By Dr. James M. Dorsey
September 26, 2018
A list of 26 predominantly Muslim countries
considered sensitive by China, which was compiled by Human Rights Watch as part
of a just published report on the crackdown in China’s strategic north-western
province, details the rollout of the world’s most intrusive, 21st-century
surveillance state as well as an attempt to re-educate a population of 10
million. That population includes primarily Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic
Muslim group, as well as Muslims of Central Asian origin.
The re-education is designed to reshape the
population’s religious beliefs so that they adopt an interpretation of Islam
that is in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s precepts rather than
prescriptions of Islamic holy texts in a bid to counter Turkic Muslim
nationalist, ethnic, or religious aspirations as well as political violence.
China worries that national and religious
sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to
15% of its proven oil reserves, 22% of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw
materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear
Included on the list of countries are
Afghanistan and Pakistan; former Soviet Central Asian nations, many of which
border on Xinjiang; Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia; and
key Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, which have
historic, ethnic, and linguistic ties to China’s Turkic Muslims and have been
sympathetic for decades to Uighur aspirations.
China’s crackdown, according to a plan
developed by the Baluntai Town government in north-central Xinjiang, involves
targeting, among others, Turkic Muslims who remain in contact with family and
friends abroad, people who have stayed abroad “too long,” and those who have,
independently and without state permission, organized Hajj pilgrimages to Saudi
Arabia. China is particularly concerned about Uighur contact with Muslim
Human Rights Watch quoted Inzhu, a
50-year-old mother, who lives in an unidentified country, as saying, “It was 2
a.m. and my daughters [in a foreign country] were chatting with their father
[in Xinjiang] on the phone. You know, they’re daddy’s girls and they were
telling him all their secrets … when suddenly my daughters ran in to tell me,
‘The authorities are taking away daddy!’”
For China, the Muslim world’s silence
constitutes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Beijing’s campaign in
Xinjiang is effectively enabled by this silence, which is driven primarily by
the desire of governments, many of which are deeply indebted to China, to
preserve economic relations. It allows it to largely ignore criticism by
Western nations and human rights groups as well as the Uighur Diaspora.
On the other hand, the silence potentially
gives Muslim countries a degree of leverage. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir
Muhammad seemingly exploited that leverage with China treading carefully in the
face of an anti-Chinese election campaign that returned the 93-year old to
office in May. Mahathir subsequently suspended US$22 billion of Chinese-backed
Belt and Road-related infrastructure projects.
This leverage could also factor in the
intention of financially troubled Pakistan to review or renegotiate agreements
related to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel in the
Belt and Road initiative and at US$50 billion plus, its single largest country
The risk for China is that mushrooming
publicity about its crackdown in Xinjiang, which includes pressure on Uighurs
abroad to return to the Chinese province or risk incarceration – a push that
has led countries like Egypt, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and
Malaysia to extradite Uighurs to China – will make it increasingly difficult
for Muslim countries to remain silent.
The risk is also that the crackdown could
have a boomerang effect, fuelling radicalization at home as well as abroad. A
study quoted in The New York Times by Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at the Xinjiang
Party School, where officials are trained, warned that “recklessly setting
quantitative goals for transformation through education has been erroneously
used … The targeting is imprecise, and the scope has been expanding.”
The risks are enhanced by black swans such
as a recent court case in Kazakhstan that forced the government in Astana to
walk a fine line between avoiding friction with China and shielding itself from
accusations that it is not standing up for the rights and safety of Kazakh
Kazakhs were taken aback when 41-year-old
Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent, testified in an open
Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for
Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more camps
reserved for Kazakhs.
Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for
entering Kazakhstan illegally. She said she had escaped to Kazakhstan after
being told by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to rejoin her
family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a
six-month suspended sentence and allowed to stay in the country where her
recently naturalized husband and children reside.
The inclusion of ethnic Kazakhs, a
community in China of 1.25 million people, in the crackdown sparked angry
denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament. “There should be talks taking place
with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing
this topic up … The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in
any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of
parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Pakistani
Chinese border province of Gilgit-Baltistan ran high earlier this year after
some 50 Uyghur women married to Pakistani men were detained on visits to
Xinjiang and China refused to renew the visas of Pakistani husbands resident in
Beyond economic leverage, China has so far
benefited from the fact that Muslim politicians and leaders see more political
mileage in pushing causes like the Palestinians rather than those that have not
been in the Islamic world’s public eye.
“You gain popularity if you show you are
anti-Zionism and if you are fighting for the Palestinians, as compared to the
Rohingya or Uighurs,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic
Renaissance Front, a Malaysian NGO.
It’s a bet Muslim countries and China could
continue to win, but could prove costly if they eventually lose.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center,
is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at
Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University
of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
BESA Centre Perspectives Papers are
published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family