China’s horrific treatment of Muslim Uighurs, which the state has been desperate to keep under wraps is increasingly becoming more apparent. 

At a recent sitting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which commenced a review of China’s record, it was disclosed that more than a million Uighur Muslims are estimated to be in detention. A shocking number and while it may sound incredible, it tragically is true. Held without due process in what’s been described as “counter-extremism centres”, ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities face an uncertain future in perpetual captivity.

A recent profile on Xinjiang by the BBC situates it as China’s largest province. Though it experienced a short lived period of independence, Xinjiang was never allowed to entrench and consolidate its sovereign power. China took control in 1949 when the Communists took power. 

Rich in natural resources, Xinjiang is strategically located and bordered by eight countries. These include Kashmir, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Mongolia and former Soviet Central Asia republics. China has turned it as its northwest doorway to Central and West Asia.

Despite this, Xinjiang’s 12 million Uighur Muslims, are subject to a Chinese designed apartheid. In addition, Israeli-styled checkpoints severely impact on free movement which essentially ensures that they remain cut off from the outside world. That it resembles a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy is also reported to be a sort of “no rights zone” as per the UN.

The region which lies in the heart of the Silk Route, has seen regular outbreaks of state-sponsored violence, ostensibly to root out “extremism and separatist movements”.

Reports reveal that close to two million have been forced into so-called “re-education camps” for political and cultural indoctrination. Radio Free Asia recently obtained an official Chinese Communist Party recording which characterises Uighur Muslims in the most derogatory terms. 

It claims that those who have been sent for “re-education” are “infected by an ideological illness”. The 12-minute audio clip in Uighur language offers a rare glimpse into Beijing’s justification for mass jailing. 

The crackdown on free speech and freedom of religious practices has become intolerable. In fact human rights groups who under difficult conditions have been documenting state-sponsored terrorism, claim that the crackdown has gone too far. Controls over religious practices and cultural expressions have increased. Those under the age of 17 are forbidden to enter mosques or make unauthorised pilgrimages to Mecca.

China’s emergence as a preeminent power and the special status it enjoys within South Africa’s domestic and foreign policies, ought to make it imperative for local analysts to take a closer look at its practice of oppression against Muslim Uighurs. 

Questions about why over the last two decades, the unrest in Xinjiang has intensified and the causes and form of the current rise of Uighur nationalism, need to be probed in order to dispel Chinese propaganda which seeks to justify its aggressive conduct by relying on arguments that it is fighting “Islamic radicalism”.

The recent Brics summit held in South Africa rolled out the red-carpet to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. His state visit and pledges to inject billions of dollars into SOEs attracted a great deal of publicity and debate on whether the ANC-led government has left the door open for China to dominate and overwhelm us. 

A necessary debate by all means. Unfortunately in the haze created by trade and economic opportunities, questions about human rights hardly featured. Even Khulu Mbatha, an adviser to President Cyril Ramaphosa, in an effort to idealise the importance of the summit, emphasised developmental objectives. 

To be fair the Brics Declaration does incorporate reference to promote and protect human rights. But does such a footnote, which implies that by including it as an afterthought, give any hope to Muslim Uighurs that China will suspend it hostilities against them?

Unless more is known about China’s sledgehammer approach to silence Muslim Uighurs, the chances of applying pressure on Xi Jinping will be zero. And so too with regards the sentence to life in prison for Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. Compared to Nelson Mandela, Tohti, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing, was found guilty of “separatism” – an absurd charge usually levelled against Uighurs. 

Though two years have passed since his conviction by a Chinese court, Tohti’s incarceration is seen as a warning to all other Uighurs: if you agitate for freedom from Chinese domination, you’ll either end up in “re-education detention centres” or face life in prison. In other words, activism for human rights will face the severest of punishments. 

While China is intolerant of public scrutiny of its persecution of Muslim Uighurs, and to counterbalance this extraordinary repression, it showcases Hui Muslims as free and equal citizens. The Hui population which number about 12 million, form a sizable minority in mainland China. They are descendants of Persian and Arab merchants on the Silk Road, who arrived in China over 1,200 years ago. As China’s “preferred” Muslims – a distinction analysts point to, some Hui live a life culturally and religiously indistinguishable from Han Chinese in first-tier cities such as Shanghai or Beijing. 

However to confuse Hui with Uighur will result in losing the focus on Xinjiang’s battle for self-determination. Merely advocating such an idea is punishable by death or life imprisonment. 

The bubble which China has created to insulate itself from attacks by human rights groups needs to be unwrapped. Is South Africa the country in which to do so? I say yes it is and no need to wait for another Brics summit to begin contesting China’s militarization of Xinjiang.

 

Iqbal Jassat is an Executive Member of the Media Review Network located in Johannesburg, South Africa 

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