China is trying to hide a dirty secret in the far northwest corner of the country. What we know about it illustrates how the leadership thinks of China, and how it relates to the rest of the world.
Xi Jinping, the president and Communist Party leader, is engaged in a global charm offensive, aided in part by the utter lack of charm emanating from the White House these days. Washington rejects global action on climate change; Beijing claims leadership. Washington seeks me-first trade deals; Xi positions China as the standard bearer for win-win free trade. The U.S. turns inward; China invests billions in infrastructure for a new Silk Road.
Most of these moves benefit China, too. Some are primarily self-serving. They boost Chinese influence, provide avenues for the flow of raw materials, and may offer an outlet for excess labor and capital. So when you strip away the smiles and handshakes, the policies often are transactional and nationalistic; in other words, a lot like current U.S. policies.
It’s not news that Xi’s domestic policies have a similar focus — economic growth, political stability and external prestige are intertwined, together providing justification for the Communist Party’s hold on power. Xi has pursued a broad crackdown on anything that hints of disloyalty.
What’s news is how far China seems willing to take this.
U.N. officials confronted China in August with credible evidence of a massive campaign of human rights abuses targeting its Uighur minority. As a rule, Uighurs, a Turkic and Muslim people, identify culturally more with Central Asia than with China. Their resistance can be violent — sometimes exceedingly so. Chinese authorities argue they are fighting terrorism, and that their policies lift the region economically.
Chinese officials make it very difficult for journalists or human rights groups to work in the region. But the scope of China’s latest security campaign in Xinjiang province, pulled together by researchers from official documents and reports by local people, is mind-boggling.
In a province with about 20 million people, reports indicate that a thousand or more internment camps have sprung up; perhaps a million people have been detained. Another two million may be undergoing re-education or indoctrination. In one township, 40 percent of the population — including nearly every man between the ages of 20 and 50 — was to be sent to the camps. In three counties, nearly everyone born between 1980 and 2000 is said to have been detained. For the children of detainees, there are new orphanages.
Inside the camps, detainees report being subjected to Maoist-style re-education: being forced to chant slogans, study Confucian texts, give thanks to Xi before meals and write self-criticisms. They are encouraged to snitch on fellow detainees.
According to one analysis, one-fifth of all arrests in China last year occurred in Xinjiang, which has less than 2 percent of the population.
Outside the camps, Human Rights Watch reports that police use intrusive home visits and an integrated surveillance system including cameras with facial recognition capability, “wifi sniffers,” and data about vehicle ownership, bank and legal records, even health and family planning.
Human Rights Watch acknowledges China’s concerns about terrorism, but says the program “is in practice far broader, and encompasses anyone suspected of political disloyalty, which in Xinjiang could mean any Uighur, particularly those who express, even peacefully, their religious or cultural identity.”
China also keeps tabs on Uighurs living abroad, pressures their families and sometimes orders them home. According to Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, “all known cases of Uighurs returning to China in the last year have resulted in the returnee’s disappearance.”
It’s not clear how this ends. China can’t, and almost certainly doesn’t want to, hold all these detainees indefinitely. Thum says Chinese officials seem to be the only ones who believe their tactics won’t just engender more resentment.
China regards this as nobody’s business. Like Russia, China is highly sensitive to what it considers foreign interference in its internal affairs, or those of other countries. This quote from the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, courtesy of Bloomberg, sums it up. Arguing that minorities have stronger protections in China than in the United States, she said U.S. lawmakers should avoid “interfering in other countries’ internal politics, playing judges on human rights and casting blame, or even threatening to impose unreasonable sanctions.”
At the United Nations, China also has stood in the way of a stronger response to Myanmar’s abuse of its Rohingya minority. A U.N. report released last week concluded that military officials should be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity. But China sees opportunity in Myanmar.
Even Muslim countries, which have spoken out strongly in defense of the Rohingya, have been largely quiet about the Uighurs. Why? Bloomberg points out that China is a major market for Saudi and Iranian oil, for instance. It’s the leading foreign investor in Malaysia and the source of $60 billion in loans to Pakistan. Plus, criticizing a major player like China invites them to highlight your own lousy human rights record.
China has money and ambition in equal measures. The charm offensive goes only so far. If you want to do business with Beijing, it’s prudent to hear no evil and see no evil.