Xinjiang, the farthest west and most heavily muslim jurisdiction under Beijing’s rule, has become a high-tech, all-encompassing police state with few historical parallels. Since the 2009 riots in the province’s capital city of Urumqi, the “strike hard” campaign against extremism has only struck harder, and harder. The muslim Uyghurs have suffered mass repression as a result. As Xinjiang stands at a vital crossroads of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its security has become an ever high priority in Beijing.
Today, the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders released an analysis of publicly available government data to show just how far part of that police state goes:
“Criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of all arrests in China in 2017, though the population in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] is only about 1.5% of China’s total, based on the 2010 Census.”Arrests shot up 731 percent from 2016 to 2017, and up 306 percent when comparing the 2008-2012 period to the 2013-2017 period.“Though the government does notprovide the data disaggregated by ethnicity, criminal punishment would disproportionately target the Uyghur Muslim group based on their percentage of the population,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders writes.
Another aspect of Xinjiang’s police state that has grabbed headlines around the world in recent months is an extensive, secretive network of “re-education camps.” The camps hold anywhere from a few hundred thousand to over a million Uyghurs and Kazakhs, and are designed to replace Muslim beliefs with unquestioning obedience to Communist Party propaganda.
The criminal arrest numbers are separate from re-education camp statistics, which are not fully disclosed by the government.“The ‘reeducation’ camps in Xinjiangare not part of the penal system, so figures on criminal arrests don't even include the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs detained in those places, usually without documentation issued to families,” Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed news, who has reportedextensively on Xinjiang, wrote on Twitter.But that doesn’t mean re-education doesn’t happen at regular prisons,too. State media is quite open about this, as the nationalist tabload Global Times published an article on July 23 titled “Xinjiang educates, reforms imprisoned extremists in religious thought.”
There is an active debate (much of it represented in this Chinafile conversation) among foreign scholars of China as to what they, and governments, should do about the situation in Xinjiang.
Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China, writes on Twitter that he believes three things: That “too few China scholars are speaking up,” that “there are cases where it is better not to speak up,” and “I support the Xinjiang pledge.”The “Xinjiang pledge,” as Kevin Carrico, Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Macquarie University, writes in Chinoiresie, is: “At the start of public talks, regardless of location, one acknowledges the distressing rights situation in China today, focussing in on a point of particular concern for the speaker.” The idea is to counteract the self-censorship that academia has experienced over the past year.A far more radical proposal comes from Jerome Cohen, one of the most experienced and respected scholars of China’s legal system, who writes: “I recommend that the U.S. Government adopt Magnitsky Act sanctions against those responsible for Xinjiang, starting with Xi Jinping.”
For more on the situation in Xinjiang and the security risks that China is trying to contain, see these two new pieces in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief: