[Long Read] Victims Of Han Nationalism: The Upsetting Fate Of Uighurs In Xinjiang And A Brief Glimpse At The Region's Past

[Long Read] Victims Of Han Nationalism: The Upsetting Fate Of Uighurs In Xinjiang And A Brief Glimpse At The Region's Past

by Sagar Kar Debroy - Saturday, September 3, 2022 04:40 PM IST
[Long Read] Victims Of Han Nationalism: The Upsetting Fate Of Uighurs In Xinjiang And A Brief Glimpse At The Region's Past  A Chinese pagoda overlooks the old city in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China
  • How perverse incentives ensure that China keeps imposing suffering on Uighurs for the sake of complete social coherence in the nation.

    The troubling absence of any meaningful leverage on China to make it alter its behaviour other than rhetorical 'arrows' and moral posturing.

UN has finally released its report on China's actions in Xinjiang.

The assessment of Chinese actions in Xinjiang took 3 years. The report was ready in December but it was held back due to China's pressure.

Beijing wanted the release of the report to be delayed at least until the conclusion of the Winter Olympics.

Activists were worried that due to China's pressure and influence, the findings of the report may be watered down.

After the conclusion of the Winter Olympics, it was revealed that the UN’s human-rights chief, Michelle Bachelet will visit Xinjiang and only after that visit, the report would be released.

During her visit to China, whilst answering questions from the Chinese state media, she apparently criticised racism and rights violation in the US.

This was further proof to some people that the findings of the report will be watered down as Bachelet was kowtowing to China.

The inherent illegitimacy of an UN report in the eyes of a Chinese

Now, as the report was released in the final hours of Bachelet's term, it appears that she merely made that point in China to ensure that she couldn't be accused of double standards, to ensure that she couldn't be accused of turning a blind eye to the racism in the US.

The Chinese after all, feel an overwhelming sense of resentment whenever someone criticises their human rights record.

They find it rather odd that America, a nation which bombs and incinerates other countries with napalm, seldom faces scrutiny.

North Korea is a neighbour. In the US people may have forgotten the Korean War, hence the moniker 'the forgotten war' but people in China remember the way North Koreans were bombarded.

20 per cent of North Korea's population, 20 per cent, were wiped off in US bombardments. A parallel would be the US loosing all of its population in California and Texas. For context, around 3,000 people died in 9/11.

These facts are important as it determines how China views America and any international criticism directed at Beijing. Attempting to understand China without considering the role these facts play in China's phenomenology is akin to climbing a mountain without placing hand in the crevices.

Not acknowledging the truth leads to a situation where people in China, who may not necessarily support CCP's current tactics in Xinjiang, refuse to acknowledge the troubling developments in Xinjiang .

They do this merely because they find the hypocrisy of their nation being scrutinised and the normalisation of America bombing people on the other side of the world, intolerable.

Factors worth pondering over

Bachelet speaking about racism in America was a wise move, although it isn't clear if the report will lead to a movement where China faces economic consequences for its actions in Xinjiang.

In other words, it isn't clear if the report will have a lasting impact, other than documenting in black and white, so to say, what many have alleged for a long time.

So what exactly does the report say? Well, it is pretty straightforward.

The report's bottomline is that China’s actions “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

Before we get into some of the specifics mentioned in the report, it is pertinent to have some context.

Why is China engaging in actions that may constitute as crimes again humanity? Why is it that China feels the need to cross the rubicon of all forms of human decency? What is the goal?

And why is it that the UN report will have no ability to alter Chinese behaviour in Xinjiang and make it more humane?

What drives Chinese actions in Xinjiang and makes it so determined to pursue its priorities in Xinjiang that it is completely unconcerned about how others perceive them?

A brief glance at Xinjiang's past will be useful.

Brief history of Xinjiang

Xinjiang has seldom been ruled by the Hans. This is important as the modern Chinese state derives its legitimacy from a form of Han nationalism, not communism, despite the name of the party.

