Why has China risked international condemnation with their treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang? Why do they feel the need to exert such a high level of control over civil society? This blog will attempt to demystify China’s thinking behind these controversial decisions.
Whilst it would be all too easy to attribute current policy programmes to the authoritarian nature of the current Chinese state, China’s history of empire, domination and the formulation of Han nationalism against a backdrop of a diverse number of ethnic minorities should be given greater importance.
The ‘100 Years of Humiliation’, a period ending in the mid-20th century, is key to understanding how China has regarded their position on the international stage. This period saw decades of economic exploitation by Western imperialists and political domination from Japan and Russia. Considering the length at which China experienced such foreign interference, it is unsurprising that they pursue an agenda to strengthen both their nationalist identity, but also their identity as a strong, independent political actor (examples here can include their treatment of ethnic minorities and Hong Kong). Indeed, in 2013, current President Xi Jinping emphasised the ‘Chinese Dream’, referring in part to the need to ‘rejuvenate’ China as a nation.
China has portrayed the detention of Eastern Turkic Muslims, specifically the Uighurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, as a necessary step in the reduction of terrorism. China’s official justification to the existence of these ‘Vocational Training Centres’ is that they need to protect their populations against a terrorist threat and need to pre-emptively reduce the spread of extremism.The state has connected the terrorist threat to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist, militant Uighur group. However, whilst China is officially an atheist state and wary of religious separatism, this alone cannot explain the prosecution of an entire ethnicity.
Considering how far reaching China’s economic investments are, it is likely that they recognise their influence, subsequently discouraging challenges to China from other states. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would help illustrate this, specifically in the case of Kazakhstan. Despite reports stating there to be thousands of Kazakhs imprisoned in ‘Vocational Training Camps’ in Xinjiang, the Kazakhstan government has so far remained quiet on this gross abuse of Human Rights. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, BRI countries’ debt to China has increased significantly since their participation in this infrastructure scheme. In Kazakhstan, which joined the initiative in 2013, the percentage of debt owed to China increased by 8.3% by 2016. This raises the possibility that Kazakhstan has felt unable to challenge China on its treatment of Kazakhs due to the economic significance of their relationship.
All in all, the driving factors behind China’s decision-making process are linked to strengthening the image of a strong, singular identity of the Han Chinese people, a fixation encouraged by a history of exploitation by foreign powers. In addition to this underlying theme, their economic omnipresence has led to a fear of opposition to such a policy. China perceives the Uighurs to be a threat to ethnic nationalism, rather than a genuine threat to their national security, a perception which has been moulded by a history of fragmentation, and confidently carried out against a backdrop of economic dominance.