ISSN 2674-8053

The Uighures, the People's Republic of China and the West

Chinese province of Xinjiang | Graphic art: FLY

The new frontier of the dispute between China and the United States lately is being concentrated in the region of the Autonomous Republic of Xinjiang, officially known as the “Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang” (XUAR), in northwest China, where the Uighur ethnic group lives, mostly Muslim.

Beijing is being accused of interning separatist individuals in concentration camps and sterilizing the population. President Joe Biden has already bluntly spoken out against what he sees as a deliberate policy by the Chinese government to carry out “ethnic cleansing” (“an ethnical cleansing”) in the region. Documented cases of forced labor, family separation and destruction of mosques and other religious sites complement the accusations. Former detainees claim they were subjected to indoctrination, sexually abused and forcibly sterilized. As a reaction, the US Department of Commerce imposed trade restrictions against more than 30 Chinese companies for their role in the crackdown.

The European Union, Canada and Britain followed the Americans. The European bloc accused the Chinese authorities of being “responsible for serious human rights violations, in particular arbitrary large-scale detentions inflicted on uighures and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities”. By the very fact, also imposed, on the last day 22/03, coordinated sanctions against senior Chinese officials, including the ban on entry into their territories and the freezing of assets of four of them. This decision came after long negotiations that, in its turn, exposed the bloc's divisions on how to deal with China, important business partner – and competitor – for many of them, according to observers. This is, by the way, the first time, whereas the EU has taken such measures against the PRC since the Tian an men Square crackdown, in 1989.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1 million uighures and Muslim members of other Turkmen minorities are held in the so-called “rehabilitation camps” created by Beijing in the region. The number could be more than 2 millions, according to a US Department of State official. More recently, several countries and parliaments, including the USA, Canada and the Netherlands, declared that the repression of Muslim minorities amounts to a “genocide” and violates the “United Nations Convention on Genocide”. The “Uighur World Congress”, a group based in Germany that represents uighures in exile, applauded the measures.

In view of the sensitivity of the subject, and its moral weight for all of us, I think it is convenient to once again make use of history to try to situate the facts…

Uighures speak their own language, similar to Turkish and see themselves culturally and ethnically close to the Central Asian nations. As in the last few decades there has been a massive migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, uighures feel that their culture and livelihoods are under threat.

They represent less than half the population of Xinjiang: near 12 millions of people in a universe of 25 millons of citizens, and of 1,4 billion Han ethnic Chinese, according to the census of 2021. They share this territory with several other ethnic groups: Turkmen, Kazakhs, hans, tibetans, tajiks, House, Mongolians, russians and xibes, to name the most representative. Many are not Muslims. That is, uighures do not represent the majority of the region's population, what prevents them, according to some analysts, to posit unilaterally the independence of Xinjiang, as the most radical want. For the sake of truth, in the early twentieth century they achieved brief independence amid the commotion that engulfed China in the wake of the fall of the Qing empire, until the region was brought under the complete control of the new communist government, in 1949.

And what China says?

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China responded to EU sanctions by saying that they “undermine China's sovereignty” and they are “based on nothing but lies and misinformation, disregarding and distorting the facts”. The central government emphasizes that repression is necessary to prevent militancy and to eradicate the Islamic terrorism that has increased in recent times: the “re-education camps”, what do they call them, are an effective tool to re-educate the most radical. The authorities insist that Muslim militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state, plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest, "As evidenced by the growing terrorist acts". And reject, how “unfounded”, claims that they are trying to reduce the uighur population through mass sterilizations. They add that the charges of forced labor are “fully manufactured”. It will be?

Using History, it is good to remember that since the initiatives of Western missionaries to Christianize the population during the Qing Empire, the religious issue has been a very sensitive issue for the Chinese. And the nefarious collusion between missionary activism and western colonialism, that descended in the “century of humiliation”, left deep scars and created cleavages between the Catholic Church of China and government officials that endure today….

Two weights and two measures / versions: the focus for the Chinese, after all, it's not ethnicity, but the faith that uighures profess. It is Islamic terrorism that is raging in the East and in the West that scares them. They, by the way, refer to the examples of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as examples of what they don't want to “import”… Religion is a serious issue in China…

The "Uighur question" is becoming the newest epicenter of the China / USA / West confrontation? In the "Trump" era it was the "trade war"; now would be human rights violations, dear to President Joe Biden and the Democratic administration? And this time accompanied by the Europeans?

Rudyard Kipling was unfortunately right when he said that “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” ?

I suggest to friends to read the article “Boxed in On China” that Prof. Stephen Roach published in “Project Syndicate”:



Boxed In On China | by Stephen S. Roach – Project Syndicate

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Doctor of Public International Law in Paris. He entered the diplomatic career in 1976, served in Brussels embassies, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Islamabade (where he was Ambassador of Brazil, in 2004). He also completed transitional missions in Vietnam and Taiwan. Lived 15 years in Asia, where he guided his career, considering that the continent would be the most important of the century 21 - forecast that, now, sees closer and closer to reality.