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“Sinicization” of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang: An Indian View

The crimes against humanity committed by China in the Uyghur homeland call for a firmer reaction by the international community.


By Ayjaz Wani

April 29, 2023

Indian Muslims protest outside the Chinese consulate in Mumbai. From Twitter.


In the holy month of Ramadan this year, the ethnic Uyghur Muslims of China faced a ban on fasting and practicing their religion, just like during the previous years. The Chinese police reportedly deployed spies, officially referred to as “ears,” to prevent Uyghur Muslims from fasting. From the year 2017, China has started banning fasting during the holy month, even as it is incumbent on every Muslim, as per the five pillars of Islam, to fast during Ramadan.


The religious autonomy of the Uyghur people has been interfered with through repressive state intervention over the years. The Human Rights Watch report of 2017 quoted a Chinese official in charge of religious affairs as saying that it was imperative for the Chinese state to “completely shovel up the roots of ‘two-faced people,’ dig them out, and vow to fight these… people until the end.” That is exactly how the Chinese have been dealing with the Uyghurs for a long time now.


Introduction


Since 2017, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been detaining Uyghurs and other minorities arbitrarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), called East Turkestan by its non-Han inhabitants. The Chinese government has been subjecting the Uyghurs to forced labour, sexual assault, torture, and forced sterilizations and abortions as a “counter-terrorism and re-education” strategy. More than two million Uyghurs have been held up for harboring politically incorrect views since then. Several Muslim religious practices have been banned, and mosques and tombs have been pulled down. All this is aimed at wiping Islam out of Xinjiang.


Uyghurs are a Turkic minority ethnically close to Central Asian nations, with their language and culture. They make up about half of the population in Xinjiang, a major cotton producer and huge supplier of materials for solar panels in the world. XUAR is rich in oil and natural gas and has a geographical proximity with Central Asia and Europe. Hence it is seen by China as an important trade link, which has to be kept under absolute control of the state.


The suppression of Uyghur religion and culture in Xinjiang disguised as an anti-terrorism and anti-secessionist measure began with the introduction of the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism in 2014. Mass surveillance tools were used to scan everything, from vehicle number plates to individual faces. According to Human Rights Watch, the police are also using a mobile app to monitor people’s behaviour, such as how much electricity they are using and how often they use their front door.


Under Chen Quanguo, the then Party Secretary of Xinjiang, the grid management system was used to ensure security in the region. Under this system, cities and villages were divided into smaller squares of about five hundred people each, where a police station was setup to closely monitor the inhabitants. The Uyghurs were checked regularly and their identification cards were scanned, photographs and fingerprints taken, and cell phones were monitored.


In cities such as Kashgar, there are police checkpoints every one hundred yards or so with the ubiquitous cameras for face-recognition. The biometric data of all citizens have been obtained by the state through a programme advertised as “Physicals for All,” which in reality gives the state a handle to monitor each and every Uyghur in the region.

Pro-Uyghur protests in Bangladesh. From Twitter.


Forceful Assimilation


Since 1949, the Chinese government has encouraged the Han ethnic majority from other parts of the country to settle down in Xinjiang. Such was the migration of the Han into Xinjiang that the Han Chinese, who constituted just about 6.7 percent in 1949, grew to about 41.6 percent by 1978. At present, the Han population constitutes the majority ethnic group in many cities of Xinjiang, including in the capital city of Urumqi. As per some estimates, between 2015 and 2018, more than two million new Han residents moved to the Xinjiang.


In Xinjiang, Uyghur families are fined for having too many children and hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslim women have been either forced to use intrauterine devices (IUD) or abort for restricting population growth. Many Uyghur men and women have been sterilized. Though the Xinjiang region hosts just 1.8 percent of Chinese population, it accounted for 80 percent of all IUD insertions in the country for the year 2018. According to a report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the average rate of sterilization per 100,000 inhabitants in China as a whole was just over 32, whereas for the Xinjiang it was 243.


The Chinese government has not been content with such measures to cut down Uyghur population and in 2014, it advocated inter-ethnic marriages in XUAR. A report titled, “Forced Marriage of Uyghur Women: State Policies for Interethnic Marriage in East Turkistan,” examined the role of Party State in “promoting, incentivising, and coercing” interethnic marriage between Uyghur women and Han men in Xinjiang.


The provincial government of XUAR enacted a law in 2017 prohibiting any “expressions of extremism” and placed restrictions upon the style of dress the Uyghurs would wear. In violation of traditional Uyghur customs, it also put curbs on adherence to Islamic dietary laws (Halal). Over one thousand mosques in Xinjiang were either closed or demolished. Those who wanted to escape such a fate had to “Sinicize” themselves and remove Islamic motifs and Arabic writings from their mosques. Nearly half a million children were put in state-run boarding schools where the use of the Uyghur language was banned. No stone is being left unturned to turn it into an oral language only.


The Chinese government has also forced many Uyghurs, including former detainees, to accept employment in textile, apparel, agricultural, consumer electronics, and other labour-intensive industries in Xinjiang and other areas, with many factories having links to global supply chains. Those refusing to accept such employment have been kept under detention. Many Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been given long prison sentences for trivial reasons. Some of them have been detained just for either possessing or sharing religious recordings or even for downloading Uyghur language e-books!


Konasheher County, Xinjiang, police security drills. Source: Xinjiang Police Files.


International Responses


The former UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president, has said that China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Region, which may amount to crimes against humanity. A 45-page report by the OHCHR concluded: “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups… may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report also mentions the allegations of forced birth control, in particular, forced IUD [intrauterine device] placements and possible forced sterilization of Uyghur and ethnic Kazakh women.


The United States partially boycotted the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by China in Beijing, citing “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities” in Xinjiang. Although American athletes did compete in the Games, the absence of government officials from the US, as well as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, even though symbolic, drew the attention of the world to the issue of oppression of the Uyghurs in China.


Chinese Psyops


On 8 and 9 January 2023, a World Muslim Communities Council (WMCC) delegation consisting of more than 30 noted Islamic scholars and intellectuals from 14 countries participated in a visit to Xinjiang/East Turkestan organized by the Chinese government. The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) strongly condemned the visit which amounted to an indirect support of the Chinese government in perpetuating crimes against humanity and genocide committed against the Uyghur people.


In 2021, Canada was among the fist countries to label the Chinese government treatment of Uyghur people as genocide. The Canadian Parliament, supported by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, unanimously passed a motion in the legislature in January 2023, allowing the resettlement of the in Canada over a period of two year starting in 2024. The Canadian lawmakers in the House of Commons voted in favour of the proposal 322-0 with the chamber erupting into applause as the motion was carried.


US President Joe Biden has also expressed “solidarity” with the Uyghur minority in a recent message to Muslims around the world, as they celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.


“Together with our partners, the United States stands in solidarity with Muslims who continue to face oppression, including Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China, Rohingya in Burma, and other Muslim communities facing persecution around the world,” Biden said in a statement.


Such expressions of solidarity would hardly deter the Chinese government’s efforts to further Sinicize and hegemonize the Uyghur culture, and gradually coerce an entire population to forget their language, religion, and customs, setting a disturbing precedent for the world. Should we all be then mute spectators? What is required today is to create a world public opinion against such measures, which amount to quiet ethnic cleansing, and discover ways of criminalizing such acts and impose a cost on the perpetrator which could go a long way in deterring such state behaviour.



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