The incarceration of up to two million Uighur and Muslim minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang under the guise of providing security raises questions over the state of religious liberty in Xi Jinping’s China. As the situation escalates, Australia is being forced to reconsider its international stance on human rights, Paul Farrelly writes.
It is estimated that up to two million Uighurs and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been forcibly detained in re-education camps. This program is reported to have begun in April 2017 and has accelerated in intensity in 2018. Credible accounts indicate that Uighurs are being forced to denounce their religious beliefs.
Given the scale of the incarcerations, it is necessary to consider the policy impacts of this program both in China and around the world. How can foreign nations effectively raise human rights concerns in the ‘New Era’ of Xi Jinping? Thinking back to Australia’s response to the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre might help.
The mass incarceration can be framed in the context of China’s constitution. Article 36 states:
No state organ, public organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.
Despite this apparent guarantee of freedom, religious groups feared by the state are still being targeted. Furthermore, recent events must be understood in the context of Xinjiang’s longer history on the periphery of the Chinese state, and the various policies that rulers in Beijing have implemented to sinify its residents.
Chinese authorities deny the extent of the incarceration and frame its approach as an attempt to ensure domestic stability. Foreign opinions are suspect. The Global Times said “Xinjiang is at a special stage of development where there is no room for destructive Western public opinions.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang framed foreign criticism of the Uighur incarceration as an attack on the Chinese state when he wrote: “Some anti-China forces have made false accusations against China for political purposes”. Such rhetoric is not encouraging for those abroad who care about the Uighur plight.
What might the large-scale internment of Uighurs mean for government policy in China?
Should the state believe this method to be effective in bringing stability to Xinjiang, it could be applied in other areas where ethnic minorities do not adequately acquiesce to Beijing’s rule. Tibet, for instance.
The earlier treatment of Falun Gong practitioners, a new religion proscribed by the state as an “evil cult”, suggests that the Xinjiang camps are part of the CCP’s long-established practice of re-educating perceived threats.
Similarly, there are claims that 300,000 members of another new religion, The Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning), have been detained at one stage or another since the 1990s.
Locking up hundreds of thousands of people for no other reason than their ethnicity or religious belief could actually have the unintended effect of destabilising Xinjiang and, by extension, China. The new forms of solidarity fomented among internees may be troublesome for the state in the future.
As the networks of China’s much-touted Belt and Road Initiative must pass through Xinjiang on their way westward, it is imperative for Beijing that the region remains stable. Whether the CCP is doing do this correctly is highly questionable.
In this context, it is important to consider the policy implications for Australia. China is now Australia’s main trading partner and Australia is home to a large number of ethnic Chinese and Uighurs, with many of the latter now afraid to speak out.
The two nations are far deeper integrated than they were three decades ago, when the June 1989 massacre of protesters in Beijing drew strong condemnation from the Australian government. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said at the time:
“The Australian Government was deeply distressed at the appalling and tragic events… [and] we profoundly deplore what can only be described as the brutally excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators which has resulted in a massive death and injury toll.”
Prime Minister Bob Hawke said in a radio interview: “I don’t believe that in the longer term [the CCP will] be able to be unresponsive either to the pressure of international opinion but more particularly to the weight of opinion within China.”
After a period of chilled diplomatic relations, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (in his capacity as Chair of the Australia-China Council) raised the issue of human rights with Li Peng in July 1990. And while the phrase “China’s poor human rights record” was something of a buzzword during the 1990s and there have long been human rights dialogues between the two nations, the discourse has since evolved to be primarily concerned with mutual economic benefit, something the Australian government does not want to jeopardise.
The extent to which the post-1989 combination of bold public statements and diplomacy was effective can be debated. Regardless, it at least showed an Australian willingness to engage with the topic of human rights, something it should continue to do in its current capacity as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
As China becomes a more assertive global force, it should expect that its actions at home and abroad will generate debate and criticism. Attempts to erase the Uighur identity are highly problematic in the context of China’s own commitment to religious freedom.
Given the challenge that activists and governments face in effectively communicating their displeasure, it’s important to remember Bob Hawke’s comments about changing “the weight of opinion within China”. It may be worth better communicating to Chinese people—wherever they may be in the world—that the human rights violations in Xinjiang undermine any sort of glorious renaissance China is making. Circulating Chinese-language material that carefully and respectfully frames the Xinjiang camps in a way that resonates with sinophone readers could be a way to cut through on this pressing issue.