Chinese re-education camps in Xinjiang have been in the news recently, where it is reported that the Chinese authorities are ‘re-educating’ some up to 2 million Muslim Uyghur people. The accusations against the Chinese government include disappearances, constant surveillance using facial recognition and phone apps, in-home monitoring by party cadre and both physical and psychological abuse. If these accusations are true, then is it is certainly a human rights issue on a massive scale.
Under pressure of reports in the media, the Chinese have sought to explain their actions as a necessary measure to address an issue of terrorism and separatism. Xiao Qian, China’s Ambassador to Indonesia, cites the 2009 riots in Urumqi which he says killed 197 people, injured more than 1,700 and caused “colossal” property damage, with unrest between 2003 and 2016 involving eight terrorist attacks killing more than 120 people and injuring some 400 others. According to Xiao “It is fair to say that the issue related to Xinjiang is not religious but rather political. It is the manifestation of the struggle between unity and secession, peace and violence and it is a matter of principle concerning China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.” Xiao’s account of what is being done in Xinjiang is that the Chinese authorities have “taken measures to resolutely combat terrorism, extremism and separatism, and in the meantime, special attention was given to preventing the association of violent terrorist activities and religious extremism with particular ethnic groups or religions.”
Meanwhile, Western media accounts of the events in Xinjiang focus on the reportedly oppressive nature of the actions and the financial basis of them in relation to Xinjiang being a key node in the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, Business Insider‘s report of 23 Feb 2019 provides the following headline “This map shows a trillion-dollar reason why China is oppressing more than a million Muslims”.
According to this account, the timing of the crackdown is not so much a response to terrorism as the fact that “Many of these projects pass through Xinjiang, a region in western China home to the beleaguered Uighur Muslim people” and “Beijing has been cracking down on Uighur life in on Xinjiang. Officials say its repression is a necessary counter-terror operation, but experts say it’s actually to protect their BRI projects.”
All of this sounds quite bad and uniquely something to do with the Chinese communist system—until one wonders what the US government would do if a small group were to a) be associated with some horrific terrorist attacks on US soil or b) get in the way of what it regards as a critical infrastructure project. Well, while the US has had many mostly isolated domestic terror attacks over the years, the best example is perhaps its reaction to the 9/11 attacks, in response to which the US attacked and invaded Afghanistan, a country that was not even accused of being a part in orchestrating the event. Afghanistan’s crime was merely that is was where the accused Al-Qaeda ringleaders were living and that the government had not given them up on first demand and notably without any proof of their complicity in the event being established. The US then went on to invade Iraq on spurious accusations of weapons of mass destruction and imaginary ties to Al-Qaeda. The results of these two actions alone have involved over a million deaths, massive destruction of the infrastructure and societies of both nations and homelessness for millions of people. As for b), the US government’s treatment of those it sees as getting in the way of critical infrastructure projects can be seen on the response to opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project at Standing Rock and the XL Keystone pipeline protests, where non-violent protesters were subject to heavy surveillance, infiltration and extreme violence at the hands of Police, National Guard and private contractors.
“The government has characterized pipeline opponents like her as “extremists” and violent criminals and warned of potential “terrorism”, according to recently released records. The documents suggested that police were organizing to launch an aggressive response to possible Keystone protests, echoing the actions against the Standing Rock movement in North Dakota. There, officers engaged in intense surveillance and faced widespread accusations of excessive force and brutality.” [emphasis added] Source: ‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists
In 2018, it was reported that: “Among the hundreds of people arrested in North Dakota for protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Native Americans faced the most serious charges.” Given that the Indian reservations which formed the focus of the protests are themselves are the legacy of a systematic policy of genocide of the Native American tribes dating from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, these present day actions take on additional cultural and political significance. Notably, proposed lawfare actions designed to prohibit and harshly punish future protests have also included rights confiscation measures.
“Faced with protest-weary constituents, lawmakers have put forth several bills in the young biennial session — and more may be coming. Among them are: making it a crime for adults to wear masks in most cases — similar to one that lasted for nearly 50 years that was aimed at the Ku Klux Klan — and exempting a driver from liability if they unintentionally injure or kill a pedestrian obstructing traffic on a public road or highway. Another, now-withdrawn measure would have had the state try to claim land and valuable mineral rights in the pipeline’s path under the Missouri River as reimbursement for state law enforcement costs.“ [Emphasis added] Source: Standing Rock spurs ‘protest laws’ in North Dakota Legislature, CBC 12 January 2017
But, perhaps the greatest challenge the US establishment has faced from a domestic minority in the last 70 years came in the shape of the Black Power movements of the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Black Power movement came on the back of a long struggle for equal rights and freedom from segregation for Black people in the US. During the 1950s, this saw the rise of key leaders such as Martin Luther King and MalcolmX and political movements such as the Black Panther Party. These leaders and movements were vigorously targeted by intense surveillance and harassment to the extent that the US government launched a war against dissent in the form of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Instigated and led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover COINTELPRO involved “a series of covert, and often illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at spying on, infiltrating, discrediting, disrupting and destroying domestic organizations considered `subversive'” (see https://www.noi.org/cointelpro/). Black leaders and movements were subject to an intense campaign of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment and killings. Apart from the many deaths of members of these movements resulting from conflicts with the authorities over the period, leaders of Black movements were targeted with surveillance and systematic harassment. The FBI has been accused of being behind the assassinations of both MalcolmX in 1965 and Martin Luther King (MLK) in 1968. Building on COINTELPRO, in 1968 the Nixon administration launched the US government’s War on Drugs, which according to former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman was deliberately “created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies.”
