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China Cracks Down and Reconsiders Non-Interference Policy

China does not acknowledge the existence of re-education camps, but the UN says it has credible reports that 1 million Uighurs are being held.

In response to international criticism, China has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic northwestern province of Xinjiang, in what Beijing claims is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya. The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times says the reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang. The province is China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uighur and ethnic minority Muslim communities.

The crackdown, involving the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uighur nationalist and religious sentiment. It is also aimed at preventing blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial bases in Iraq and Syria.

Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang — home to 15% of its proven oil reserves, 22% of its gas reserves and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic, as well as part of its nuclear arsenal — has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia. This contradicts its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated.” The paper added: “Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang … [the region] has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya.’”

Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded on August 11 in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, rather than Uighurs.

The Global Times admitted that Chinese efforts to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

Internment Camps in China

China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps, but the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said on August 10 that it had credible reports that 1 million Uighurs were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US congressional committee, and recent revelations in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance.” He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added to a “restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”

Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort — partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps — to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.

Concern that Uighur militants leaving Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that, despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others, China might join the Assad regime in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of Syria that have been captured by the military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said Beijing was “following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern [Syria], and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be Beijing’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is in an effort to get both countries to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uighur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counterterrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities. Middle East scholar Randa Slim, discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib, said: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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