Written by: Ariana King
In August 2018, the UN received word of the potential detainment of up to one million Uighur and non-Uighur Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, China. After previous denials by Chinese authorities, as of October 2018, the government admits to the creation of “vocational skills and educational training centres” that are meant to identify and “re-educate” potential religious extremists. The Chinese government justifies the camps’ necessity by citing the various assaults in the Xinjiang region that they accuse the Muslim minority of having committed.
While the Chinese government has only recently created “re-education camps”, the Uighur population has, for a long time, set itself apart from mainstream Chinese society. Before 1949, the Uighurs were an independent group, until they fell under the Communist Party’s Rule. After that, Xinjiang was officially declared an autonomous region, meaning that in theory, it should have the ability to rule separately from the Chinese government. Culturally, the mostly-Muslim Uighurs are more similar to people in Central Asia and speak a language that more closely resembles Turkish than Mandarin Chinese. On top of all that, the Chinese government has, as stated above, blamed them for various attacks in the region, citing the Uighurs’ resentment of the mass migration of Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, to the province.
Despite government claims that the camps are meant for re-education, human rights groups argue that the true purpose is brainwashing and cultural eradication. Based on personal testimonies, satellite images, and official government documents, it is clear that while the camps may offer some sort of job training, the Chinese government agenda is political and not purely benevolent. Previous prisoners claimed that torture and brainwashing were common and that they were never charged with any crime to justify their imprisonment. Moreover, the camps aimed to get rid of prisoners’ cultural identities, by stressing the superiority of majority Han Chinese culture over that of the Uighurs, to the point where detainees were forbidden to speak the local language.
While it is clear to many observers that these camps are a clear violation of human rights, the Chinese government’s actions against these alleged “extremists” also represent a typical counterinsurgent reaction to internal uprising. While it isn’t clear if the attacks are widespread enough to be considered an insurgency, the Chinese government’s reaction is still easily comparable to the reaction of other governments who face internal threats. According to James Kiras, an Assistant Professor of Comparative Military Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, the three main goals of a counterinsurgency are “location, isolation, and eradication.” In his view, the state, like their weaker opponent, also relies on winning legitimacy in order to justify their actions and win public support. Since the camps’ creation, the Chinese government has shown it is working towards all three of the goals outlined by Kiras and trying to win legitimacy through state propaganda and the bashing of international critics like the United States.
To start, the Chinese government had an easy time locating the opposing group, as the attacks against several Han Chinese citizens took place in the Xinjiang region. By creating these camps and holding detainees for an indefinite period of time, the Chinese government has obviously succeeded in physically isolating potential extremists from their base of moral and material support, in terms of weapons and supplies. Finally, like an effective counterinsurgent, the government has set its sights on eradication – not of the people themselves, but of the cultural values that drive their belief system. The eradication of their message and alleged motive to commit violence is the most important object of the state: if their opponents’ will to fight back is gone, the threat will be crushed.
However, in order to fight an internal threat, the government’s actions must be viewed as legitimate or it risks destabilizing its own political power. To defend the re-education centers, the government had Xinjiang’s No. 2 official and member of the Uighur population, Shohrat Zakir, defend the policy in light of international criticism. The government also put out propaganda from detainees themselves praising the camps in an attempt to prove the camps’ “good” nature. Despite their efforts, Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher who specializes in China, declared that the state’s weak defense only proved the lack of rule of law in China, as the government will do anything to get rid of enemies.
In the process of defense, the Chinese government also antagonized critics, using even more emotionally charged claims to justify their actions. While they may be more blunt, does the government perhaps have a point about international critics? For example, Hu Xijin, a noteworthy editor of Global Times, argued that the West was apathetic about the treatment of the Xinjiang citizens and only wanted to critique China on an international stage. Given the United States’ own history of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, which include events like the Japanese internment camps and Native American assimilation schools, does the U.S. truly have a right to criticize the Chinese state?
Like the current Chinese administration, the United States sought to eliminate Native American culture by forcing Western culture on Native American children. At Carlisle, a boarding school like many others, school officials gave Native American children Western names, clothing, and hairstyles and coerced them into leaving their culture and language behind in favor of the “superior” Western one. This incident alone makes it clear that, like the Chinese government, the United States engaged in brainwashing and cultural eradication in order to fight what they saw as an internal threat. While both incidents are clearly human rights abuses, China, despite the atrocities it has commit, does have a leg to stand on when it calls the U.S. out on its hypocrisy. Even though this jab at America’s dark past will not legitimize the re-education camps, it does depict a clear effort by the Chinese government to win international support by weakening an ally of the opponent. Together, Chinese propaganda, U.S. criticism, and the creation of re-education centers represent not just a major human rights violation, but also a classic counterinsurgency reaction to perceived internal threats.