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” [Emphasis added] Source: Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies, CNN Politics 24 March 2014
The War on Drugs has now been going for 50 years, during which time the effects on the Black community have been devastating through a perpetual cycle of harsh policing, community and family violence, incarceration, unemployment, educational disadvantage, poverty and disenfranchisement. Arguably, it and the industrialized prison-to-grave system that has accompanied it constitute a form of cultural and racial genocide. As pointed out in
“Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males. Racial and ethnic disparities among women are less substantial than among men but remain prevalent… By creating and perpetuating policies that allow such racial disparities to exist in its criminal justice system, the United States is in violation of its obligations under Article 2 and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure that all its citizens—regardless of race—are treated equally under the law.” Source: Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, August 2013
Notably, in 2018 the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) decrying it as ‘a cesspool of political bias’.
Coming back to the issue of what may or may not be happening in Xinjiang, it is evident that we have two conflicting accounts or interpretations of what is going on there. Both accounts acknowledge that something is happening. But, where one casts the events as a sinister manifestation of an evil government bent on repression and cultural annihilation, the other posits a logical and largely benign program designed to reduce the threat of terrorism and integrate a vulnerable backwards minority into mainstream China. The truth no doubt lies somewhere between these accounts.
However, the fact is that the Chinese have every reason to be concerned about the threats of terrorism and subversion in this region. We already know that the US has embarked on a great power war against both China (and Russia). While the zenith of cordial relations between the US and China was reached under the Bush administration when the relationship with China flourished, the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” marked a significant turning point.
“By putting Asia at the center of its security strategy, the Obama administration inadvertently made the entire enterprise seem to Beijing like an effort to contain China militarily. This led China to respond by becoming more aggressive, helping to undo the general tranquility that existed before 2008.” Source: The Pivot to Asia Was Obama’s Biggest Mistake
Under the Trump administration the situation has deteriorated rapidly, with anguished accusations of unfair trading practices, stealing US jobs and trade secrets and coerced transfer of intellectual property. Trump has kicked off a trade war by imposing tariffs on imports from China, which were in part reciprocated. The economic damage to both countries and to the rest of the world has been estimated in the billions of dollars. China’s growth has been cut from around 8% of GDP per annum a few years ago to a projected 6-6.5% in 2019 “the lower bound of which would be the slowest pace of economic growth [for China] in almost three decades.” Meanwhile, as reported in Business Insider on 18 Jan 2018, “Trump’s new National Defense Strategy will prepare the US for a great power war with Russia and China.”
There is no doubt that the US and China are engaged in a war for supremacy that will shape the world for many decades, maybe for centuries. The BRI project poses a direct threat to US global hegemony as it effectively bypasses US dominance of the existing sea based trading routes. As in the days of the Silk Road, Xinjiang sits at the geographical heart of this network.
A report from The Heritage Foundation lays out the US view of the BRI and the turn from Obama’s apparent ambivalence to outright opposition to under the Trump administration.
“In October 2017, shortly after returning from a trip to India, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis signaled for the first time that the U.S. harbored serious concerns about the BRI. “In a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road,’” he declared in testimony before the U.S. Senate. His reservations echoed those of his questioner, Senator Gary Peters (D–MI), who worried that the BRI represented a strategy “to secure China’s control over both the continental and maritime interests, in their eventual hope of dominating Eurasia and exploiting natural resources there.”” Source: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Strategic Implications and International Opposition by Jeff Smith, Research Fellow South Asia, The Heritage Foundation
The Heritage Foundation report also makes the point that:
“Chinese officials have long contended that poverty and a lack of economic development are the principal causes of terrorism. They believe that by developing the western province of Xinjiang, where China faces a low-level Islamist-separatist insurgency among its disaffected Uighur minority, China can simultaneously advance key economic and national security objectives. Additionally, by promoting economic growth along its western borders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, Beijing hopes to diminish the threat of terrorism emanating from its unstable, poor, and war-torn neighbors.”
