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Xinjiang: Rule of Law Increasingly Replaced by “Authoritarian Lawlessness”

By Ruth Ingram


Chinese laws and legal procedure are already unfair enough, but when it comes to the Uyghurs the CCP does not even pretend to respect them, a new report claims.

A murky world of ambiguity, secrecy and unaccountability awaits Uyghurs who fall foul of the law in Northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

Hundreds of thousands wrenched from their homes at dead of night or hauled into passing trucks during recent roundups, whilst at the very least hoping for a fair trial and due process, have found the odds stacked against them in a quasi-legal world that has become unrecognizable beyond the borders of China.

According to London-based human rights lawyers, the Rights Practice, the past four years in particular have seen the Turkic peoples of that beleaguered province become victims of practices that flout the democratic ideals of justice; the principle of innocence until proven guilty by means of a fair trial with legal representation and falling prey to a system accountable and answerable to no one. In “(Ab)use of law, Criminal Proceedings in Xinjiang,” the authors describe how twenty years of progress in the PRC towards putting detention on a legal footing has been sharply reversed with the extra judicial detention of at least one million Uyghurs since 2017.

Beijing, while paying lip service to international norms, trumps every one of them with a modified version of its own “with Chinese characteristics.”

2017 alone saw arrests and prosecutions up by 700% in Xinjiang. Emergency measures to rein in terrorism and extremism have justified bypassing standard judicial measures to detain Uyghurs ad hoc in various types of re-education facility or to lengthy prison terms.

The Rights Practice’ deep dive into China’s sentencing culture and its rationale flags up a maelstrom of unpredictable and illegal measures, anathema to a Western democratic eye, but one the global community would do well to get to grips with as it engages increasingly with the Superpower.

President Xi Jinping’s incremental move to center stage, his urging the world to “abandon ideological prejudice” and the hitherto accepted “rules-based international order” in favor of something a little more “Chinese,” is trying his best to move the moral and legal goal posts of international behavior.

Law “with Chinese characteristics” is increasingly a law unto itself.

Pre-the September 11th terrorist attacks, outbreaks of resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang were identified and quelled as “reactionary nationalism” but taking advantage of post 9/11 panic, the so-called “Strike Hard” campaign was born to extinguish the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Beijing was counting on the international community to come onboard with its ever increasingly ruthless suppression of freedoms throughout the province as it framed its heightened surveillance, predictive policing, extra judicial round ups and pre-emptive repression in line with the global “War on Terror.”

But the State’s brand of “extremism” was not the only victim of Beijing’s new blitz against its Turkic races in 2016 once the new governor Chen Quanguo had the bit between his teeth. Exploiting China’s own loosely drafted legal framework, which equates terrorism with deeply held and practiced religious convictions, but fails to legally define either, meant suddenly having a long beard, naming your child Mohammed, displaying a poster of the Kaaba in your living room or having a Koranic reading on your phone became an imprisonable offence, or at the very least, one deserving of a spell of re-education.

Few escaped the avalanche of arbitrary round ups, as hundreds of thousands were corralled into crowded cells with no legal protection or defense. The deluge of mostly Uyghur cases between 2017–2019 stretched legal services to bursting point.

Judgements were cursory, there was no access to lawyers, and most detainees, who according to Chinese law should not be kept for more than 20 days before sentencing, were left in limbo usually in abject conditions, often chained and hooded in police cells for as long as two years. Most of those who survived to tell the tale have reported torture, humiliation, sexual violence, mediocre rations and rafts of unnecessary medical tests and medication regimens. Many lived with the specter of organ harvesting.

Given that the so-called “vocational education and training centres” operate outside China’s legal parameters, Beijing turns a blind eye to the “open season” of localized, illegal summary convictions and ill treatment. One employee cited in the report who had dared to advise fellow workers on halal and haram food, was sentenced to ten years, whilst another for performing namaz in his prison dormitory and wiping his nose with a “thought report” paper, saw his already draconian ten-year sentence extended for a further thirteen years.

These periods are usually reserved for the most serious offenders under Chinese law. Torture and forced confessions are endemic and there are still hundreds of thousands of relations denied accurate sentencing data on their loved ones. While in other parts of China, many judgements from courts are available online, this is not the case for Xinjiang. Families wait in vain despairing of ever knowing what has become of their relatives, or when, if ever, they will be released.

Shockingly, the report concluded, “There is compelling evidence that the majority of the 341,887 persons deprived of their liberty through criminal proceedings in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018 (and likely 2019), were arbitrarily detained in violation of international norms.”

The authors of the report uncovered myriad irregularities and inconsistencies between the letter of the law in China and its practice in Xinjiang, leaving dangerous scope for abuse of detainees. The simple day to day exercising of freedoms, such as praying or possessing a religious text, which are guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which China is a signatory, are criminalized.

With Beijing’s growing stature and influence on the world stage, the report warned that China would increasingly not be content to restrict its activities to its own borders. The abuses and inconsistencies seen so clearly in its treatment of its so-called minority populations were bound to spill over into all its dealings, commercially, geopolitically and morally with the rest of the world.

Hope is fading that the UN, hamstrung by Russia and China’s power of veto on major decisions, will continue to play a significant monitoring role over international abuses. Frustration is mounting over UN refusal to publish its own report over the Xinjiang atrocities, and the Rights Practice claim that UN reluctance to challenge Beijing, “risks perpetuating trauma among survivors and undermining atrocity prevention everywhere.”

The smokescreen of secrecy and lack of accountability beneath which the PRC conducts its legal business, and its arbitrary implementation of the law, should ring warning bells for any country with which it has an extradition treaty or legal cooperation agreement. Silence over forced labor makes businesses unwitting partners in Beijing’s sordid trade in its Turkic populations, and well-meaning but naive academic exchanges are by default in danger of becoming a propaganda coup for China.

The PRC retreat from the rule of law is a worrying development, not only for Uyghurs and Xinjiang province, but for the rest of China and the world too as it looks on. Described in the report as “authoritarian lawlessness” the authors note that China’s attempts to justify its actions in Xinjiang and cover up its disregard for the law should be a wakeup call for the world at risk from a partner happy to “upend the rule of law and human rights at an international level.”


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