Xinjiang and the Uighur question
S M Hali


Setting the record straight

Last week I returned from a visit to Shanghai and Urumqi. I had been invited for a series of lectures at the Shanghai University. The discourse with the academics was refreshing and the exchange of ideas wholesome. Shanghai does not fail to impress at each visit, but the real change is apparent in Xinjiang. My first visit to the capital of China’s largest province was in 1974, when Urumqi was underdeveloped. It has come a long way since then and can now compete with any developed capital of the world.

The question that was bothering me throughout my stay was regarding the extreme western propaganda pertaining to the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs. China is being chastised for its alleged persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, especially Uighur Muslims.

Numerous western reports claim that Uighurs are being held in so-called re-education camps, which are likened to concentration camps of the Nazi era. Blurred satellite pictures are presented as evidence of the so-called re-education camps where according to the biased media reports, Uighurs are kept in squalor, forced to denounce their religion. Interviews with Uighurs tearfully claiming to have escaped from the re-education camps are also inserted in the western media documentaries to support the allegations of harsh treatment of the Uighurs.

This scribe has discussed the Uighur question with Xinjiang authorities, spoken to Uighurs and even Pakistanis having Uighur spouses, residing in Xinjiang for over three decades. For ages, the opulent eastern provinces of China had presented a stark contrast with the underdeveloped western provinces but with the advent of the BRI, this disparity has been removed. The sense of deprivation of the underprivileged Uighurs was exploited by China’s disparagers to coerce them to insurgency and violent extremism. Progenitors of the propaganda machinery included Uighurs settled in the Occident using social media to incite Uighurs in Xinjiang to demand their rights and indulge in violence. Numerous acts of violence erupted in 2009 and since then there have been sporadic incidents.

The Chinese government dealt with the issue in a novel fashion. It decided to remove the sense of deprivation of the Uighurs by providing them opportunities of better employment, higher education and vocational training so that they could get gainfully employed in the mushroom growth of jobs offered under the BRI umbrella. Simultaneously the authorities cracked down hard on the miscreants.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has been the concern for serious study by the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Britain, France, Germany and many Gulf States including Saudi Arabia after a spate of violent attacks. Each country has adopted various methods and strategies to deal with violent extremism. Whereas information and literature are available on the modus operandi of the Occident and even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the successful implementation of its plan, China’s methodology is still not open. There are two reasons for this; firstly, it is still work in progress and secondly, it is an internal matter of China.

Facilities for practicing religion are also being enhanced. Modern and well-equipped mosques, slaughter houses where halal meat can be procured or the Eid-ul-Azha rituals practiced and support in pilgrimage are paying rich dividends

It must be understood that China does not adopt half-baked reforms but thinks the issues thoroughly before evolving a strategy to resolve it. Pakistani columnist Amir Rana, in has Op-ed ‘A Chinese re-education’ which has been carried by several journals quotes Zunyou Zhou, a Germany-based Chinese scholar whose paper was published in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence in 2017. Professor Zhou finds Chinese CVE strategy to be based on multiple approaches including Western CVE approaches, which were examined prior to evolving the Chinese model. The approaches include ‘five keys’, ‘four prongs’, ‘three contingents’, ‘two hands’ and ‘one rule’. Viewed together, these approaches point to legal, religious, cultural, ideological, and scientific aspects of the deradicalisation effort, implemented by governmental agencies, public institutions and non-governmental organizations in the region.

The Xinjiang government has developed several programmes aimed at different groups of people, including those who are ‘radicalised’ as well as those who are not but considered vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. The ‘five keys’ — ideological, cultural, customary, religious and legal — give a long-sustaining solution to terrorism. The ‘four prongs’ refer to a combination of four methods: ‘squeesing by correct faith’; ‘counteracting by culture’; ‘controlling by law’; and ‘popularising science’. ‘Squeesing by correct faith’ refers to clarifying people’s understanding of Islam while ‘counteracting by culture’ means seeking effective and practical solutions to thwart extremism and guiding people towards secularisation and modernisation. The ‘three contingents’ refer to the policy of reinforcing three main groups of people the government can count on to maintain stability and security. The ‘two hands’ refer to the one ‘firm hand’ that cracks down on terrorists, and the other ‘firm hand’ that educates and guides Uighur people, and the ‘one rule’ means the policy of ruling Xinjiang according to the law.

Nowhere any evidence was found of the Chinese government renouncing Islam or urging the faithful to avoid practicing their religious duties. Indeed, a policy document entitled Several Guiding Opinions on Further Suppressing Illegal Religious Activities and Combating the Infiltration of Religious Extremism in Accordance with Law, was issued by Xinjiang’s CCP Committee in May 2013. The policy document was also referred to as ‘No. 11 Document’, and described the borders between ethnic customs, normal religious practices and extremist manifestations.

Xinjiang Islamic Institute established 28 years ago with renowned Muslim Scholar AdudulrekepTumniaz serving as the president of the institute is functioning freely. It now has a new campus with modern class rooms, an impressive mosque, well equipped library, cozy dormitories and state-of-the-art sports facilities has been completed in 2017, which can compete with any modern western university.

The Chinese constitution ensures freedom of religion and Islam is no exception, however, western critics and detractors of China have been spreading rumours about the practice of Islam being curtailed. Since extremists have been distorting the tenets of Islam, quoting verses out of context and leading the faithful astray with their particular brand of religion to fulfill their heinous designs, the Islamic Institute has picked up the cudgel to produce scholars and religious teachers who can become Imams in various mosques and University Professors and teachers as well as research scholars to guide the faithful and protect them from extremism.

The bachelor’s degree being conferred upon the Islamic scholars from the institute — which numbers around 1,200 per year — is spread over five years. Imbibed with the knowledge of Islam, equipped with the wherewithal to take up the responsibility of guiding others, these graduates have an open mind and are well versed in technology science, social studies and current international affairs to meet the challenge head on.

Various measures taken by the Central Government of China and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are bearing fruit. Security is tight; vigilance is efficient and more effective because the physical, financial and moral well-being of the citizens is being guarded. More opportunities for education, vocational training, employment opportunities and religious freedom are producing healthy students. Young boys and girls especially from the less developed and impoverished regions are being afforded the opportunity to study in modern boarding schools, where they are being provided quality education, mastery over arts, sciences, languages and extracurricular activities at state expense to complete high school and gain admission in institutions of higher learning.

Facilities for practicing religion are also being enhanced. Modern and well-equipped mosques, slaughter houses where halal meat can be procured or the Eid-ul-Azha rituals practiced and support in pilgrimage are paying rich dividends. The government is ensuring that pilgrims for Hajj and Umrah are provided logistic support, while spiritual education and respect for the rights of the faithful is maintained.

The opposition to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by certain vested interests, jealous of China’s rapid economic progress, who would like to besmirch China’s human rights record and place impediments in its progress will not succeed.