China’s campaign to wipe out the Uyghurs sows the seeds of generations of hatred and strife

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EEvery spring, as the figs ripened, a small army of gamblers, thieves, kings, sex workers, fruit sellers, bakers and cooks emerged from the vast void of the Taklamakan Desert. “Whoever is in need and makes pilgrimage to this blessed shrine and enlivens the place and boils the pots, and burns the lamps, and gives prayers and praises”, an ancient devotional text promised the people, “their needs in the world and in the hereafter will be met.

“They are busy, not with making pilgrimages or touring the shrine,” reported historian Rian Thum, a devout Kashgar author grumbling a century ago, “but with their own professions and affairs.” “For them, it’s the same whether they enter a Chinese mantle or enter a shrine.”

Over the centuries, these shrines have helped cement the identity of the Uyghurs, the Turkic Muslim people who inhabit Xinjiang in China. Then, at the beginning of this century, they began to disappear. In late 2007, when Thum attempted to visit the Ordam Padshah shrine, he was blocked by police who told him there was “something secret” in the desert. The Imam Asim Ali shrine near Hotan has literally disappeared, according to satellite imagery.

To some, the People’s Republic of China’s policy in Xinjiang – banning the hijab and other displays of personal religiosity, restrictions on seminaries, demolitions and harsh penalties for sedition – may seem like a model for how India should manage their own conflicts. on identity and Islam. Instead of bringing about integration, however, China’s policies have devastated a people and built despotism, laying the groundwork for generations of hatred to come.

The erasure of the Uyghurs

Earlier this week, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights accused China of using state power to systematically erase Uyghur identity. The Chinese government declined to share figures with UNHCR, but its report says experts estimate one in five ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang were detained in 2017-2018. Torture of prisoners immobilized in a so-called “tiger chair” as well as sexual violence were rampant in the camps, UN investigators said.

The camps were designed as production lines for patriotism: “We were forced to sing patriotic song after patriotic song every day,” said a former prisoner, “as loud as possible and until it hurt , until our faces turn red and our veins appear. ”

Xinjiang’s mass incarceration program has targeted people suspected of having extremist sympathies: long beards, refusing to watch TV or wearing certain types of clothing can result in prison terms. In a bizarre case, documented in a report for the UN by researcher Bahram Sintash, the Islamic dome of the departmental store in Bahar was first concealed under a less Islamic octagonal structure and then removed altogether.

Even though the Chinese government insists on its commitment to bilingual education, UNHCR investigators record the existence of documents urging schools to teach only Mandarin in primary, elementary and middle school.

The Chinese government, in its response to the UNHCR report, dismissed the allegations as “lies and fabrications”. The response claims that extraordinary measures were necessary because terrorists carried out “several thousand terrorist attacks in Xinjiang from 1990 to 2016”, in which “large numbers of innocent people were killed and several hundred police officers were killed. dead”.

Faced with a growing jihadist movement, the argument goes, China had no choice but to revamp its secular and national culture.


Read also : New study highlights ‘central role’ of Xinjiang paramilitary group in Uyghur genocide


The troubled modernity of Xinjiang

Like much propaganda, this story is notable for its omissions. From the late 1950s, millions of ethnic Han workers began arriving in Xinjiang, mainly to work on strategically valuable roads and infrastructure. Economic growth across China led to a surge in investment in Xinjiang in the 1990s as part of government-led modernization plans. From 2000 to 2009 alone, fixed investment in Xinjiang amounted to 1.4 trillion yuan, or $200 billion, of which more than 80 percent was provided by the government.

The tidal wave of liquidity has also heightened ethnic-religious tensions. Xinjiang’s booming cotton industry has depleted aquifers that local farmers depended on. Educated migrants found it easier to get well-paid jobs. Local business elites were displaced by new settlers. The Uyghurs have been reduced to a minority.

For many of them, expert Graham Fuller insightfully noted, the new Urumchi skyline was “not a symbol of national pride but of their ethnic and religious humiliation, and a monument to their own ultimate move.

Since the turn of the 20th century, Xinjiang has been influenced by Islamist movements in South and West Asia, led by, among others, the Indian-educated Han Weilang. The demographic and economic crisis facing the Uyghurs has strengthened the religious right. In 2009, large-scale ethnic riots broke out, with knife-wielding mobs killing 197 people. A suicide bombing followed in 2014.

Starting in May 2014, the government unleashed Hard Strike, its crackdown on Uyghurs. This followed a secret speech by President Xi Jinping, in which he urged officials to act without mercy.

The Chinese government says its policy is a success. Since 2016, there has been no terrorist violence in Xinjiang, and the government says the last internees were “out” of re-education three years later. The large-scale crackdown in Xinjiang, however, shows that the regime is still anxious. Large numbers of Uyghur jihadists have appeared on jihadist battlefields from Syria to Afghanistan, and China knows they may one day return.


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Tensions on faith

Led by drums, processions of tens of thousands of people gathered each year in Ordam Padshah to mark the martyrdom of the first imam of the Shia faith, Alī ibn Abi Talib. Displaying flags carried by their hometowns, the great processions marched to the shrine, using music, dance and song to drive their members into ecstatic states. Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring observed the “weeping and moaning in honor of holy martyrs” with some disdain: “Religious fanaticism,” he recorded.

Researcher Rahile Dawut offers this alternative reading: For vulnerable peasants beset by drought and hardship, she noted, the shrine was a place “that can protect them from disasters, where they can express their deepest feelings , where they can seek a cure for diseases. , where their souls can be saved, and also as a place where they can seek pleasure.

There is little clarity on exactly why the Chinese authorities began their campaign against the shrines. Journalist Alice Su noted that even political Islam was tolerated among ethnic Hui Muslims, with neo-fundamentalist magazines and teaching circles flourishing on the fringes. The reasons could be rooted in politics. The Hui, unlike the Uyghurs, never sought independence and their rulers were considered apolitical.

Few Hui clerics, one activist told Su, are preoccupied with jihad, focusing instead on questions like: “Your iPhone 6 or 6S? What kind of car do you drive? »

The People’s Republic’s wrath, Rian Thum speculated, may also have descended on Xinjiang’s shrines and mosques because of their potential to mobilize large groups of people, not because of any specific ideological issue.

As it did in Tibet, the Chinese state may well succeed in crushing Xinjiang: the brutal realities of demographics and police power mean that there is little prospect of a real threat emerging. ‘State. However, the victory is not without consequences. The tools that the Chinese state has built and perfected in Xinjiang will have consequences for the entire population of the country. Moreover, efforts to eliminate Uyghur identity have not led to greater integration or equity.

“They made a desolation and called it peace,” wrote Roman historian Tacitus of the imperial victory over Britain. Xi’s triumph in Xinjiang is likely to be remembered in the same way.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

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