilization enforced both within and outside these camps are in place to reduce the Uyghur population, as evident in plummeting birth rates (down 60%) from 2015 to 2018. These measures fall within the definition of genocide as of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and should be recognized as such.

Propaganda, transparency and credibility: How to approach information

The most prevalent misconception that surrounds the issue in Xinjiang is that it is seen as a conflict of religion, rather one of separatism.

There are ten major Muslim minorities in China, including Hui, Uyghur and Kazakh; the Hui are the largest minority group, yet have assimilated with government-funded religious education and establishments. The target on the Uyghur population is a matter of the government eliminating independent cultural identities and separationist ideologies that are seen as posing threat to the power of the CCP over its people.

Secondly, issues that arise in mainland China receive some of the most ambiguous, and more often than not, misinformed media coverage. This is one part due to the heavy amount of media censorship and complete lack of transparency within the Chinese government, such that official quantitative data almost never exists. Outside of large-scale erasure and dishonesty, Chinese media also cites counter-terrorism as a justification for cultural oppression and crackdowns equating to measures of genocide. News media is thus forced to look to western speculation and leaked documentation. Americanized media, however, also tends to draw a filter over what is happening in Xinjiang; for example, the omission of the history of the Xinjiang Conflict in almost all educational media concerning the issue is a form of western imperialism and propaganda in its own right. It is important to note, however, that a main difference between American and Chinese media is the huge number of outlets and sources that exist in the American media: this may be positive or negative depending on the legitimacy and bias of the sources, but it does provide a much more varied and fair range of information as compared to the Chinese media, which is made black-and-white through heavy monitoring and censorship and filtered through CCP propaganda.

The trend of western media pushing for Xinjiang narratives that have been pointed out to contain fallacies is a direct parallel to the long history of the Chinese government weaponizing propaganda on its own people, meaning that neither end of the media coverage provides information that is reliable and wholly transparent. The CCP’s reliance on propaganda to maintain power and silence revolutionary activity is no secret, but it must also be understood that in the context of the US-China trade war, western narratives exploit the issue in Xinjiang for its own economic and political gains. Xinjiang harbors significant hydrocarbon reserves and nuclear infrastructure, and due to its geological location, is extremely vulnerable to foreign influence and neighboring turmoil; this means that instability in this region would weaken the Chinese economy by a large margin. Politically, the westernized lens on Xinjiang masks US international misdeeds, such as its support for the colonization policy of Palestine, a humanitarian issue that can be compared to Xinjiang.

In order to interpret the flaws in both western and Chinese representation, we may look at the famous testimony of Mirihgul Tursun.

Her account of her detainment period at the time claims that her son was killed in the camp, that the women were forced to drink strange liquids that induced bleeding, and included graphic descriptions of torture: “each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I could feel the pain in my veins...I begged them to kill me.”

She testified at a US Congressional Hearing in November 2019, and this hearing later became a controversial issue as her mother and brother living in Egypt have since come forward and claimed that her testimony was false, and a CGTN investigation into the Urumqi Children’s Hospital have determined her sons to be alive and residing in Egypt. It was also reported under investigation that she only has a record of being detained by the Qiemo county for 20 days due to allegations of hate speech.

It is important to know that her family’s statements have a likelihood of having been issued under threat, and these CGTN issued claims hold very little possibility of credibility and are largely monitored. Evidently, this is the side of the story that government-controlled media in China has chosen to cover, focusing on the idea of debunked allegations and deceit. Spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, has responded to the situation: “We hope our efforts can help the current situation in Xinjiang in a more objective and just manner...These reports on individual cases were proven to be false time and time again.”

The approach that westernized media has chosen, however, is to cover nothing further than the recording and transcription of Tursun’s congressional hearing.

Both approaches present a one-dimensional resolution of a circumstance that is in reality extremely ambiguous, and both approaches contain ulterior political driving forces that take away from transparency and accurate coverage. Reflected in the bigger picture, the lack of unfiltered information on Xinjiang means that there is no real way to determine which aspects of it are true and which are false, so the issue is impossible to approach in a manner of fully understanding the truth of what is happening. The flaws in both western and Chinese media have to be taken into account in any interpretation of information on Xinjiang.

The overarching truth remains, however, that the incomplete truth behind Mirihgul Tursun’s testimony changes nothing about the nature of the issue. Even if it were to be proven false, the fact that the Chinese government is inciting cultural genocide would not be overturned; the failure of the media to do justice to Xinjiang only means that it is a personal responsibility for those who wish to advocate for the issue to learn to interpret information critically and to raise awareness in a responsible manner.

- Lily


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