The Sinicization of Islam in China
Beijing recently escorted diplomats and journalists to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for the first time, from December 28 – 30, 2018. The Chinese officials hoped to qualm any worried amidst international accusations of human rights violations in the “internment” camps. The XUAR camps house over an estimated million Uyghurs, which have been veiled as vocational education and training centers in Kashgar. Xinhua reported that the regional government hosted diplomatic envoys, as well as representatives of diplomatic envoys, were from Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. The report continued on, saying:
“The diplomatic envoys visited local markets, farmers, educational institutes, mosques, factories, as well as vocational education and training centers. […] Throughout the trip, they interacted with local vendors, students, and workers in Xinjiang and learned about the region’s progress in maintaining social stability, improving people’s livelihood and developing the local economy.”
Additionally, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry reported that China is now allowing more than 2,000 Chinese ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country; these people will be allowed to apply for Kazakh citizenship or permanent residency after they arrive in Kazakhstan.
What has happened since then?
Following the diplomats and journalists’ visit, China, also for the first time, welcomed representatives from many major international news sources to visit the XUAR. From January 3-5, the Associated Press of Pakistan, Indonesia’s Antara, Kazinform, Reuters, and SPUTNIK joined one another on the trip. Head of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and part-time deputy of the National People’s Congress of China Abdurakip Tumurniyaz said that such institutions help persons, who have been affected by the ideas of religious extremism, improve through learning the language, the laws, and a blue-collar profession. Praying is also relatively impossible there because it is an educational institution; however, they visitors were informed that praying can be done while in the city on the weekends. The tour itself was as enlightening for the participants as it could have been; each stop on the tour was pre-determined by Beijing, making it impossible to communicate privately with those they met.
China has continued to welcome international officials. Last August, a United Nations meeting on human rights was told that China had turned its northwestern province of Xinjiang into a “no-rights zone” and a “massive internment camp” for the Uyghur community. Following the recent visits and tours the Asian nation held, Beijing encouraged United Nations officials to visit the Xinjiang province, provided they act in a “fair and objective” manner. This announcement landed on January 7 — just days after Beijing successfully passed a five-year plan that aims to sinicize Islam, in order to make it compatible with socialism.
Is Western Media Proclaiming Falsehoods?
Chinese media outlets continue to denounce Western media sources for fabricating and exaggerating what is taking place in the Xinjiang province. There are very few voices that have had the opportunity to freely give their opinion, specifically those in the camps at this time. Nevertheless, recent reports have shown that the Chinese accusations have cracks in its foundation.
Earlier this week, Uyghur woman Gulbahar Jelilova provided a rare firsthand account of the fifteen months she spent in the camp. Jelilova is originally from Kazakhstan, but spent the past twenty years on the Chinese-Kazakhstani border for business. “While I was in the camp I told them that I was a foreigner and that I didn’t have any wrongdoings,” she said. “Sometimes they were tying up a weight of 5 kilograms to our feet as a way of punishment. If they wanted to punish even heavier, they would put handcuffs [on us] and we would be forced to look at the wall across for about 17 hours.” She continued to report that foreign medicines were forced to be taken, as well as injections, and that those in the camp often had to provide blood samples against their will. She reported that she was allowed to leave the camp after her family successfully lobbied for her freedom.
Why does this matter to the Central Asia Region?
This region is extraordinarily important for China, as it is home to 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 percent 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. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has escalated this tension in the Xinjiang region, as it will be the heart of it. The land (“belt”) portion travels through Urumqi and passes into Kazakhstan, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which starts in Kashgar and ends at the important seaport of Gwadar. The BRI has seen an expansion in the last couple years, coincidentally as tensions rise in Xinjiang. There is cause for concern because Xinjiang must be stable for the BRI to be successful, and China may continue to use that defense for its actions.
Reactions from Muslim Majority Countries?
The Muslim world has previously stayed silent as China continues to utilize “stability” as a defense. China’s BRI has included many of the countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. Some of these states made deals with China that involved hefty loans to economies with bad credit ratings. These partnerships may be the reason many states have held their tongue regarding Xinjiang. Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese politics researcher at University of Technology Sydney, stated: “Like most states, many Muslim-majority countries have increasingly close economic relations with China. There is a general consensus that speaking out about the situation in Xinjiang might jeopardize the development of economic ties, and it is therefore not in their interests to do so.” Unfortunately, the silence has allowed China to avoid the criticism of Western nations and human rights groups.