However, we have already seen unrest affecting regions around two of the southern accesses to the BRI network, firstly in Myanmar where there has been since around 2016 a flare-up of an ongoing religious and ethic conflict in the Rakhine region where the government and China’s state-owned CITIC Group are investing $7.2 billion in infrastructure projects including a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu. Significantly, as reported by Reuters, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group that seems to be an active agent in this flare-up is led by one Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, a Pakistan born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, other members of ARSA’s leadership include a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been reported as offering support to the movement. Saudi, Al-Qaeda, ISIS linkages are disturbingly familiar for those following events and parties involved in the US’s regime change efforts in Syria. The second key southern access to the BRI is via Pakistan where the route from Xinjiang through Pakistan has been upgraded to terminate at the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar which is destined to be one of the world’s largest transit and transshipment cargo facilities and a key component of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. This route passes close to the border with Kashmir, which since partition in 1947 has been the site of a territorial conflict involving China, India and Pakistan. Pakistan and India have been involved in recurring conflicts involving direct miliary actions and support for armed groups. Early 2019 has seen these conflicts rise to the shooting of four Indian troops and a car bombing in Kashmir, the subsequent use of Indian missiles against militant targets in Pakistan and the shooting down of two Indian jet fighters. The US role in these events is unclear, but as James Gundun commented in 2010, “Kashmir does emulate Palestine in many ways: two deadlocked states, one occupier and one guerrilla, tied together and disrupted by America’s bias, waging a low-intensity conflict with regional implications and no end in sight.”
The extent of the US’s role in Central Asia—right on China’s borders—was highlighted in 2015 when it was reported that Gumurod Halimov, the American-trained head of Tajikistan’s elite security force had defected to ISIS.
“Halimov’s venomous propaganda videos, in which he cites his counterterrorism training with U.S. special operators and Blackwater in the United States, underscore the danger of providing unrestricted U.S. security assistance to failing states…
Halimov participated in U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism training programs with U.S. special operations forces on five occasions either in Tajikistan or the United States. He reportedly received U.S. instruction on a broad array of topics: tactical leadership, terrorism crisis response, and counterterrorism preparations for large events.” Source: Tajikistan’s Security Chief Has Gone Over to ISIS. Now What? Defence One, 20 July 2015
However, far from being the only instance of the US providing training to the military personnel of failing and repressive regimes, the US has a history of providing such training through the notorious School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) from which graduates have gone on to engineer coups and enact brutal repression on the civilian populations—including disappearances, torture, assassinations and mass murder—in countries across Central and South America. Furthermore, although the US makes much of its fight against both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, there is an uncanny parallel between US geopolitical goals, the places Al-Qeada and ISIS appear and the targets of their attentions. For instance in:
- Syria the US wanted regime change and ISIS nearly captured the country before the Russians arrived to assist and start the real battle to reclaim the country
- Yemen where the US backed the Saudi invasion has recently found an ally in ISIS which has joined the fight against the Houthi opposition
- Afghanistan where the US supported the puppet government has been fighting the Taliban insurgency and ISIS has appeared to also fight against the Taliban
- The Philippines incoming President threatened to eject the US military bases there only to find an ISIS insurgency had captured the city of Marawi and he found himself accepting “technical assistance” from US special forces.
A remarkable pattern of coincidences, isn’t it? The historical pattern of alignment between Al-Qaeda activities and US geopolitical goals is even more extensive (see: “Secret Pentagon Report Reveals US “Created” ISIS As A “Tool” To Overthrow Syria’s President Assad” and “How the US Helped Create Al Qaeda and ISIS”).
US has clearly declared war on China and on the BRI as a key initiative the Chinese are employing to shape the world in their own way. The US’s well documented history of attacking nations it opposes by identifying and targeting disaffected or marginalised sections of their societies (such as dispossessed wealthy, persecuted minorities and disaffected youth) must be recognised as a factor in what has been reported about whatever is happening in Xinjiang and how it has been presented to the public. The fact that the US uses human rights as a convenient pretext for its many aggressive actions against nations it has targeted and the use of NGO’s such as Amnesty International to back “humanitarian interventions” has been documented by researchers such as Tim Anderson of the Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies (see Syria: the human rights industry in ‘humanitarian war’). It is therefore with no great surprise that we find the plight of the Uyghur in the press rather than the 20 million starving Yemenis who the US is preventing access to food and medicine through its blockade of Yemen’s ports or the Venezuelan people who are unable to get basic medical supplies such as insulin and anti-malarial drugs due to US sanctions, or the millions of Syrians who are unable to return home because the US has barred reconstruction funds to areas controlled by the Syrian government.
It is difficult to tell what is really going on in Xinjiang, the Western corporate press have a very poor record of objective reporting on such matters and as detailed in numerous articles by Media Lens, even the so-called “liberal press” tend to be on close examination merely propaganda mouthpieces for the establishment in such cases. Additionally, US State Department funding of US-based dissident organisations (through for example the National Endowment for Democracy’s funding of the Uyghur American Association and the Uyghur Human Rights Project) makes reports and pressure from these groups problematic to say the least.
What are we left with? Claim and counter claim in a wider geopolitical war where, as always, ordinary people pay the price.