What is Happening to China’s Uighur Minority?

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The alleged interment of more than a million Uighur Muslims by the Chinese government has received scant international attention. Why is this the case?

As they always do, future historians will look back upon our time with ethical bafflement over many things. Often those things turn out to be completely invisible to the culture of the day. If there is such an enigma now, it may be the alleged internment camps of the Uighur Muslims in the People’s Republic of China.

On Monday, 16 September the Wall Street Journal published an article trying to explain why this might be happening. It opened with these harrowing lines:

“The repression of the Turkic Uighur Muslim community in western China—including the reported internment of up to a million people in secret camps—is a key part of Beijing’s new imperial policy. Only by understanding the dynamics of Chinese empire can one grasp this brutal campaign.“

There is no question that the Uighur, a Muslim minority that still consider Xianjing to be Turkestan, are being persecuted and oppressed. But to what extent? Is there any hard evidence of these internment camps? What evidence there is (or was) may be disappearing as you read this. The Atlantic reported on September 15:

“Citizen journalists and scholars are in a race against time, scouring the internet for evidence before the Chinese government can erase it.”

The alleged internment of millions of Uighur for the purposes of reeducation in the Communist Party has been reported in some of the most prominent media outlets, yet it never seems to be a trending topic. But it’s hard to deny the existence of these camps when the Beijing government’s only quibble is over the purpose of the camps, not their existence. In other words their existence isn’t really alleged. Nor are they exactly a secret as the WSJ described.

According to the New York Times:

“China has categorically denied reports of abuses in Xinjiang. At a meeting of a United Nations panel in Geneva last month, it said it does not operate re-education camps and described the facilities in question as mild corrective institutions that provide job training.”

In other words, Beijing claims they’re some kind of rehabilitation jails. This explanation is possible. But is it likely? The man who hits on a woman while buying lingerie could actually be buying that chemise for his mother, instead of his wife…but that’s highly unlikely.

And aside from this implausible denial China doesn’t seem to have an explanation for the reports coming out from the camps. Some of these reports are from former inmates. But some of the reports that these centers were created for reeducation were found in Beijing’s own documentation of the camps. Both have referred to them as places designed to subjugate the Uighur culturally. The descriptions make it clear they are attempts to squeeze out the Islamic beliefs of the Uighur. Beijing wants to make them into members of their glorious revolution. To denounce Muhammad and hail Marx, to replace the Tafsir with “Das Capital.”

But Beijing continues to simply deny. Officially, their policy has been to give lip service to freedom of religion. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that The Party is a religion. Atheistic, but a religion nontheless. Their priestly class can’t abide another religion for long. That is why they’re desperately trying to cover up their dirty tracks that lead to blatantly illiberal policies.

This is why the scholars and journalists The Atlantic referred to are in a race against time. Beijing is acting like a law firm on retainer to the mob, or a Fortune 500 that were caught insider trading. They’ve just been tipped off that the police are en route so they start shredding everything in sight.

Trump’s attempts to start a phony trade war to get China to play fair at free trading probably have not helped either. Along these lines the most recent news that Alibaba will not be bringing any jobs to America is anticlimatic to say the least. This will almost certainly hurt Alibaba only. They’ve decided not to extend their business into one of the largest and most afluent countries in the world, and this is supposed to be interpreted as an act of aggression. Trade wars based on “deficits” or trade “imbalances” between countries aren’t based in anything real. Nations don’t trade with other nations. Businesses and individuals are the direct concomitants in such endeavors. It’s not as if Great Britain buys from Japan whenever a Toyota is purchased somewhere in Merseyside. Exchanging Stirling for a RAV4 doesn’t hurt England or create a “deficit.” That’s just the way trade and commerce work. Both are benefited by the interaction.

Imposing these sorts of economic sanctions for the expressed purpose of trying to alleviate the human rights abuses directed at the Uighur will not work. In fact they may make the situation worse. If companies like Alibaba don’t expand into the United States, they will have a hard time sustaining growth. If the Chinese economy suffers, it could cause efforts against the Uighur to intensify.

The only thing that might make a difference with China is an actual embargo or setting real economic constraints through international joint resolutions. Similar to what occurred during apartheid. Tariffs and fees usually wind up taxing everyone but the country they are supposed to hurt. If Chinese products cost more to ship to America then Chinese businesses will simply charge more for their acquisition. Which means US citizens are spending more for the same or they won’t spend anything on such products which only hurts businesses here and in China. But it’s sort of like amputating a limb to cure an infection, which just isn’t necessary in a world with penicillin.

Aside from that, journalistic pressure and public opinion in liberal countries could also provide real assistance. After Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became visible in western media, it became very difficult for the USSR to persecute him. Of course an individual is one thing. There are practical limits to how much merely writing about the plight of the Uighur can do. But even if journalists cannot provide real protection to an entire group of people we may be able to prevent something far worse from occurring. And potentially take away some of Beijing’s surveillance capabilities. The WSJ’s analysis of the situation is instructive for what can be done to stunt Beijing:

“A deep, unspoken reason why China has never liberalized is its authoritarian leadership fears ethnic rebellion. Uprisings of this sort happened in the outer reaches of the Soviet Union after it liberalized in the 1980s. So China has kept its political system closed, while simultaneously pushing into Central Asia through diplomacy and economic interventions. It is building vast in-frastructure projects in the region to ally with the Turkic Muslims of the former Soviet Union and deny China’s own Muslims a friendly rear base for future rebellion.”

The rest of their grand strategy for creating a Chinese imperial presence in Eurasia depends on consolidating power through the desert of Xianjing. Which means that anything benefiting the Uighur will hinder this process and potentially lead to push back from within the region. Western media can aide this in multiple ways, both short term and, culturally, long term. By making visible their situation, there’s no telling what major national players will be persuaded against China. The chance that a country like Iran might be turned agaisnt China is especially important. China is desperately hoping to ally with Iran to solidify their contemporary silk road and maintain access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf–two crucial maritime trade routes.

Hopefully, the Uighur themselves will see increased media support as encouragement. In the process, western journalists can carefully communicate why liberal political values like civility and freedom of conscience are important in the fight against tyranny. This may be more vital in the long term than any short term benefit. Many forget that some of the insurgents against the USSR, which were aided by America, became the very same individuals who plotted 9/11 and various other terrorist attacks. If the Uighur can’t be helped tomorrow maybe our extended olive branches can save the next generation from radicalization.

There is no way to know what the future has in store for China’s Muslims. But their present reality is tragic enough that we must do something. If history has taught us nothing else its that groups relegated to camps are potentially in danger of persuection far worse than reeducation.

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About Author

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A.C. Gleason earned his MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot Seminary. He is a regular contributor to The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter @ac_gleason.

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