China’s paranoia and oppression has a long history


China's paranoia and oppression has a long history

In Summary

  • Human rights groups previously estimated that as many as one million people have been held in the camps, which satellite photos show have sprung up across the region in recent months.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang defended recent measures at a press briefing Thursday, saying "taking measures to prevent and crack down on terrorism and extremism have helped preserve stability.
  • Just as in Hong Kong, where China's heavy-handed approach arguably inspired support for independence, Beijing is left with a problem that it created, but one that perversely justifies its earlier approach.

China finally admitted this week what had been widely reported: that it is interning thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in “re-education camps” in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups previously estimated that as many as one million people have been held in the camps, which satellite photos show have sprung up across the region in recent months.

Along with restrictions on halal food, Islamic dress, and general religiosity, the ongoing crackdown has primarily affected the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who historically were the majority in the region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang defended recent measures at a press briefing Thursday, saying “taking measures to prevent and crack down on terrorism and extremism have helped preserve stability, as well as the life and livelihood of people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

While the strategies Beijing is taking are new — and include a state-of-the-art surveillance regime — they echo a longtime paranoia about Xinjiang and a deep suspicion of its non-Han population among China’s rulers which have historically resulted in oppression and rebellion.

New territory

Xinjiang is vast. Stretching 1.6 million square kilometers (640,000 sq miles) from the Tibetan plateau in the southeast to Kazakhstan on its north-western border, it is by far China’s largest administrative region, but one of its least densely populated.

Around 22 million people reside in the region, most of whom live around the major cities of Urumqi, Kashgar and Yining.

While Chinese armies rampaged through what is now Xinjiang and controlled parts of it for centuries, the modern administrative unit only dates to the mid-nineteenth century, a fact hinted at by its name, which translates as “new frontier” in Chinese.

Ethnic unrest

Even as the authorities were focused on Islamic terrorism, the biggest unrest in Xinjiang in recent years appeared to have nothing to do with religion.

A mass protest which broke out after a police crackdown on a smaller demonstration spiraled out of control in July 2009, and saw rioters rampage through Urumqi armed with clubs, knives and stones.

They randomly attacked and in many cases beat to death any Han Chinese they found in the streets, including women and elderly people, and set cars, houses and shops on fire.

It took around 20,000 paramilitary police and People’s Liberation Army soldiers to quell the unrest, which left at least 197 Han and Uygur people dead, according to Chinese state media.

Internet access to all of Xinjiang, along with international phone and text messaging services, was cut off for almost a year in the wake of the violence.

No way out

Beijing’s paranoia about terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang is real and understandable.But despite numerous warnings about this resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the authorities’ reaction has only been to crack down harder and restrict Muslim life further.

Chinese officials argue that without a firm hand, the country’s far west risks turning into another Syria, where rebel groups and Islamist militants backed by foreign powers, including the US, have plunged the country into a years-long civil war.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu rejected US criticism at a regular press briefing Thursday, saying people had “been creating lies and launching baseless accusations at the appropriate counter-terrorism measures taken by the Xinjiang authorities.”

Just as in Hong Kong, where China’s heavy-handed approach arguably inspired support for independence, Beijing is left with a problem that it created, but one that perversely justifies its earlier approach.

Charting an alternative path of reconciliation and respect for human rights would require a subtlety in dealing with dissent that Xi’s administration has so far not shown evidence of.

For the full report on CNN  click here

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