By Muhammad Amir Rana
Tensions between China and the US have escalated after the House of Representative’s Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, 2019. The move is of a piece with the allegations of many international media and human rights organisations that China is persecuting the Uighur community and violating their rights — allegations that Beijing has denied. Calling the US action a political move aimed at damaging its international image, China says it is running a deradicalisation programme to mainstream its communities.
The Chinese claim has not been verified by independent sources and mystery shrouds its deradicalisation or re-education programme. China needs to demonstrate to the international community that it has inserted human rights safeguards in its deradicalisation measures.
On their part, the Chinese say that they are countering violent extremism (CVE) with a strategy that has been designed after a careful examination of CVE approaches in the West and in the Muslim world which also employ deradicalisation programmes. The Chinese view has been challenged by those who point out that standard global CVE practices are different from those espoused by China, and that global CVE practices are mostly conceived when countering terrorism perspectives.
Beijing has established Islamic centres to prepare imams for preaching the ‘Chinese version’ of religion.
China’s communist party states that ‘harmony’ is the core driver of state policies as exemplified in its Belt and Road Initiative vision. The idea of ‘harmony’ or ‘harmonisation’ could have been conceived as a substitute for the regular democratic process, but has, instead, become a driver of legislative and administrative reform, including ‘re-education’ strategies. However, China is still striving to generate a framework for ‘harmonising’ its ethnic and religious communities. Chinese scholars believe that adopting a muscular approach to ‘harmonising’ minority communities is the fastest way to make the autonomous and administrative regions trouble-free.
Uighur Muslims complain they are paying a huge cost for this ‘harmonisation process’, which is causing them to lose their religious, ethnic, and cultural identities. They find only a few voices being raised in their support in the Muslim world. The Muslim leadership, which is greatly concerned by Islamophobia, has apparently shut its eyes to the Uighur issue. Their silence is rewarded with Chinese economic assistance and diplomatic support on international forums.
Though Chinese authorities believe they will be able to achieve their envisioned sociocultural transformation, they are nervous about their global image. This year, China opened one ‘re-education’ centre for international visitors in Kashgar, inviting diplomats, academics and journalists to visit it, in an attempt to counter international perceptions. But so far, such attempts have not impressed foreign visitors. While the centre seemed different from the images that appeared in the international media, the well-articulated responses of the trainees there created doubts in the minds of visitors. Secondly, Chinese authorities do not provide the exact number of deradicalisation centres, but according to the international media, at least 85 such centres have been set up in parts of the country, mainly in the Xinjiang region.
One component of China’s counter-extremism framework is to challenge radical narratives, which is resulting in attempts to forge a new ethnic and cultural identity for Xinjiang’s Uighur community. They are reinterpreting the history of Xinjiang and Muslims in China. According to some books and booklets, provided by the authorities to visitors, Chinese historians and scholars are making efforts to convey to their Muslim populations that they have been a part of the Chinese civilisation for thousands of years. Their emphasis on cultural integration is part of a multi-layered strategy.
A booklet titled Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang and published by the State Council Information Office in 2019 rejects the idea that Xinjiang has ever been referred to as ‘East Turkestan’; saying that there has never been any state with this name. According to the booklet provided by the state authorities, at the turn of the 20th century, terms such as ‘pan-Turkism’ and ‘pan-Islamism’ “made inroads in Xinjiang” and “separatists in and outside China politicised the geographical concept and manipulated its meaning, inciting all ethnic [Muslim] groups speaking Turkic languages … to join in creating the theocratic state of East Turkestan”.
Chinese language courses are compulsory for Muslims because of communication barriers with Uighur and other Muslim communities, according to the Chinese authorities. An unusual aspect of this exercise is that the authorities are attempting to introduce a local, Chinese version of Islam on the pattern of its previous exercise of nurturing socialism with Chinese characteristics. For this purpose, Beijing has established Islamic learning centres to prepare imams, or prayer leaders, who can preach the ‘Chinese version’ of Islam. The curriculum of Islamic centres includes Chinese language, history, constitution, law, and culture apart from religious knowledge. These centres are not allowed to collaborate with other Islamic institutions in Muslim countries.
At a centre in Urumqi, the principal argued that religious institutions in Muslim countries focus on religious education and are divided along sectarian lines, but that the centres in China had adopted the values of socialism and developed compatibility between religion, patriotism and social cohesion. The principal told a group of international writers, including this writer, that “Chinese Islam has no space for the evils like extremism and separatism”.
The Chinese authorities complain that Uighur Muslims are not law-abiding citizens. A booklet titled Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang, published by the State Council Information Office, provides insights into the Chinese view of the issue when it claims that extremist forces act in accordance with “fabricated religious law” and “domestic discipline”, and defy the country’s constitution and laws.
It is interesting that at a time when exclusionism, supremacism, and hyper-nationalism tendencies are globally on the rise, China has decided to launch its own version of ‘harmonising’ society. This thinking might appear to negate the global trends but in essence, its objectives are similar, and it has little space for accepting diversity.