Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong had introduced and institutionalised blunt, brazen and bloody methods to perpetuate regime survival and the elimination of those conveniently termed as “counter-revolutionaries”. China’s early-day “classicide”, that involved the mass killings of landlords in pursuance of social transformation, is believed to have led to the complete annihilation of the estimated 15 million “landlords” in the country. Subsequently, the economic transformation sought via the “Great Leap Forward” is supposed to have accounted for over 40 million deaths, including nearly five million through either torture or suicide. Later, the “Cultural Revolution” unleashed in the 1960s and 1970s to weed out the last vestiges of socio-political dissent was aimed at deliberately planning, executing and officially legitimising the “violent class struggle”.
The minority Uyghurs of the modern-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was one such ethnic minority that was forcibly and reluctantly integrated into the Han-dominated People’s Republic of China, though given the scale of dissonance at other places, the restlessness amongst the Uyghurs remained largely latent, disorganised and unknown outside China. The Chinese state had knowingly sponsored a mass migration of the majority Han Chinese into the Xinjiang province to dilute and curb any kind of Uyghur assertion and any expression of racial and religious identity.
Today, the wave of global pan-Islamism has reached the estimated 12-15 million Uyghurs, and they now have various insurgent groups that are at war with the People’s Republic. The July 2009 Urumqi riots between the Uyghurs, Hans and the Chinese authorities was the first major outbreak of violence and tensions that shook the international community. Hundreds of people were either killed or kidnapped. The Communist regime had responded in its instinctive manner and blocked out all international media, selectively and extensively leaked images blaming the Uyghurs and clamped down on various civic rights of the outnumbered Uyghurs. A clear case of discrimination between the ethnically different Uyghurs (of Turkic stock), as opposed to the larger number of Hui Muslims (who ethnically proximate the Han Chinese) is perpetuated as only the Uyghurs are now considered modern-day “counter-revolutionaries”.
So while the Hui Muslims are relatively free to practise religious observations, go on the Haj, get employment and avail of state facilities and benefits, the Uyghurs are prone to suppression, denials and civic maltreatment. Newer restrictions were added increasingly to the curbs on restive Uyghurs like prohibiting “abnormally” long beards, wearing the veil, observing the holy month of Ramzan or even keeping some names that were considered “too Islamic”. The oppressive equation gave birth to extreme separatist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Turkestan Islamic Party, and these groups got involved in acts of violence and terror. Following the 9/11 carnage and inter-linkages of various terror groups, the US treasury department had designated the ETIM as a terrorist organisation.
However, instead of outreach, civic assimilation and dialogue, the Chinese have only upped the ante against the Uyghur minorities and now a wholly unprecedented tactic of mass “internment camps” has been created to stem the supposed radicalisation of Uyghurs. The UN recently suggested that these camps hosted approximately one million Uyghurs undergoing “re-education” programmes. This extreme step was accompanied with intense surveillance that included biometric samples and DNA profiling of the specific citizenry. Reports filtering out of these camps talk about the Uyghurs being forced into learning Mandarin, renouncing their faith and being forced to adopt the Han way of existence. The usual tactic of physical and psychological torture is rampant, as indeed the “disappearance” of those who do not succumb to pressure. The Chinese officialdom parrots the line of “three evil forces” of extremism, separatism and terrorism to justify the extension of the ostensible “vocational skills and educational training” meted out in these internment camps. These measures of “thought transformation” have got the requisite legal sanction to curb what the State calls the “pan-halal trend”, and the inmates within these camps have to undergo Stalinist-era propaganda and are denied legal representation to escape their internment. Given the demographics of China and the curated access to information, these extreme steps that seek to deny the emergence of “China’s Syria” will face little resistance from the Han majority.
Obviously, the contradiction in the realpolitik of Chinese diplomacy that postures “all-weather friendship” with countries like Pakistan (whose madrasas indoctrinate the ETIM cadres) or vetoing the likes of Hafiz Saeed as a UN-designated “international terrorist” is of little consequence when it comes to handling radicalisation in its own backyard. The extra-judicial treatment and encampment of the Uyghurs is done with utter impunity and the international community watches helplessly on the sidelines, as the Mao Zedong-inspired culture of handling issues in China in the 21st century remains unchanged. After initial denials that such internment camps existed, an aggressive counter-narrative is getting established wherein the Chinese government defends these tactics as temporary, progressive and essential to eradicate religious extremism. While the exact numbers, agenda and future is not conclusively shared with the international community, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has come down heavily on China. In language that is reflective of the Cold War era, the chairman of the Autonomous Western Region, Shohrat Zakir, vouched for the efficacy of these camps in tackling terrorism and radicalisation, and claimed that the trainees in these camps were grateful for the opportunities offered and that it had made their lives more “colourful”! However, in the 21st century, with the advent of satellite imagery and reach of technology, the continuation and defence of such regressive tactics will militate against the portents of the “Chinese century”. The world in general, and the Islamic world in particular, will have to take a principled stand against China’s treatment of its citizenry. The adage that China will win the sprint while India will eventually win the marathon rings true at such times as the playing optics of illiberality, hidden faultlines and undemocratic instincts without a societal or democratic vent could implode the Chinese dream from within.