The Xinjiang conflict (with Xinjiang being an autonomous region located in the far-northwest of China) has been brewing in one way or another since 1931, in light of the fact that clashes started emerging between Muslim minorities (especially Uyghurs) and the Han Chinese population. Such situations can be found in many countries, where a minority when it comes to the overall population of the country in question (the Uyghurs in our case) clashes locally with the majority of that country (Han Chinese) and roles sometimes being reversed on a granular (scale), with the minority on a national level becoming the majority on a local level and the other way around.
Managing such situations is always a Herculean task, even when we are referring to ultra-responsible governments which do their best to maintain harmony, through a carefully orchestrated independence which doesn’t end up affecting the sovereignty of the nation. Again, even when the very best of “peaceful” intentions exist, it can be difficult to find the right balance between pleasing both groups.
When it comes to China, not only were the best of intentions not there, the exact opposite is true, with very aggressive measures such as a centrally-facilitated Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang from the fifties up until the seventies exacerbating already-problematic tensions. Add the persecution of minorities to the equation and we have a deadly cocktail, with on the one hand, a minority which resorts to extreme measures such as terrorist attacks (from the 1997 Urumqi bus bombings to the 2014 Kunming attack) and on the other hand, the state responding in a very aggressive manner.
Are China’s concerns baseless?
Of course not, with terrorists threat fears being legitimate indeed, especially in light of the fact that anti-state movements are supported by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda.
Have China’s aggressive responses been wise?
Simply put, whenever a nation is dealing with delicate issues involving minority-majority relations, the last thing it wants to do is antagonize the entire minority by applying “one size fits all” or “guilty until proven innocent” approaches, which is exactly what China did.
By implementing arguably the most 1984-esque surveillance system known to man, a system which revolves around:
- Mass surveillance, with millions upon millions of individuals being constantly monitored. While it is true that such a status quo does tend to act as a strong deterrent and aggressive action can be inhibited, it is just as true that it generates long-term resentment among the segment of the population that did nothing wrong: the majority of individuals, in other words
- Mass arrests, with China hoping that this asymmetrical display of force will once again act as enough of a deterrent. Unfortunately, the exact same principle that has been mentioned previously is valid in this case as well, with certain measures being effective as deterrents but perhaps equally effective when it comes to frustration build-ups
- Human rights being all but ignored when it comes to China’s “re-education camps” which hold over one million Muslim minority members due to being perceived by China as potential terrorists which need to be re-educated. Needless to say, transparency is pretty much non-existent, with these camps being quasi-unilaterally condemned by the West
- Seeking support from other authoritarian regimes, with 50 nations (in)famously writing a joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council President as well as the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human rights so as to defend China, in response to the July 2019 document signed by 22 Western nations which condemned China’s actions
- Inhibiting domestic criticism (with us dedicating an entire article to the freedom of speech dimension of China or lack thereof) and even resorting to more or less sophisticated retaliation methods when it comes to external criticism. In both cases, a combination between deterrents (punishing to the point of squashing any and all form of dissent) and let’s call them incentives (rewarding individuals and/or organizations that proverbially play ball) is used by Beijing
At the end of the day, it is difficult to believe that the Xinjiang situation will become less complicated anytime soon, in light of the fact that there just doesn’t seem to be enough (geo)political energy to alter the status quo.
On the one hand, China perceives the measures it has taken to tackle the Xinjiang situation as a display of force, one which makes it clear that those who oppose the regime in any way, shape or form will be harshly punished. On the other hand, despite severe backlash from the West, Beijing seems to have managed to secure enough geopolitical allies for the scale to be balanced yet again, at least from China’s perspective.
Because it can, in light of the fact that while nations such as Canada exist, which choose to willfully engage in less trade with China for reasons pertaining to issues such as human rights (with recent poll data indicating that 7 of 10 Canadians believe human rights should trump trade) in an effort to make it clear that there is more to geopolitics than the monetary dimension, other nations seem to be willing to fill that void.
Once again, why?
Perhaps because they have human rights issues of their own to deal with. Maybe because appeasing China puts more than enough trade-related benefits on the table for them to be willing to not just look the other way around when it comes to China-related human rights problems but actually defend China, as the previously mentioned UN example makes clear. What matters is that for a wide range of reasons, China managed and manages to garner enough support to counteract Western indignation and until that changes (with there being a distinct possibility that no changes occur at all), it would be excessively optimistic to assume the Xinjiang status quo will be meaningfully altered.