• Sampurnaa Bora

The Modern Day Gulags of China

The advent of Chinese Government’s ongoing oppression on its ethnic population of the Xinjiang province is no new instance of unethical use of state power. Apart from being a case of human rights violation, it stands to be an apt illustration of the Orwellian nature of the Chinese Government. However, this issue brings many new dimensions to the scenario of international community’s concern for protection of human rights. This is because the global response to this crisis has been quite surprising and has followed an unexpected trend. In fact, it has landed us to a position to ponder whether economic concerns remain to be prioritized over humanitarian concerns or whether the latter would be attended only if it doesn’t affect the former or might be in interest of it.

But before dwelling into investigating the suspected phenomenon that has been stated above, it would be noteworthy to have a brief overview of the prevailing situation in Xinjiang, so as to instill a realization of how grave the situation is to be ignored, let us refer to a personal account we have the story Samarkand, who was held captive in the detention centres.

Detention Chambers Or ‘Re-Education Centers'?

Chinese police were the only people who helped Samarkand when he was living a life of distress and was exploited by a criminal gang following the death of his parents at the age of 11. Owing to this faith, he went to meet the police again on 19th October 2017 on being invited for a meeting, hoping to help them. But little did he anticipate that the meeting would rather be an interrogation for a period of 72 hours with his hands cuffed and cameras being pointed towards him. After this meeting, he was kept in a cell only to have finally been transferred to a detention centre or “re-education” centres as the Chinese Government put it.

Upon determining the causality of this incident, we are confronted with the fact that Samarkand belonged to the Kazakh community which are inhabitants of the rural Xinjiang region of China. On top of that and most importantly, he spent eight years of his life working in Kazakhstan. It was on these grounds that he was sentenced to the detention centres as he fell into one of the categories which made people liable to be sent to these centres. According to the Samarkand, these categories were: those who were religious, those who were suspected of being criminals and those who travelled abroad. Moreover, when Samarkand recounted the experiences of detention centres it seemed very familiar to the facts that we get to hear from various media reports. Be it denouncing one’s faith or being encouraged to admire the Chinese leadership, mainstream culture, and history.

These features seem to be in line with the “training and education” purpose of the “re-education centres” as has been rightly pointed out by the Government. However, the content of “training and education” that is being provided seems to be a prerogative of the Government. Moreover, in its fights against extremism, terrorism, and separatism who all end up being targeted is based merely on the perception of the Government.

The crucial question that comes up here is whether the Chinese Government will be able to achieve its motive by further targeting and detaining the ethnic minorities? Or will it give a surge to the already prevailing feeling of alienation among these minorities leading to worse consequences as seen throughout history and across the world?

Mass Surveillance

The above-mentioned Chinese Government’s techniques of battling terrorism are further aided and facilitated by its technological expertise. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese Authorities are developing and employing policy programs in Xinjiang which collects data about people, mostly without their knowledge and identifying those among them which appear to be a potential threat to the officials.

The existence of an Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) which is a system receiving data about individuals from different sources makes it evident that China is arbitrarily using mass surveillance. The different sources include CCTV cameras which are put in locations considered to be sensitive by the authorities. Another such source is “Wi-Fi sniffers” which collect unique identifying addresses of computers, smartphones and other forms of networked devices. The vehicle checkpoints also transmit information to the IJOP such as the license plate numbers and citizens ID card numbers.

These checkpoints then receive warnings for identification and checking of targets. IJOP also consists of personal information of the ethnic Muslim communities which are provided by the police officials, local party and government cadres based on data collected by visiting the people at their homes. The extent of personal data ranges from the religious ideology of the families, their religious practices, their relationship with their neighbours, the number of times they have visited other countries with special reference to those deemed as sensitive countries. There have also been reports of phones of individuals belonging to the targeted ethnic groups being installed with chips as well as being hacked.

International Response

Now moving back, to our initial curiosity regarding the international response we have the following facts. Western countries such as Germany, Britain, Australia along with Japan have condemned China’s extreme authoritative and surveillance policies on its Uighur communities along with other Muslim communities. 22 ambassadors have also signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council criticizing these policies of China.

However, China has gained major support from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, African Countries, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, Philippines, Syria, Pakistan, Oman Kuwait, UAE, and Bahrain. Perhaps the most surprising factor of this event is the support from Muslim countries. Indeed the supporters went ahead a step and condemned the allegations of the West against China as the politicization of human rights and rather recommended the actions of the Chinese Government as “remarkable actions” in human rights.

The overwhelming support of the Muslim countries is one of the most surprising factors in this scenario. For instance, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s silence over the incidence clearly contradicts his efforts to act as a global leader of Islamism. He has been very willing to fight Islamophobia, address issues of Muslim people and at the same time been very a vocal critic of conditions of Muslim people in Kashmir. Moreover, throughout the years Pakistan has given top priority to pan Islamic causes of Palestinians and Bosnia in its foreign policy. Thus Mr. Khan’s silence over the issue of Muslims of Xinjiang region is only indicative of the custody of Pakistan’s autonomy at the hands of continued military, economic and diplomatic support by China. And similar is the case with Turkey, whose President otherwise promotes Islam extensively in his country but has chosen to remain quiet on the issue of imprisonment of about millions of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Indeed, as has often been pointed by various sources, the Belt and Road initiative seems to play a crucial role in gaining the support of the Muslim countries since it has been a major way through which China has been fuelling foreign investment in these countries. Thus, it can be stated without doubt that China has been succeeding in tempering the issue of its treatment of Muslim communities through its economic superiority.

Although the U.S administration has been mostly vocal in opposing the Chinese Government’s activities in Xinjiang, it again stands to be a matter of speculation whether it is stemming out of the US administration’s genuine concern for human rights or of the ongoing trade war.

Therefore, we have before us a situation where the protection of human rights depends at the mercy of economic, political and diplomatic calculations.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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