Xinjiang was conquered by the Manchus (who aren't Hans but a warrior caste who ruled China and expanded its territory like no Han ever had) in mid 18th century.

By 20th century, Xinjiang had borders with Kashmir, Afghanistan, Outer Mongolia and three soviet republics - the Kirghiz, the Kazakh and the Turkoman. It was one of those provinces where the governor exercised unusual power, thanks to his distance from the imperial centre.

He was, in essence, a semi-independent proconsul. In times of trouble, the governor of Xinjiang in fact, quite a few times, looked to the Russians for help instead of the Chinese empire.

For instance during the Muslim revolts in 1930-34 and 1937. With China in chaos, the governor of Xinjiang could expect little help from the east and had to turn west.

However, when Russians became occupied with the German invasion during the 2nd World War, the governor of Xinjiang did a volte-face and became a friend and ally of the Kuomintang. They were, on paper, the suzerains.

Russians weren't happy. Moscow perceived this as loss of influence. In 1944, Russians began to foment a revolt in the Ili district of Xinjiang. An Eastern Turkestan Autonomic Republic was proclaimed.

This move plays a crucial role, even today, in how Beijing views Xinjiang. A weak link in the chain which can be used by foreign powers to make Beijing bleed. The absence of a Han majority was now being perceived as an existential risk.

On the August of 1945, the Stalin-Jiang treaty, declared that Moscow recognises Chinese sovereignty in Xinjiang and that Moscow would not interfere in the region. A promise that has largely been kept, even if inadequately, as history buffs in Tshingua allege.

During the last phase of the Kuomintang in mainland, Russians attempted to extend their pre-war monopoly of civil-aviation in Xinjiang and to re-create a Russo-Chinese partnership in economic opportunities. At the time when Kuomintang collapsed in the mainland, the former objective had been achieved, at least on paper.

[Long Read] Victims Of Han Nationalism: The Upsetting Fate Of Uighurs In Xinjiang And A Brief Glimpse At The Region's Past

With the KMT's collapse, the governor of Xinjiang went over to Mao. Russians, promptly began negotiations with the new regime. By March of 1950, agreements were signed for the creation of joint (50/50) companies.

The goal was to exploit oil and non-ferrous metals for 30 years and to operate civil airways for 10.

Mao was aware that he wasn't in a position to hold out for complete Chinese control in the province, although he and the CCP acutely internalised the fact that if China is to rejuvenate, it has to acquire complete control over Xinjiang, and not just control on paper.

Mao, presciently, began doing what is necessary to maintain Xinjiang, so that the rulers who come after him have something to build on and don't have the misfortune of completing the task of integrating Xinjiang into China from scratch.

He started establishing communication lines between China and Xinjiang, by building roads and railways, including the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. This flouted the Panch Shila agreed upon between Nehru and him in 1954.

This move was an early indicator depicting Beijing's lack of concern for norms. For Beijing, the goal of integrating Xinjiang into China was so crucial that agreed upon norms were hardly an hindrance.

If it ('it' being any policy, not matter how perverse) serves the integration of Xinjiang into China and ensures Beijing's complete control on Xinjiang, it must be done. This, sort of, became the unofficial dictum and we see how this dictum still shapes Beijing's behaviour in Xinjiang.

For some time, thanks to the numerous challenges China faced, Xinjiang went into the background. A significant uprising in 1962, convinced many young party members that neglecting the friction in Xinjiang as mere irritation, is unwise and short sighted.

Although after the 1962 uprising, hardly any major uprisings occurred, the fear in the minds of party members persisted.

Upwardly mobile party members believed that the fact that Uighurs outnumber Chinese by a substantial proportion and have kinsmen in Kazakhstan (an independent state after the collapse of USSR), in of itself warrants categorising Xinjiang as a major problem.

The region may be be used against China one day, they worried.

