China’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang is sure to backfire

After repeated denials, Chinese officials finally admitted last month that they have set up internment camps in the far-western province of Xinjiang, where up to one million ethnic Uighurs, almost all of whom are Muslim, are being held. Under China’s anti-terrorism law and ‘religious affairs regulation,’ the government in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region publicly introduced the ‘Regulation on De-extremification.’ What it describes is a new gulag, where re-education and the suppression of Uighur identity is its main goal.

There are approximately 25 million Muslims in China today, but these new draconian laws in Xinjiang are aimed solely at the ethnic Uighurs, of which there are just over 11 million. Unlike the Hui, another major Muslim ethnic group who have largely assimilated into Chinese society, Uighurs have resisted intermarriage, speak their own Turkic language, and advocated for some level of autonomy, making them a target for suppression. Over the decades, Beijing’s heavy-handed approach has helped outside Islamist elements make inroads among Uighur youth, and spurred the formation of radical groups. As a result, the Uighurs have remained a largely colonised people, and Xinjiang has become the epicentre of Chinese Muslim resistance to Beijing.

Uighur activists have conducted numerous violent attacks since 1990, including bus bombings in Shanghai and Kunming, multiple sword and knife attacks at train stations in major cities, and a car bombing in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic centre of China. Ties between Uighur radicals, previously known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda are among the reasons Beijing has cracked down on them so strongly.

That some Uighurs are extremists is undeniable. But the new measures introduced by the Chinese authorities do not just aim to prevent religious violence. At first glance, many of the new regulations concern activities that bedevil Western states, such as the forced wearing of the burqa in Muslim communities; or which occur in Islamist-run territories around the Middle East, such as ethnic cleansing by forcing those of other faiths out of their homes. Yet read a little further, and the real objectives of the regulations are soon revealed. In order to ‘contain and eradicate extremification,’ the state will make ‘religion more Chinese…and actively guide religion to become compatible with socialist society’ (Sec. 1, Article 4). In other words, the goal is to Sinicize Islam and make it serve the state.

To achieve this, those suspected of being extremists or being susceptible to extremist ideology are being interned in military school-style camps, with regimented daily schedules. The provincial regulation mandates Maoist-style ‘ideological education, psychological rehabilitation and behaviour correction’ and the use of informants throughout society. The totalitarian reach of the law is shown by the fact that it is now illegal in Xinjiang to ‘reject or refuse public goods and services such as radio and television.’ Reminiscent of the Stalinist era, it is now a crime simply to opt out of listening to state propaganda.

Xinjiang has become, in essence, a police state, controlled by a massive paramilitary force; ubiquitous, intrusive surveillance, including advanced facial recognition technology; regular roundups of suspected radicals; and a stifling of civil society. Sinification takes various forms, including the authorities cutting short the dresses of Muslim women. More controversially, reports from Chinese state media suggest mandatory ‘heath examinations’ in Xinjiang have allowed the state to collect DNA from Uighurs, in order to build a genetic database that will allow even tighter control. And then there are the internment camps.

To understand the driving motive behind the new laws, it is important to remember that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is, fundamentally, an empire. Over the centuries, China’s Han majority, which today makes up 91 per cent of the Chinese population, has pressured and actively suppressed ethnic minorities. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continued these assimilationist policies as part of a strategy for ruling one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse polities on earth. From Tibetans to Tatars, and from Kazakhs to Uzbeks, today’s Chinese empire is built on the control of dozens of minority groups and the tight monitoring of their religions and cultures. Maintaining the integrity of the state is a priority for president Xi Jinping second only to ensuring the Party’s own survival and both aims are inextricably linked.

Uighurs portray themselves as freedom fighters, challenging Beijing for their independence, little different from Tibetans or Taiwanese, other than being ethnically distinct and Muslim. Any viable separatist movement in the region alarms the central government, as other autonomy movements are watching closely what happens in Xinjiang. If Xi relaxes his grip there, activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet are sure to take advantage to press their own claims.

The Uighurs and Xinjiang pose another problem for the central government, this one geopolitical. Xinjiang sits squarely along Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) corridor. President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative, OBOR aims to be a $1 trillion (£780 billion) infrastructure development which will create land and maritime-based trade routes reaching all the way from China to Western Europe.

Xinjiang’s geostrategic location along the Belt and Road means it is the access point to much of Central Asia. Just as importantly, Xinjiang contains vast natural resources, with estimates of up to 5 billion barrels of oil and up to 13 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Any effective resistance to Chinese control over Xinjiang, let along the formation of an independent Islamic republic, would pose a huge threat to Beijing’s plans to increase its influence throughout Eurasia.

Ethnic separatism, driven by religious radicalisation, is one of the greatest fears of Xi Jinping and his fellow rulers. As a multi-ethnic empire, the PRC cannot allow successful independence movements in any of its subordinate areas for fear of contagion. This political concern is heightened by the transnational nature of the Islamist movement. Even moderate Muslims in Xinjiang are perceived by Beijing as a threat, the leading edge of a radicalisation movement that could challenge central control of the strategic province, as well as infect other Muslims in China and spill over to other regions. Xi will not soon ease his heavy-handed control over Xinjiang and its Uighurs, and as a result is engendering more of the anti-Chinese sentiment that he is trying to stamp out. Such repression is becoming a hallmark of Xi’s rule, and is increasingly defining China’s direction over the next decade.


Michael Auslin

Michael Auslin is the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics and the host of the Pacific Century podcast.