Home Christians A Million Detained in China in Secret Internment Camps – The Citizen

A Million Detained in China in Secret Internment Camps – The Citizen

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It is now estimated that the Chinese authorities may have detained hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui (Muslims) and other ethnic Turkic Muslims, Christians as well as some foreign citizens such as Kazakhstanis, who are kept in secretive internment camps throughout the country.

On October 24 2018, the BBC released the details of an extensive investigation into China’s hidden concentration camps and the extent to which the People’s Republic goes to maintain what it calls “correct thought”. Foreign Policy and the Journal and Center for World Indigenous Studies have labeled these policies as “cultural genocide”. Some parties refer to these camps as “concentration camps”. Many compare these vocational camps to the U.S. Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II as well as the British Palestine internment camps for Jews.

Xinjiang is India’s immediate northernmost neighbor and we have a long border with it. The Indian relationship with Xinjiang is also an old one.

The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, an Indo-European nomadic people who had migrated from the Tarim Basin, now in central Xinjiang, and settled in ancient Bactria.

The Kushans spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. They reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka, whose realm stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic Plain. Kanishka was of Turushka or Turkestani origin. Kanishka later made Mathura his capital and is now celebrated as one of India’s greatest emperors.

The name “Xinjiang”, which literally means “New Frontier,” was given during the Qing dynasty. Xinjiang consists of two main geographically, historically, and ethnically distinct regions with different historical names, Dzungaria north of the Tianshan Mountains and the Tarim Basin south of the Tianshan Mountains, before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang province in 1884. Dzungaria was inhabited by steppe dwelling, nomadic Tibetan Buddhist Oirat Mongol Dzungar people, while the Tarim Basin was inhabited by sedentary, oasis dwelling, Turkic speaking Muslim farmers, now known as the Uighur people. They were governed separately until 1884.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang also had a troubled relationship with China. Chinese dominance waxed and waned with the ebbs and tides of imperial power in Beijing. After 1912 when Sun Yat Sen proclaimed a republic, the by now enfeebled China lost all authority in Tibet and Xinjiang. Chinese garrisons were driven out and local leaderships assumed complete authority. The KMT regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek tried to reassert Chinese authority but failed to do so.

While Tibet was securely under the control of the Buddhist theocracy, Xinjiang came under the sway of several warlords till 1941 when a renegade KMT general turned warlord, Sheng Tsi Tsai, established a Soviet Republic under the close guidance of the Comintern in Moscow. In 1949 Stalin handed over Xinjiang to the newly established Peoples Republic of China of Mao Zedong.

In 1949 the population of Xinjiang was comprised almost entirely of various Turkic nationalities of which the Uighurs were the largest. Han Chinese only accounted for 6%. Thanks to a continuous migration sanctioned and blessed by the authorities in Beijing that proportion has now gone up to almost 48%. Much of this is centered in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, which is over 80% Han. The Uighurs are still the majority in the region below the Khotan and Kashgar line. This is the region that abuts India.

Not a month has gone by in the last year without violent incidents in the Uighur majority Xinjiang province of China, and of late even in places as afar as Beijing, Kunming and Shanghai. In the recent years it is the Chinese province of Xinjiang that has been more restive, than Tibet. In the past two years alone over 300 people have been killed in the violence.

The troubles in Xinjiang may be closer to India than we generally believe. Xinjiang or East Turkestan abuts the union territory of Ladakh. The last leg of the ancient trade route linking India to the fabled Silk Route ran from Leh to Kashgar and Khotan through the legendary Karakorum Pass. This was the route on which mule trains brought valuable pashm into India to be woven into fine shawls in the Kashmir valley. For many centuries the kingdom of Ladakh extracted rich levies from traders plying this route and prospered.

The seeds of Ladakh’s decline were sown when the great Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal, after a dispute with his Kashmir overlord, imposed a blockade of all trade emanating from the valley. His intention was to economically weaken Kashmir by crippling its pashmina shawl industry. The traders then discovered an alternative trade route linking Punjab with Tibet and Xinjiang through Shipki La, now in Himachal Pradesh. This brought the shawl weaving centers to the Punjab and places like Ludhiana prospered. Historically India had many other linkages with Turkestan. These links were snapped after China annexed both Xinjiang and Tibet, after the Communist seized power in Beijing in 1949.

In 1949 the population of Xinjiang was comprised almost entirely of various Turkic nationalities of which the Uighurs were the largest. Han Chinese only accounted for 6%. Thanks to a continuous migration sanctioned and blessed by the authorities in Beijing that proportion has now gone up to almost 48%. Much of this is centered in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, which is over 80% Han. The Uighurs are still the majority in the region below the Khotan and Kashgar line. This is the region that abuts India.

In the recent years the Government of India has been active in Ladakh. It has built a motorable road that links Leh via Nubra with the far flung Daulet Beg Oldi. It has also recommissioned the airfield at DBO to receive larger aircraft. DBO overlooks the Karakorum Pass that is linked by motorable roads to Kashgar and Khotan. It is obviously hoped that one day modern caravans will ply these roads and re-establish lost economic linkages with Xinjiang?

This writer visited Xinjiang a couple of years ago for a conference organized by the Chinese authorities at Urumqi. Urumqi is now a modern and well developed city with many industries. The gas and oil finds in the immediate region have given impetus to the development of the area. But unfortunately the gains have not been equally shared. The Uighurs still continue to be less well off and deprived.

The feeling that it is their national resources that are being exploited by the Chinese authorities to mostly benefit the Han migrants is quite pervasive among the Uighurs. Shopkeepers in the bustling ancient marketplace were quite open and vocal about their sentiments. Many Uighyurs speak a bit of Urdu due to the burgeoning relationship developed with Pakistan after the construction of the Karakorum highway. Urumqi has several restaurants that advertise themselves as serving Pakistani food.

There is also another unintended but nevertheless burgeoning Pakistan connection. Well known Pakistani institutions like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jamaat ul Dawa have trained no less then four thousand Uighurs to wage a jihad in their homeland. The ISI connection with these outfits is well known.

The Chinese nevertheless continue to assist Pakistan with modern conventional and strategic weapons. It is now well established that the Pakistani missiles aimed at targets in India are Chinese in origin and the nuclear bombs that may be sitting atop them are of Chinese design. Since missiles can be made to point anywhere, the Chinese now fear the takeover of Pakistan by the jihadists as much as India or the USA. So much for Chinese foresight?

When in Xinjiang we had planned to drive down from Urumqi to Kashgar. But it had to be dropped as the road was interdicted by rebels. The Chinese are now seeking to link the Uighur rebels with Al Qaeda. But to paint all Uighur nationalists with the same brush would not be correct.

The East Turkestan Freedom Movement predates the clandestine war on Soviet controlled Afghanistan by an axis of the USA, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China. This axis even orchestrated attacks on the Turkic underbelly of the former Soviet Union. One fallout of this unholy alliance is the advent of Wahabist Islam in the Turkic regions, which hitherto mostly adhered to the Sufi traditions of Islam. If what the Chinese claim about Al Qaeda is true then it is just a case of the birds coming home to roost.

Whatever be the reasons behind the groundswell of Uighur sentiments against China, there is a lesson in it for them. That is economic development alone does not guarantee fraternal feelings. History cannot be overlooked by merely rewriting it and air brushing portraits or smothering it with cash and shopping malls.

Democracy is a good place to start to make ethnically and culturally different peoples to feel and think of each other as part of a whole. But the stork carrying democracy is not due to visit China soon and Xinjiang will continue to be troubled place.
 

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