New Delhi: The Chinese government has destroyed tens of thousands of mosques and graveyards in the Xinjiang province, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). In episode 577 of ‘Cut the Clutter’, ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta unpacks the what, where, who, when, why, and how of China’s project to de-Islamicise or Sinicise the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in China, which is otherwise dominated by the Han Chinese. Although constituting the majority population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, the Chinese government refuses to consider them as the indigenous population.
“They regard them as a national minority, which means they work with the presumption that Uyghurs belong to all of China. So they can claim no special rights in the province,” said Shekhar Gupta.
The ASPI study, which was led by the think tank’s researcher Nathan Ruser, had mapped the “cultural erasure” of the region using satellite images.
“These are quite telling,” Gupta remarked on the images and added, “This looks like there is a deliberate and strong campaign to change the character of the place. So it loses somehow its distinct Islamic character.”
The satellite images accessed by ASPI also showed the razing of the famous Ordam Mazar, a settlement in the Great Bughra Desert, believed to be the site from where Islam spread across the region.
The other most noteworthy finding of the study is the proliferation of the internment or “re-education” camps.
“The Chinese have said that they have demolished most of their detention centres. On the other hand, 60 of the detention centres have been expanded since 2018. Fourteen new detention centres are being built,” he said.
The number of detainees in these centres is anywhere between eight to 20 lakhs. “This would put one in five Uyghurs inside a detention centre,” Gupta said.
A landlocked region, Xinjiang is located in the north-west of China and covers a large area of 16 lakh square kilometres. Despite this, the province is thinly populated and characterised by a number of deserts including the Taklamakan and Dzoosotoyn Elisen deserts.
“So this is really in the middle of nowhere, very large, very few people, and has borders with eight countries,” Gupta noted. The eight countries include Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Russia.
Pakistan and India also figure in this list albeit with a twist. Gupta elucidated that if the official Indian map is to be considered, which does not include Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), Xinjiang doesn’t share a border with Pakistan. “That’s why this region is crucial. And that’s why the Kashmir issue becomes so crucial for China as well,” he said.
The why and who
Trouble in the region began as far back as the 10th century, when the Mongols conquered Xinjiang or Sinkiang, as it was earlier known. A Buddhist region under the Kingdom of Khotan, Xinjiang was then converted to Islam.
“And then Islam grew in this province, or this area became essentially Islamic … They (the Mongol rulers) kept fighting … with the Chinese rulers, that is Ming Dynasty, and then the Ching Dynasty. Later, between 1644 and 1941, Xinjiang was made a part of China,” Gupta said and added, “The Chinese, on the other hand, insist that Xinjiang has been a part of China since 200 BC.”
The Chinese communist party, since the time of leader Mao Zedong, have believed religion and ethnicity to be “terrible things”, said Gupta. It was with the Great Leap Forward, a so-called economic and social campaign led by China from 1958 and 1962, that the government began forcefully assimilating the Uyghurs.
Then in 1966 came the Cultural Revolution.
“These attacks again started, but significantly, Muslim mosques and places of worship were not desecrated. They were still standing,” he said.
Gupta explained the events which led up to the de-Islamisation of the area. It all started in 1997 when riots started taking place in the region, which led to the killings of hundreds of people. “It was after that the Chinese Communist Party thought that this was an area of concern. And this is also when a proliferation of mosques took place,” he said.
The subsequent years have been marked by rising tension between the Chinese and Uyghur separatists, and terrorist attacks.
“There was also a failed plane hijacking incident. When that happened, then they (the Chinese government) widened this attack on Muslim minorities and linked it to George Bush’s Global War on Terror,” Gupta surmised.
Just like how the US is waging a war on terror in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East, China said it could do the same in Xinjiang as the Uyghur issue had been caused by the same influence, Gupta noted.
This, and most significantly Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leaked 2014 speech denouncing “religious extremism”, marked the beginning of the sinicisation of the Uyghurs.
As a part of this process, mosques were taken over and turned into bars or shops, 30 Muslim names were banned and Uyghurs were placed in detention centres.
“People have been arrested and put in detention centres for all kinds of alleged crimes, including visiting ‘troublesome countries’ like Turkmenistan and Turkey,” Gupta said.
In the detention centres, which are akin to maximum-security prisons, the detainees are taught to “sing praises of Communism”. These facilities are strictly monitored by security cameras. “All the satellite data also tells you that since the 2017-18, when there were 39 cameras, the number has tripled now, so more and more people are being put into camps,” Gupta added.
ASPI report adds to US-China friction
The ASPI report has become another thorn in US-China relations. The Communist government termed the report as “total nonsense” and motivated by the US government.
Gupta, however, refuted the claim of the ASPI data being fake, pointing to other reports, which highlighted the dismal situation of the Uyghurs.
He also remarked on the irony of the entire conflict. “I mean, you have a situation where millions of Muslims are being persecuted and systematically, de-Islamicised … But no Muslim nation is complaining. In fact, some of the largest Muslim nations are China’s closest friends,” he remarked.
“But America is complaining … It is Trump’s America, which is now pushing back strongly,” he said.