Turkic Muslims: China and the Muslim world’s Achilles Heel
By James M. Dorsey
A list of 26 predominantly Muslim countries considered sensitive by China reflects Chinese concerns that they could reinforce religious sentiment among the People’s Republic’s Turkic Muslim population with potentially far-reaching consequences if the Islamic world were to take it to task for its crackdown in Xinjiang, the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history.
The list compiled by Human Rights Watch as part of a just published report on the crackdown in China’s strategic north-western province details the roll-out of the world’s most intrusive, 21st century surveillance state as well as an attempt to re-educate a population of 10 million that includes primarily Uyghurs, an ethnically Turkic Muslim group, as well as Muslims of Central Asian origin.
The re-education is designed to reshape the population’s religious beliefs so that they adopt an interpretation of Islam that is in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s precepts rather than prescriptions of Islamic holy texts in a bid to counter Turkic Muslim nationalist, ethnic or religious aspirations as well as political violence.
China worries that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal.
Included in the list of countries are former Soviet Central Asian nations as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of which border on Xinjiang, Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, and key Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey that has historic, ethnic and linguistic ties to China’s Turkic Muslims and for decades was empathetic to Uyghur aspirations.
China’s crackdown, according to a plan developed by the Baluntai Town government in north-central Xinjiang, involves targeting among others Turkic Muslims who remain in contact with family and friends abroad, people who have stayed abroad “too long” and those who have, independently and without state permission, organized Hajj pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. China is particularly concerned about Uyghur contact with Muslim countries.
“It was 2 a.m. and my daughters (in a foreign country) were chatting with their father (in Xinjiang) on the phone. You know, they’re daddy’s girls and they were telling him all their secrets … when suddenly my daughters ran in to tell me, ‘The authorities are taking away daddy!’” Human Rights Watch quoted Inzhu, a 50-year-old mother, who lives in an unidentified country, as saying.
The Muslim world’s silence constitutes for China a double-edged sword. China’s campaign in Xinjiang is effectively enabled by the silence, driven primarily by a desire of governments, many of which are deeply indebted to China, to preserve economic relations, and allows it to largely ignore criticism by Western nations, human rights groups as well as the Uyghur Diaspora.
On the flip side, silence potentially gives Muslim countries a degree of leverage. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad seemingly exploited that leverage with China treading carefully in the face of an anti-Chinese election campaign that returned the 93-year old to office in May and Mr. Maharthir’s subsequent suspension of US$22 billion of Chinese-backed, Belt an d Road-related infrastructure projects.
The leverage could also factor in financially troubled Pakistani intentions to review or renegotiate agreements related to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative and at US$50 billion plus, its single largest country investment.
The risk for China is that mushrooming publicity about its crackdown in Xinjiang that includes pressure on Uyghurs abroad to return to the Chinese province and risk incarceration and has led to countries like Egypt, Afghanistan the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia, extraditing Uyghurs to China, will make it increasingly difficult for Muslim countries to remain silent.
The risk is also that the crackdown could have a boomerang effect, fuelling radicalization at home as well as abroad. A study, by Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at the Xinjiang Party School, where officials are trained, that was quoted in The New York Times, warned that “recklessly setting quantitative goals for transformation through education has been erroneously used.. The targeting is imprecise, and the scope has been expanding.”
The risks are enhanced by black swans such as a recent court case in Kazakhstan that has forced the government in Astana to walk a fine line between avoiding friction with China and shielding itself from accusations that it is not standing up for the rights and safety of Kazakh nationals.
Kazakhs were taken aback when 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent, testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more camps reserved for Kazakhs.
Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally. She said she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being told by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and allowed to stay in the country where her recently naturalized husband and children reside.
The inclusion of ethnic Kazakhs, a community in China of 1.25 million people, in the crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament. “There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Pakistani Chinese border province of Gilgit-Baltistan ran high earlier this year after some 50 Uyghur women married to Pakistani men were detained on visits to Xinjiang and China refused to renew the visas of Pakistani husbands resident in Xinjiang.
Beyond economic leverage, China has so far benefited from the fact that Muslim politicians and leaders see more political mileage in pushing causes like the Palestinians rather than ones that have not been in the Islamic world’s public eye.
“You gain popularity if you show you are anti-Zionism and if you are fighting for the Palestinians, as compared to the Rohingya or Uyghurs,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, a Malaysian NGO.
It’s a bet Muslim countries and China could continue to win but could prove costly if they eventually lose.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom