There are 10-11 million native Uyghur Turks living in China’s western-most Xinjiang province. But as many as 1 million of those are believed to be interred in “re-education camps”.
That is an astonishing number. And when one stops to consider the sheer logistics involved in such an undertaking, that fact becomes even more incredible. Now China does have a history of doing things on a large scale.
And it has a history of suppressing ethnic identities which it perceives as a possible threat to the unity and integrity of the state. But even proportionally, this is on a scale that would make your old, 20th Century efforts at nation-building look modest.
And all that is before we begin to look at the environment China is creating in Xinjiang province outside of the concentration camps. I have reported before on the surveillance state China has created in the province which is aimed exclusively at the Uyghur population, and the ridiculous lengths the state is going to criminalise many aspects of Uyghur identity, up to banning Muslim names for Uyghur newborns.
One of the more “amusing” aspects of this assault on Uyghur identity has been the alcohol and pork consumption competitions organized by the state during last year’s Ramadan fast.
Less amusing is the inescapable feeling every Uyghur in the province carries with them that they are watched and assessed everywhere they go, and a stray word or a stray glance is all it takes for them to be sent to a re-education camp without any judicial review or right of appeal.
And of course, as it has done in many other provinces, most recently in Tibet, the central government has encouraged large numbers of Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang province so as to dilute Muslim Turkic identity in the region.
Beijing is not in the business of winning hearts and minds in Xinjiang. Rather, it is in the business of stomping out a cultural identity with the full force employing the latest surveillance technologyDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The odd thing about transplantation of Han Chinese to the region is that the authorities are not making it easy for the two populations to intermingle and rub off each other in a way that might actually erode Muslim separatist sentiments.
Even many of the Han Chinese migrants to the region have complained that the heavy-handed approach to security in the region has made it difficult to, for example, hire local Uyghurs in their businesses, or even have Uyghurs as customers in many instances.
So the approach of the authorities seems rather more geared toward segregating the Uyghurs and crushing their spirit and sense of identity, rather than allowing them to build for themselves and identity which is compatible with living in peace and harmony within the greater Chinese state.
Beijing is not in the business of winning hearts and minds in Xinjiang. Rather, it is in the business of stomping out a cultural identity with the full force employing the latest surveillance technology.
This should ring alarm bells for all of us. That the world is silent in the face of such human rights abuses within China we already knew. This was amply demonstrated in the previous couple of decades in Tibet.
But if this is the way China deals with people who it perceives as detrimental to the goals of Beijing when they have power, then the fact that China is amassing an ever increasing amount of power in their region and across the world does not portend well for human rights anywhere.
For all their defects, lapses and hypocrisies, the previously dominant Western global powers at least had some kind of discourse about human rights which did set the tone globally, and which did, on the rare occasion, result in positive conflict resolutions: most noteworthy in the Balkans in the 90s.
But before long, China will also set the tone for these issues globally, and the tone it will set already looks frightening.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.