China walks a tightrope on the Uighur Muslim issue

A police patrol passes a barber near the Id Kah Mosque in the old town of Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, after the morning prayer on Eid-ul-Fitr on June 26, 2017. PHOTO: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP

China has never been at ease with its religious minorities—be they Buddhists, Muslims, Christians or those practicing the religio-philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Taoism. China's Communist Party has directed its nearly 90 million members to shun religion for maintaining party unity. It warns that religious belief is a "redline" for the cadres and those who refuse to comply would be punished. Religion in China is seen as a hindrance to human development.

However, though China's constitution theoretically allows religious belief, China is actually an atheist state and has promoted atheism throughout the country. Consequently, adherents across all religious organisations—whether state-sanctioned or banned/underground—face intensified persecution and repression.

The trouble is, over the past decades, religious observance has been on the rise in China. According to UNHRC 2013 Universal Periodic Review, the number of registered religious believers in China is around 100 million, though the actual number will be much higher. Amid rapid modernisation and economic progress, the number of religious believers who yearn to fill their spiritual vacuum has grown. Though persecution against the Uighur Muslims has been going on for some years, the actual picture has now emerged.

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority numbering nearly 10 million (45 percent) in a population of 22.1 million in China's largest autonomous province of Xinjiang. They consider themselves culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries including the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Economic development of the resource-rich region has seen large-scale immigration of the Han Chinese to the region. Han Chinese account for 90 percent of China's total population but is a minority (37 percent) in Xinjiang. Uighurs complain of discrimination and marginalisation by the Chinese authorities. There are also complaints that Han Chinese who get the best jobs are not sharing the profits of the region's economic boom.

This has led to tensions between the Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese. Anti-Han resentment has been on the rise since the 1990s and led to serious rioting, knife attacks and suicide bombings on many occasions. Added to this was the surge in nationalist sentiments amongst the Uighur Muslims. If the Central Asian countries can gain independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, why can't the autonomous Xinjiang be also independent?

In early August 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed reports of discrimination against Uighurs in Xinjiang. The UN said it is alarmed by reports of mass detention of Uighurs. The UN body released its concluding observations on August 30, 2018, criticising the "broad definition of terrorism and vague references to extremism and unclear definition of separatism in Chinese legislation."

The Committee report said that Beijing has "turned the Uighur administrative region into something that resembles a massive internment camp." More than one million Uighurs are in "re-education camps"—actually detention camps, according to the Committee.

Most inmates have never been charged with a crime but they do not receive any legal representation. Beijing initially denied the existence of such camps but later admitted that some religious extremists were being held for "re-education". Beijing says it wants to promote "harmonious unity" between Uighurs and the Han Chinese. A large number of Chinese troops are currently stationed in Xinjiang to control the situation.

The Committee called upon Beijing to: i) end the practice of detention without lawful charge, trial and conviction; ii) immediately release individuals currently detained under these circumstances; iii) provide the number of people held as well as the grounds for their detention; and iv) conduct an impartial investigation of racial, ethnic and ethno-religious profiling. Clearly, China has been in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports claimed mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims in camps where inmates are forced to swear loyalty to China's President Xi Jinping and to shout Communist Party slogans. The inmates are poorly fed and reports of torture are widespread with some dying. Some of the oppressive measures imposed include: Uighur children are not allowed in mosques; male Uighurs cannot have beards or wear caps (except for the very old); no veils for women. There are strict restrictions on their movement. In 2014, Beijing also banned Uighurs from fasting during the month of Ramadan. For Beijing, every Uighur is a potential terror suspect.

In another development in early August 2018, hundreds of Muslim worshippers in north-western Ningxia region refused to back down when the authorities tried to demolish the Weizhou Grand Mosque on grounds that it was not built with proper permits. Though law enforcers have temporarily left the area, tension continues to run high among the Ningxia Muslims.

Beijing's repressive measures on the Uighurs are actually feeding terrorism, according to critics. Suppression of Uighurs has driven many activists underground. Beijing is jittery about the independent way of life, the Turkic language and religious practices of the Uighurs—but more so because of the influence of neighbouring Muslim states. Some Uighurs are said to have fought with ISIL in Syria and have now returned to Xinxiang. 

Beijing has also recently promulgated a law that prohibits religious preaching on Internet and live-streaming of prayers and worshipping. Beijing justifies its repression on the Muslim population on the lame excuse that China faces serious threats from Islamist militants. But Beijing's policies towards the Buddhists of Tibet and the Christian community are equally questionable. The Chinese Communist Party has not yet been able to reconcile and accept the concepts of human rights and religious freedom.

There is a possibility that persecution and repression by the Chinese government on Muslims may lead the younger Uighur generation towards organised resistance and violence.

Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of Bangladesh government.

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