This piece appeared in The Hill Times on October 22, 2018.
Imagine if you will the following scenario. In the wake of two successful terrorist attacks in October 2014, in which two innocent Canadians were killed, the Harper government initiated a system of concentration camps for Muslims living in our country. Anyone caught in possession of a Quran, or women in a hijab, or men sporting a beard would be rounded up and sent to a ‘re-education camp’. Sounds a tad severe, right?
Well, this is exactly what the PRC is doing in the far northwest province of Xinjiang to its Muslim inhabitants.
Don’t get me wrong. There have been terrorist attacks carried out by Uyghur Islamist extremists in China over the past few years: here is a short list
In June 2103 27 people were killed by knife-wielding assailants in Shanshan county
Three people were killed and 79 injured in knife attacks at an Urumqi train station in April 2014
At least 31 people were killed and over 90 injured when a car drove into a market in Urumqi and extremists tossed explosives in May 2014
In July 2014 a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station in Yarkant, killing 96
Bomb blasts outside police stations and in a market in Luntai county killed 50 in September 2014
So yes Uyghur extremism is real and Chinese security forces have to put in place resources to identify terrorists and stop them before they act. But the state’s response has been so widespread and comprehensive that it actually makes the situation worse.
What the PRC has done in Xinjiang is essentially make it illegal to be a Muslim. The criteria cited above in a fictional post-October 2014 Canada are exactly what Chinese police and security officials have been doing to Xinjiang’s Muslims. According to the US Congress “Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored.” The state has also labelled many Uyghurs a threat and calls them ‘two-faced’: i.e. “politically hypocritical and ideologically dangerous.”
China of course retorts that what it is doing is consistent with dealing with a serious terrorism issue and, as I noted, there have been attacks. The approach it has adopted to address the issue is not only a serious human rights violation but actually could make the problem worse. If average Uyghurs who have nothing to do with the small number of terrorists in their midst are treated as if they at a minimum support the extremists’ ideology and at a maximum are complicit in attack planning, is it not possible that sympathies and backing will be created where there was previously little?
Furthermore, although China denied that such camps existed for months, it now admits what everyone already knew, but calls these “occupational skills education and training centres“. The state has now effectively legitimised the incarceration of up to a million of its citizens in order to “enable psychological rehabilitation” and “promote ideological conversion”. The authorities of George Orwell’s novels would be proud.
If China’s Uyghurs are akin to other Muslim communities worldwide, and there should be no reason that they are not, then there is in fact little truck for violent extremism. “Average” Uyghurs – i.e. the vast majority – would have a vested interest in identifying and helping the state neutralise the few terrorists. Instead, they are treated as part of the problem. If authorities see you primarily as the enemy, you may as well become one. Be careful what you wish for China.
There are pressing security issues in northwest China. A disproportionate number of Uyghurs have enlisted as ‘foreign fighters’ with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere and some may return to wreak havoc. Other homegrown individuals will likely plan attacks in the future. All of this needs to be taken into consideration. When, however, the state uses a massive hammer to eliminate a gnat, a lot of innocent people end up hurt. The ‘Hanification’ of Xinjiang is not helping either as the Uyghur culture continues to be marginalised. The marginalisation of a significant part of society leads seldom to a good outcome.
The PRC security services and military are probably large and effective enough to mount massive force to blanket Xinjiang with technological coverage and overzealous surveillance and will probably foil the odd attack through these efforts. At the same time, by labelling every Uyghur a potential terrorist they merely create the conditions under which more terrorists are created. This does sound like a poor counter terrorism strategy, does it not?
Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst with CSIS, an author and the Director of Intelligence and Security at the SecDev Group.