A police state in Xinjiang in which moderate voices are silenced is not what China needs to achieve stability
Roseann Rife says the region has became a testing ground for China’s most oppressive security policies but vilifying certain ethnic groups and drowning out moderate viewpoints will not lead to a peaceful nation
Four years ago this week, the renowned Uygur economist Ilham Tohti was detained by Chinese authorities and eventually sentenced to life in prison for separatism. Commentators predicted that the authorities intended to initiate a severe crackdown in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to head off growing ethnic tensions and silence moderate voices. They were right; the region is now a virtual police state.
Today’s Xinjiang is characterised by omnipresent police surveillance, overflowing detention facilities, advanced technological monitoring, heavily armed street patrols, ubiquitous security checkpoints and intrusive policies violating human rights.
Since the 1980s, the Uygurs – a mainly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group – have been the target of persecution, including arbitrary imprisonment, incommunicado detention, and restrictions on rights and religious freedom. After Chen Quanguo became the region’s party chief two years ago, Xinjiang became a testing ground for some of the most oppressive security policies seen in China in recent years.
Journalists tell of several checkpoints on roads, metal detectors at entrances to parks and random street checks of mobile phones to ensure a new mobile security app has been installed. The authorities have taken surveillance to new levels using DNA, biometrics and face recognition. The big data platform Police Cloud aggregates and analyses all kinds of information to track groups that threaten “social stability”.
The authorities have also doubled down on Uygurs practising their religion. Revisions to the Regulation on Religious Affairs endorsed in 2017 codify state control over all aspects of religious practice but in March, a “de-extremification regulation” was announced in Xinjiang that clearly targets Muslims. “Extremist” behaviour includes wearing of “abnormal beards”, refusing to smoke and not selling alcohol during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. New regulations even forbid the use of Islamic names for newborns.
Uygur students studying abroad were ordered to return and other governments questioned Uygurs and other Chinese students about their activities. In July, we received reports that at least 22 Uygur students were forcibly returned to China from Egypt. Two students who returned voluntarily from Egypt reportedly died in police custody. Thousands of Uygurs and other Muslims are detained in “counter-extremism centres”, “political study centres” or “education and transformation centres” for months without independent court proceedings, or access to lawyers or their families, for possessing Korans, studying abroad or having family overseas.
The authorities cloak the repression as being part of national security measures. The nationwide state security legal architecture initiated by the central authorities in 2014 contains vaguely worded laws that are wide-open for abuse.
A country’s responsibility to protect its citizens from attacks that target the general population and that genuinely endanger public order and the survival of the state must be proportionate and as narrow and targeted as needed to address the specific threat. What we see in China, as elsewhere, are overreactions and vilification of entire ethnic or religious groups rather than efforts targeting individuals who commit crimes.
Tohti tackled this vilification in his writings. He worried that his homeland would fall into “turmoil and division” and devoted himself to achieving “harmonious ethnic coexistence”. He said: “I believe that one of our most important tasks and missions is for us to use rational and constructive voices to compete against more extreme ones in the market place of ideas.” Arguably the exact opposite of the separatism of which he is accused.
Trapping people in a virtual police state without safeguarding human rights will not result in China’s stated goal of stability. Creating an environment where the right to privacy is protected and people can freely practise their religion and beliefs and enjoy their own cultures without fear of arrest and persecution is essential. By silencing Tohti, the Chinese authorities are depriving everyone of a moderate voice that could be contributing to the very stability they claim to seek.
Roseann Rife is East Asia research director at Amnesty International