Bottom Line Up Front
- The release of a trove of Chinese government documents offers close insight into a vast campaign of incarceration, intimidation, and abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province.
- China has relied heavily on emerging technology and artificial intelligence to track, monitor, and surveil its citizens.
- Few countries have decided to pressure Beijing, which uses economic leverage to dissuade governments and corporations from speaking out.
- Chinese government leadership has at times co-opted specific rhetoric from the United States’ global war on terrorism to justify its own counterterrorism policies.
The recent release of a trove of classified internal Chinese government documents offers perhaps the closest insight yet of a vast campaign of incarceration, intimidation, and abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. The documents were leaked to the New York Times from a member of China’s political establishment who is allegedly hopeful that Chinese President Xi Jinping will be forced to deal with the allegations and fallout. Yet even before the leak, reporting on China’s abuse of the Uighurs has ebbed and flowed. Despite this, few countries in the international community have decided to pressure Beijing, which uses economic leverage to dissuade governments and corporations from elevating the issue beyond milquetoast condemnations. This is a common tactic of the Chinese government, which also relies on its economic prowess to blunt criticism of its actions in Hong Kong and solidify support for its positions vis-à-vis Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has imprisoned more than one million ethnic minorities, and possibly twice that many, in the northwestern part of the country in what the government has labeled ‘vocational camps.’ In reality, these are internment or detention camps where citizens have been taken away from their families and forcibly relocated to try to “Sinicize” the Muslim minorities. China has relied heavily on emerging technology, closed circuit television equipped with facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence to track, monitor, and surveil its citizens. Residents of Xinjiang are forced to carry identification cards, receive biometric scans at permanent checkpoints, and have tracking devices installed on their phones and in their vehicles. Recent reports have suggested that in Uighur homes where the men have been sent to camps, Chinese government officials have been sent to live with the families. In some cases, both parents have been placed in internment camps, effectively orphaning their children, who are then sent to state-run orphanages.
For its part, the Chinese government has spoken about the need to combat radicalization and fight back against what it labels terrorism, separatism, and extremism. In the spring of 2014, Uighur militants went on a stabbing spree in Xinjiang, killing 31 people and injuring another 150 more. Following this attack, President Xi began formulating the early version of China’s heavy-handed response, even co-opting some language from the United States’ global war on terrorism. The leak of government documents reveals internal discussions within the CCP and strongly suggests that China’s campaign of domestic repression is a deliberate and long-planned strategy which will proceed unabated and with top cover provided by high-ranking party officials. But the first anti-terrorism bill in China, which was put into effect in early 2016, coupled with the role of a new party boss in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, accelerated the crackdown and intensification of a scorched earth campaign against all Uighurs, ramping up in the summer of 2016.
China frequently references external events and points to relations between domestic militants and transnational terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, to further justify what it views as a purely internal matter. The civil war in Syria and the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan have both been referenced by Chinese leadership as potential catalysts for Uighur militancy abroad. While Beijing downplays the issue of terrorism domestically when communicating with its own citizens, the country’s leadership has used it as a cudgel to elicit sympathy on the international stage. China has done this with the intent to express a shared threat with the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and other countries that have been victims of terrorist attacks by individuals and groups inspired by Sunni jihadist ideology. The international community must not let China’s behavior go unaccounted for. Using counterterrorism as an excuse to curb political opposition and abuse minority populations is not only unethical but can also serve as a rallying call for extremism. China’s current ‘counterterrorism’ policy in Xinjiang is not only a human rights disaster but may also prove counterproductive in eliminating terrorism from within and outside its borders.