Today, 5 July, marks 10 years since the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang exploded into violence between Uighurs, a majority-Muslim group living there, and Han, China’s dominant ethnic group. The incident left at least 196 dead, countless injured, and a government determined to push the Uighurs to the brink.
These events have ultimately led to the largest mass arbitrary detention since the second world war – with estimates of about 1 million individuals, possibly more, held against their will. There have been have multiple reports of mistreatment, torture and mysterious deaths at facilities designed to erode ethnic identity that resemble nothing so much as internment camps. At the same time, the region itself has been transformed into a surveillance state not seen anywhere else on Earth.
Though 2009 undoubtedly represented a turning point, the current crackdown has deep roots. China asserts that the Xinjiang region has always been an inalienable part of its territory, though Uighurs typically see their rule as illegitimate. Unmistakable colonial practices such as the transfer of Han Chinese to the region have been coupled with policies aimed at asserting Han culture as self-evidently superior.
It was the 9/11 attacks and the US-led response to them that offered the Chinese government a new framing for the Xinjiang conflict: it was subsequently portrayed as a struggle against terrorism, despite the fact that the limited separatist movement in Xinjiang bore very little resemblance to the transnational terrorism propagated by the likes of Osama bin Laden.
But back to 2009. At a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, six Uighur men were accused of raping two Chinese women. Rioting broke out and at least two Uighurs were killed. Shortly thereafter, video surfaced appearing to show Uighurs being beaten to death by Chinese co-workers. The initial allegations turned out to be false, but this did little to cool tensions. Shaoguan became the spark that lit a powder keg of resentment and hostility between Uighurs and Han, particularly in the regional capital, Urumqi, where the most significant numbers of Han had relocated – incentivised with lucrative employment opportunities.
Young Uighurs marched towards the centre of the city in initially peaceful protests that escalated into violent rioting. Groups of young Uighurs attacked Chinese residents, killing many. There were retaliatory attacks in the following days.
Amnesty International conducted interviews with eyewitnesses and concluded that security forces made liberal use of live ammunition. Human Rights Watch counted 43 verified cases of enforced disappearance of Uighurs arrested in the aftermath – a number that is likely much higher in reality.
In the years after 2009, China went to great lengths to silence those seeking answers about their lost relatives. A noticeable security presence remained for months and was followed by the installation of an extensive network of security cameras and surveillance equipment.
Five years on, after a spate of violent attacks including knifings and suicide bombings killed dozens of people inside and outside the region, came the “Strike Hard” campaign.
Amendments to national religious regulations imposed further restrictions on religion, followed by legislation on counter-terrorism in 2015 and a deeply problematic law on “de-extremification” in 2017 – which UN experts have called “neither necessary nor proportionate”.
China took surveillance to new levels, with mass DNA collection, the installation of street checkpoints where people’s phones were inspected and the use of facial recognition technology.
The response from the international community throughout this period was notably muted, including recently, as more evidence of grave abuses has emerged: from the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, who merely “raised the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang” with the Chinese president in April, to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which openly commended China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens” in March, to a growing list of states that have already rolled over to please their (often) biggest trading partner.
States need to be reminded that China is not the immovable object that many make it out to be. Chinese leaders have shown themselves remarkably sensitive to criticism.
You can trace this in Beijing’s constantly shifting narrative on the camps, indicating that greater scrutiny has had a real effect. From complete denial, to a hastily organised defence, to what we see today – an aggressively offensive propaganda push to refute and reframe reality – China has been forced to develop its counter-narrative.
It is now clear that Chinese leaders are concerned that their Orwellian experiment in Xinjiang will come undone if it is met with broad censure from the international community.
Until now we haven’t seen anywhere near adequate pushback, given that credible voices argue that China’s action in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity.
But if China responds to even the mildest of pressure, imagine what a strong, collective and coordinated response could achieve.