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On Statehood: Xinjiang Autonomy and Its Enemies

On October 18, 2018, the Chinese government legalized “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Northwest China, after years of denying that they even existed. These camps are heavily guarded, high-capacity facilities, many fitted with “barbed wire, bombproof surfaces, reinforced doors and guard rooms,” according to a report from the New York Times. The UN reported in August that one million people are being held in these camps. The Chinese government has justified these camps’ legalization by citing a shift in its attitude to actively combat “extremist ideologies.” But the fact of the matter is simple: the only reason these “re-education camps” exist is to criminalize and erase Xinjiang’s ethnic minority, primarily composed of groups such as the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs. It is time for the pleas of Xinjiang’s most rightful yet most vulnerable to be heard: they ought to be given their own state.

The incessant conflicts between authorities and separatist forces first and foremost reveal confusion in the Chinese government’s absolute claim of ownership of the Xinjiang province. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established in 1955; this is the earliest point at which accurate designation of ownership of the Xinjiang province can be properly discussed under the context of the People’s Republic of China. Immediately after, from the 1950s to the 1970s, orchestrated migrations of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, coupled with the forced relocation of almost 60,000 Uyghurs during the Great Leap Forward, resulted in a major surge in the region’s Han Chinese population- from just 7% to 40%. This allowed for the Chinese government to effectively assume authority over the region, as they could point to the now-large Han Chinese population. However, the increasingly cruel and almost-obsessive measures with which the Chinese government has controlled Xinjiang’s minority groups leaves uncertainty as to how confident even the Chinese government feels about its control over Xinjiang.

In 2009, large-scale riots erupted between the separatist Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, with over 200 casualties. In 2013, police forces fired upon what was described as “mob forces” that had descended upon government buildings, resulting in 27 deaths. In July of 2014, 96 people died in a violent attack between mobs and police, after which the imam of Xinjiang’s largest mosque, Jume Tahir, was killed. All these cases were motivated by the Uyghur minority’s desperate need to be given their due in the form of independence. In response to these instances, the Chinese government has undergone massive operations to cull what it views to be persons of dangerous intent; yet, the people who often “disappear” have committed no crimes, their only offense being their resistance or suspicion of it.

News has brought to light the criteria used by authorities to ‘grade’ individuals on how great a threat they pose to the state. Those deemed “unsafe” are often detained or imprisoned without due process, regardless of lack of wrongdoing. Such was the case of one Uyghur student who was questioned, harassed, and threatened upon returning from his studies in the U.S., finally being left with a single warning: “Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.” This may have been the case of Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut, who mysteriously disappeared in December. Her whereabouts have yet to be confirmed due to her foreign connections, which may cause trouble if she were in any way to speak out against the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang. Despite not having criticized the Chinese government in any published work, Professor Dawut’s profession and circumstances alone are reasons for her imprisonment. Other cases of those who have criticized the government are even more extreme: one online critic was jailed for decades and the wife of one victim argued that the government  “wanted to make an example of him, to scare anyone who might question what they do in the name of security.” An almost purge-like imprisonment spree is underway: more than 1 in every 10 Uyghur adults is being detained. The state is clearly not just monitoring and appropriately controlling its subordinates; it is desperately trying to exert its dominance.

However, what must be highlighted is the fact that under the Chinese government, the ethnic minorities’ identities are at risk of being erased in their entirety. The Chinese government often labels the ordinary ethnic or religious traditions of minority groups as “extremist.” In doing so, the Chinese government is killing off what little is left of these groups and their culture. Restrictions exist barring children from attending mosques, prohibiting men from having beards, and forbidding daily prayer. At the same time, mandates delineating forced dance performances, which conflict with beliefs of some minority groups, have been enacted. Furthermore, the foundation of minority groups’ culture and language is slowly being throttled. The Chinese government has passed a directive banning the use of minority languages, primarily Uyghur language, at all levels of education in any context, and in turn has driven major shifts in Xinjiang schools to promote a “patriotic education”. Now, almost two-thirds of children in minority groups primarily learn Mandarin. It is very much a “get in line or be left behind” approach, as children of families who don’t comply with government policies and instead are educated through their respective languages lose out on prospective opportunities.

The picture here is clear: the Chinese government is deliberately and desperately attempting to control a subjugated people by erasing their entire history to more easily quash future revolts; for people that no longer know their history no longer have anything left to fight for. This is why the minority groups of Xinjiang are resisting- so they will not forget.

The only way through which the Chinese government can make amends to its history in Xinjiang as well as take a more peaceful step into the future is to allow Xinjiang to be recognized for what it should be: an autonomous state.

The provisions of such a state could be as follows: the current borders of Xinjiang would be respected as the new westernmost boundary of China. A newly formed government would be instilled, as-per the demands of ethnic minority groups, after which full sovereignty would be granted to the newly formed government in Xinjiang. Upon granting sovereignty,  any and all policies, such as policies regarding labor, resources and immigration, would be independent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

To say that any of these arguments would persuade the PRC to let go of its stranglehold on Xinjiang would be naive. The Province now holds up to one-third of the country’s natural gas and oil reserves. It is also an optimal location for the country to expand its research and development in industries of renewable energy, not to mention being a large deposit of many lucrative goods such as gold, uranium, and other minerals. Opportunities for employment in fields regarding these areas are also exclusive, with almost 90% of positions in state-run corporations or organizations being filled by Han Chinese. Xinjiang serves not only as a political statement of dominance but also a legitimate source of economic power.

The possibility of ethnic minority groups breaking free of their chains is admittedly bleak, and their ability to move on and build a better society for themselves is still a world away, but it is a dream we should keep nonetheless. For this reason, those denouncing the chains that hold them down should continue to resist; those who have lost their voices should continue to speak out, and those wishing to live a better life by the sovereignty of their own choices should continue to dream. Only by giving ethnic minority groups their due in the form of a state in which they can be free from oppression and persecution can their history and future survive. Under current Chinese suffocation, ethnic minority groups are in danger of forever being lost.

Photo: “To Mecca”

About the Author

Ye Chan Song '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Ye Chan can be reached at