Since 2018, OCHR has been negotiating with China for visiting Xinjiang with“unfettered, meaningful access” and the freedom to interview civil society groups without supervision. On March 2022, the negotiation led to an agreement “on the parameters that respects methodology”, including “unfettered access to a broad range of actors, including civil society”. This is the first time in 17 years where a human rights commissioner will be visiting China. The last visit was took place on 2005.
According to spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, the purpose of the visit of the high commissioner for human rights is to promote exchanges and cooperation between the two sides. Xinjiang province is an internal matter of China, it has always opposed the interference of external forces citing “political manipulation”.
Under the administration of President Xi Jinping, China is allegedly running a campaign of mass detention re-education, and religious and cultural oppression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Though denied by China, the ground reports done by media groups such as The Guardian, Washington Post, BBC etc allege the existence of detention camps in the region. Furthermore, Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society by tightening restrictions on freedom of speech since 2012. According to China, the crackdown in Xinjiang is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism and the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in its fight against terrorism. The Government of China, in its wisdom, has placed the media, foreign journalists, internet services and mobile phones of the Xinjiang province under heavy surveillance.
Xinjiang province is an autonomous region in Northwest China wherein 40 ethnic groups reside. But its administration model is similar to that of Tibet which is controlled by the Chinese Communist party. There are two major ethnic groups that reside in this region namely Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese. The other ethnicities residing in this region include Hui Muslims, Mongolians, Khalkas, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, Russians etc.
The issue between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs is decades old but gained traction and world attention post 2009. It is alleged that due to extreme policies of the CCP, attacks on the Uighurs increased from 2010 onwards to such an extent that it escalated into a global human rights issue.
In August 2018, the United Human Rights Panel revealed that China has 1 million Uighur Muslims in counter extremism centers, which they called ‘detention camps’ against the claims of the Chinese government which terms these as ‘vocational training centers’. China’s counterterrorism measures include enhanced security and what China calls vocational training and education centres which is vital for the global fight against terrorism.
The New York Times [The Xinjiang Papers: ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files expose how china organized mass detentions of Muslims; Author Austin Ramzy & Chris Buckley; Nov 16 2019]: on 16th November 2019, New York Times claimed that it discovered a 400 page secret document that was indicative of an unprecedented crackdown on the ethnic minorities of the Xinjiang region. These documents refer to the centers as schools but allege that activities carried out in such schools amounts to human rights violations based on media reports, testimonies and evidence.
What is the Conflict About?
An estimated 10 million Uighurs reside in the Autonomous region of Xinjiang. Additionally, in the early 21st century, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan accounted for another 300,000 Uighurs. The prevalent language of Uighurs is part of the Altaic language group which includes Turkic, Mongolian among others. They are also the oldest Turkic speaking people in the region and find mention in records as old as 3rd century CE but their prominence was seen in the 8th century CE when they established their own Kingdom near the Orkhon river. In terms of modern day geography, this region falls under North-Central Mongolia. Due to historical attacks by contemporary Mongols and Kyrgys, the group was displaced from this region into Xinjiang and other regions. Around the 10th century CE, they accepted Islam as their religion and nearly 80% of modern Uighurs belong to the Sunni sect.
The question that arises is why China seeks to control this region when it is designated as an Autonomous Region. The Uighur Autonomous region of Xinjiang is a part of China that shares its borders with – Qinghai and Gansu provinces of China on the east; Tibet on the south; Afghanistan and Kashmir on the south-west; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the west; Kazakhstan on the north-west; Russia on the north and Mongolia on the north-east. It also happens to be the largest political unit of China having its capital at Urumqi.
During the 20th Century, the conflicts between the Han Chinese and Uighurs saw a manifold increase, effects of which were seen in the first decade of the 21st Century as well. After the Chinese revolution in 1912, Xinjiang Province was captured by the Turkic Commander Yang Zengxin who was appointed Governor by the Beijing Government. He was later assassinated in 1928 following which the region was administered by Jin Shuren and Sheng Shicai.
However, in 1949, after the victory of the CCP, the Central Government implemented liberal policies in the region and it was declared ‘Autonomous’ in 1955. In the following years, from 1958 to 1960, a campaign called the “Great Leap Forward” was initiated by the CCP with a view to organize the entire population of China. This entailed large-scale rural communes which, according to the CCP, were necessary to solve industrial and agricultural problems.
Thereafter, between 1966 and 1976, Mao Zedong started the ‘Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution’ (GPCR) in order to distinguish the Chinese Model of revolution from that of the Soviets. This pushed many regions of China including Xinjiang into turmoil. The resulting food shortage coupled with strained Sino-Soviet ties through the 1960s led to a mass exodus of kazakhs from China into Kazakhstan which was then a part of the Soviet Union. This in turn led to political instability in the region and ethnic tensions in the border regions grew. By the end of GPCR, Xinjiang had developed economically and many Han Chinese chose to immigrate into the region thereby resulting in a demographic change. After the CCP came to power in China, many changes were implemented one of which included a subtle change in demography.
It is pertinent to note that the Uyghur constituted 75% of the total population in the 1950s. Han Chinese– the country’s majority ethnic group constituted for just 6.2% (currently 42% Uyghur; Han Chinese 40%). One of the alleged reasons behind such a decline in Uyghur population is religious persecution. Therefore, owing to changes in demography, policies and government’s approach, economic disparities emerged between the Han Chinese and Uighurs which further fuelled ethic divides leading to protests and other disturbances.
Juy 2009 saw a violet outbreak in Urumqi in which an estimated 200 people died mostly Han Chinese. Twelve Uyghurs were killed by Chinese security forces and another nine were executed several months later. It is after this event that this far western Xinjiang region witnessed a considerable increase in violent outbreaks amongst the 2 ethnic groups which have been reported on multiple occasions in the last decade.
The CCP blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has also been designated by the US State Department as “the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups.” On 5, 2020, the Trump administration delisted ETIM as a terrorist group. ETIM, however, has never accepted responsibility for these attacks. Consequently, the CCP, working under the suspicion that Uighurs are dissidents and separatists, began cracking down on them. Until 2017, the action taken by the authorities included shootings, arrests and long jail sentences. Post 2017, citing security reasons, China increased surveillance and crackdown measures in this region especially with the Uighur ethnic groups. According to the allegations in the leaked document of the New York Times, these measures are said to have come directly from the desk of the President (“respond with no mercy” order).
How the world sees it?
Xinjiang and its constituent demography has evolved into a geopolitical issue of significance for USA and a politically sensitive one for China. In 2018, the Human Rights panel of the UN had claimed of possessing evidence indicating the presence of detention camps in the Xinjiang Region. In 2020, the US enacted the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act that mandates several US government bodies to report on the issues of Human Rights violations of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Only recently, in a coordinated effort, the EU, UK, US and Canada, passed a resolution imposing sanctions on China for her Human Rights violations in Xinjiang.