Do we know enough about China’s repression over Uyghur?

This piece is one of three articles focusing on interactions between Chinese government and Uyghur community in Xinjiang. The articles aim to look into the ongoing repression from perspectives other than human rights and religious freedom.

The events occurring in the Uyghur community in China have caught substantial attention from the international society. It is reported that China has been carrying out repressive policies against the Turkic Muslim peoples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), being accused of conducting mass arbitrary detention, torture, mistreatment, systemic and increasingly pervasive controls over the Uyghur community and people’s daily life there. Although these regulations have been implemented for years, it becomes much more sensitive in the context that China, under Xi’s governance, has showed unprecedented competitive posture and increasing authoritative tendency. As usual, most media pay their attention on human rights, religious freedom and Xi’s intensifying authoritarian; what is not so usual is that the Chinese government responds to the international society by legalizing regulative policies and carrying out policies to deeper level. It reveals problems of Chinese governance in various aspects, especially ethnic, religion and laws.  Having read a number of media pieces, I have found out that there are two key factors shaping how the issues are analyzed. One is  political ideology, like confrontations between Chinese authoritarian and western democracy; the other is academic paradigms, which refers to conventional western academic approach to Uyghur in historical and analytical context. A salient example is using ‘inner-Asia’ and ‘frontier’ to locate Uyghur’s history in Chinese Han-dominated historical narratives. Some scholars who use these concepts argue that areas like Tibet and Xinjiang have been under Han’s colonization and the colonization is a doomed failure in a modernizing world. Altogether these two factors portray Uyghur as a singular nation with sole religious belief and sole identity, which has been constantly under China’s suppression. 

Image Courtesy of Todenhoff via Flickr © 2005, some rights reserved

The approach adopted by most western media indeed tells a lot about state-societal relations in Xinjiang and other areas where non-Han ethnic groups concentratedly inhabited, but readers should also recognize what is missing from the discourses. Taking reports about the ongoing mass internment of Uyghur in Xinjiang as example, I  find out that Xinjiang is very much equal to Uyghur and to Muslim. Few reports touch on multi-layer identities, not to mention secular Uyghur and Uyghur who are (partially) in favor of the Party. Again, voices of people who has been undergoing actual policies are missing or simplified. In addition to that, most reports fail to provide readers with a comprehensive context of state-society relations in Xinjiang and the Uyghur community there. They either fail or refuse to recognize changing socio-economic or ideological environment that  may justify the government’s stance, not necessarily policies though, or try to contextualize the confrontations teleologically, leading readers to care certain questions and favor certain conclusions. Not attempting to justify the government’s stance or policies, I think the missing parts of the approach are equally significant as the illuminating parts, and they are irreplaceable in guiding us to investigate religion in China into details, enabling us to reflect upon western liberalist lens and getting a complex but comprehensive picture of the issue and the region. In practice, it can help external actors to avoid mistakes made out of misunderstandings or arrogance, which have alienated the west from Myanmar and Rohinga. After all, external actors and the international society play an extraordinarily important role in the China’s case, and it is unaffordable to create unnecessary confrontation and complicate the situation because of lack of knowledge.

In the upcoming two articles, I will talk about mainly two topics. One is what kind of socio-economic changes did the Chinese government perceive and respond to. Are there security threats in the Uyghur society and what are their connections with foreign groups, especially extremists? To what extent do they justify the government’s policy? The other is what the ongoing issue tells us about church-state relations in China and the location of religion in China’s modernity. It discusses what religion means in Chinese official discourse and how this understanding of religion plants the root of conflict. The goal is to escape from the ‘good or bad people’ scenario and try to introduce some perspectives from Chinese sides. 


Banner image: Image the Republic of China Government via Wikimedia © 1942, some rights reserved