China’s Treatment of Minorities: Xinjiang in Perspective

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

It may come as a surprise to many, but the nation of China is not as homogeneous as commonly thought. There are exactly 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities that make up the country, along with the one group laymen ascribe as the de facto representatives of China: the Han (due to the Han being the overwhelming majority.) As with any nation-state, there are challenges that come with inhabiting a space filled by various cultures and their respective systems of belief and practices. The Middle Kingdom is no exception.

In order to accurately and objectively view the current situation and conditions in China, some facts and figures must be presented first. As of 2020, the total population of China numbers around 1.4 billion (making it the most populous nation on Earth) and the country covers an area of 9.6 million km2. About 8.49% of the population are members of minority groups. Without going into significant and lengthy analysis of minority history, it wasn’t until the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 (a conflict that saw an estimated 10,000,000 civilian and military casualties) that these groups were given special recognition by the state. Applications to be designated a minority group were accepted by the state until 1979. In addition to these rights, those recognized were given designated autonomous regions where preferential policies are applied to this day.

One of two autonomous areas belonging to the People’s Republic, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), better known as Xinjiang, has received extraordinary media and political attention in both the United States and Europe in recent decades. This area accounts for 1/6 of total Chinese territory and is bordered by no less than 8 sovereign nations. Home to the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, the 11.2 million inhabitants largely follow Islam. Inter-ethnic tensions have flared and resulted in acts of violence such as rioting, stabbings, and outright terror attacks.

This is in no small way due to the East Turkestan independence which has as its goal the separation of Xinjiang from the People’s Republic. A militant Islamist group known as the Turkistan Islamic Party is an outspoken supporter of the movement. The United Nations and several nations have designated this group a terrorist organization. Another major instigator of Uyghur grievances is the World Uyghur Congress. Though not condemned in the same manner by the global community as the Turkistan Islamic Party, this group has repeatedly instigated unrest in the region and lobbies actively in the United States.

While only over 1,000 Uyghurs live in the United States, the World Uyghur Congress is funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED.) Being both non-governmental and non-profit, the NED’s goal is to promote democracy abroad. Xinjiang is thus considered ripe for democracy.

Separatist language and initiatives lead to widespread unrest and a restriction of normally guaranteed freedoms in Xinjiang. As with any authoritarian state, the image of the leader is intertwined with the country and its government. Being the paramount leader, Xi Jinping is in full view and as such, has been branded an authoritarian. Adding to this image, especially in Xinjiang, is his 2014 declaration of a “people’s war against terror” that has seen an increase in surveillance of Uyghurs. This tough stance on domestic terrorism and promotion of national security bolsters General Secretary Xi’s popularity with the Chinese people.

2009 saw days of riots and attacks against Han Chinese coinciding with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi that resulted in the deaths of almost 200 people, mainly Han. Government crackdowns can sometimes be overzealous, but in light of the situation, can be understood.

One policy that has become a recent bone of contention with separatists and the government is the forcible relocation and internment of suspected anti-government agents and those considered zealous in their interpretation of religious doctrine. It has been reported that possibly 1 million Uyghurs (1 in 10 citizens) are being held. The attempts to paint these centers as concentration camps or reeducation camps is irresponsible, inaccurate, and grossly exaggerates what is taking place on the inside. There is no brainwashing or destruction of a culture going on within the walls. Detainees are taught secular values and given language instruction in Mandarin.

Critics shout at the top of their lungs about religious intolerance and suppression in Xinjiang. The restrictions in place and laws on the books are in fact, quite reasonable: Children and government/state workers are banned from participating in public religious activities, fasting and praying on the job is prohibited, and the wearing of headscarves, long beards, and veils in school is not allowed.

Special interests groups, lobbyists, separatists, and anti-China elements will only give you one side of this story. None of them will willingly give speeches on the state subsidies allotted Xinjiang (for example a large portion of the oil revenue generated there is funneled right back into the local economy), nor will they be quick to point out that in 2004, the central government in Beijing provided 53% of the autonomous region’s budget.

Even more outrageous a claim is that minority rights are some sort of sham. That while existing on paper, there is no realistic outlet to promote their cultures or power given to govern. Members of the Uyghur ethnic group maintain the highest number of government positions in the jurisdiction of the XUAR. Furthermore, they are over-represented in the Central Committee of the Communist Party (a powerful state organ.) Low coast loans are available to them, school admission thresholds are lowered in order to admit more Uyghurs, and the filling of cadre positions in the Communist Party are liberally preserved for them. Affirmative action policies are many.

Naturally, the question of minority rights in China is far from perfect, but when compared to its neighbors, such as India, the situation should be lauded for its stability and opportunities. At this very moment, protests are rippling throughout Indian society as a result of the government’s attempt to strip certain (mainly Muslim) citizens of their status. The United States treatment of its indigenous populations is abysmal. Alcoholism and unemployment are rampant.

Legitimate grievances should be filed and aired, but not blown out of proportion and used as a weapon against a sovereign nation, especially one that does a great job of promoting minority rights.