The shared belief amongst the party's princelings was that the resistance that Beijing faced in Xinjiang can't be wished away by brushing it under the carpet.

The 'problem' needs to be solved at a systematic level by the use of all institutions of state. The destruction of mosques, the re-education camps, forceful consumption of pork, forced marriages, are all symptoms of this belief. Xi Jingping, is one of the believers.

The present


Recently Xi visited Xinjiang. The last time he visited was a decade ago and at that time, he laid out what the goal of the State is in Xinjiang.

He gave an indication that the means by which the goal has to be achieved, needs to be effective, whether they are unfair, inhumane and cruel, isn't really something he cares about.

So, now to the specifics, what does the report released by the UN say? Let's touch upon a few of them briefly. The full report contains many more details and is worth a read.

Here is what happens in the re-education camps which China calls “Vocational Education and Training Centres”, according to the report by the UN.

"Former detainees interviewed by OHCHR had spent periods of time, generally ranging from two months to 18 months, in facilities in eight different geographic locations across XUAR, including in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Aksu, Bayingol, Hotan, Karamay and Urumqi prefectures.

Two-thirds of the former detainees interviewed, reported having been subjected to treatment that would amount to torture and/or other forms of ill-treatment, either in VETC facilities themselves or in the context of processes of referral to VETC facilities," reads the report.

"Their accounts included being beaten with batons, including electric batons while strapped in a so- called “tiger chair”.

Almost all interviewees described either injections, pills or both being administered regularly, as well as blood samples being regularly collected in the VETC facilities," it adds.

[Long Read] Victims Of Han Nationalism: The Upsetting Fate Of Uighurs In Xinjiang And A Brief Glimpse At The Region's Past

Sleep deprivation is a tool that is used quite commonly as well. To ensure Uighus living outside China don't raise their voice, they are threatened that if they speak out, their family members back in Xinjiang will be sent to the re-education camps.

Uighur women are raped repeatedly and forcefully bred by Han men.

Women spoke of "various forms of sexual violence, including instances of rape, affecting mainly women.

These accounts included having been forced by guards to perform oral sex in the context of an interrogation and various forms of sexual humiliation, including forced nudity.

The accounts similarly described the way in which rapes took place outside the dormitories, in separate rooms without cameras," reveals the report.

The sad part is, despite almost everyone being aware of the sick and putrid policies Beijing is implementing in Xinjiang, there isn't any real leverage to make Beijing alter its behaviour.

Yes, there have been some laws banning entry of goods from Xinjiang into the US, but the dirty little secret is that most of these goods anyway find their way into the US as they are routed through 3rd countries like Philippines.

The possibility that the suffering of the Uighurs will be used by Americans in the beltway to feel morally superior to China is high. The plight of Uighurs will become a mere rhetorical arrow in America's quiver.

In a just world, Europe would have been forced to stop placing profit above just action. Europe would have been forced to find other ways of maintaining their economy instead of relying on market access to China.

The silence of Hans is striking and deserves more careful thought. As innocent people are violated in every sick way possible, most Chinese citizens remain least bothered about the developments in Xinjiang.

Which begs the question, how long can we blame a political party as the source of problems? Can a government function for long if it doesn't enjoy the support of a significant portion of the population?

What does it mean when in your name, people are tortured and their sense of self is mutilated and you as a society can't even utter a word on it and treat it as less than dirt? What kind of a society is that? Is that a healthy normal society? Or has something gone awry? If yes, to what extent?

The idea that the Han society cannot speak up because they are subjugated by the CCP is inaccurate and disconnected from reality. Hans have suffered a lot for centuries, like us. They have been humiliated too.

There are two ways to react to suffering - One, attempting to alleviate the suffering of other societies, even if by mere words, by acknowledging it.

Two, developing resentment and feeling a sense of power by making other societies suffer. The former comes from a sense of strength, the later from a sense of inadequacy.

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