‘Islam is a thorn in China’s side’: An in-depth interview on the Uyghur situation in China

I have visited mosques in China where a sermon is typically started with something like “We have to love this country.” Practising religion in China automatically means having to be patriotic and to affirm one’s “Chinese-ness”.

I have visited mosques in China where a sermon is typically started with something like “We have to love this country.” Practising religion in China automatically means having to be patriotic and to affirm one’s “Chinese-ness”.

Repression of the other or an extermination fantasy waiting to be implemented? A straight talk with German sinologist Aaron B. (name changed to maintain confidentiality), whose research field is Muslim identity in China, about the latter’s mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 

Interview by Timo Al-Farooq, transcribed on December 6, 2019. Translated from German by the author.

Aaron, it is estimated that China has incarcerated somewhere between one to three million Muslim Uyghurs in its autonomous province of Xinjiang. To get straight to the point: is China Islamophobic?

China’s policies in recent years towards the Uyghurs can definitely be called Islamophobic. We need to be careful though regarding the numbers. There are about 11 million Uyghurs in China. Whether three million is a realistic figure I cannot say with certainty. Most sources speak of one million. But these numbers are all based on estimates. We don’t know how many internment camps there actually are. All we have to go on are satellite images and reports on the ground. There is no way to gain access to these camps. 

Where exactly are these camps situated? Only in Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uyghurs, or also in other parts of China?

To my knowledge, most of these camps are in Xinjiang. It is China’s largest province area-wise; four to five times larger than Germany. A vast area, sparsely populated, with large tracts of desert and mountains. So there is sufficient space to hide these prisoners. For decades, China has also been conducting nuclear tests there by the way.

Last month, the New York Times leaked the so-called “Xinjiang Papers”: over 400 pages of internal Chinese documents that give insight into the repression of the Uyghurs, despite the fact that what is happening in Xinjiang has been an open secret for a long time. Non-Western media have often reported on the issue and heads of state like Turkey’s President Erdogan have routinely criticized China for its stance towards the Uyghurs. What new information has come to light via these leaked documents?

It’s kind of hypocritical that it took the media so long to be outraged. Like you mentioned, the issue has been known for quite some time now. What has changed though is that with the publication of the leaked documents we now have actual proof of what is happening there. The information might not be new, but it confirms much of what China has been suspected of doing. 

What makes these papers interesting is their attention to detail. And that they show how within the Communist Party, especially among high-ranking officials who are responsible for what is happening in Xinjiang, there is disagreement on how to deal with the issue, how far the Chinese government should go, and how viable present Chinese policies towards the Uyghurs are. 

Furthermore, these documents show who is ultimately responsible for these policies: President Xi Jinping and his circle of political intimates. And that these heavy-handed plans have been in the making for years, constituting a departure from previous Chinese governments. Two and a half years ago, Chen Quangho became the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang and rigorously began implementing Xi Jinping’s plans. The papers revealed internal speeches by Xi and high-ranking officials which show how high up in the party hierarchy this thing goes, and that it has been in planning for a long time. 

The papers also show that there are party cadres on the local level who think Xi’s policies towards the Uyghurs are wrong. Not because they don’t believe in the party’s ideology but because they believe that one is going too far and that the antagonisms and resistance against Beijing  will only increase if one starts throwing people into jail for no good reason. In the view of these critics, these heavy-handed policies will give the Uyghurs more reasons to commit terrorist acts and mistrust the Chinese government. 

One relatively high-level party cadre refused to toe Xi’s line and had to pay a high price: he was tried and will now be thrown into prison. This shows how the power structure within the party works, especially with regards to the Uyghurs. This in my view also make these leaked documents interesting. 

You mentioned the ideology of the Communist Party. What kind of ideology is this, where people are thrown into re-education camps solely for their ethnicity and their religious identity? What exactly is China’s beef with the Uyghurs? What have they ever done to the Chinese government to elicit such an enmity from the latter?

From China’s perspective, it has the “problem” that other nation states which have emerged from former empires have had: that China is highly diverse when it comes to ethnicities and cultural identities living within its borders. The Uyghurs have a strong independent identity. Throughout the 20th century, there were independence movements in Xinjiang and even phases where the Uyghurs were actually de facto independent. Uyghurs are Muslims, the majority of Chinese people are non-Muslim. Uyghurs speak a Turkic language. This kind of independent identity is not viewed as Chinese by large parts of the Chinese population and the government. Which is why there has been a long-standing tradition of separatism, and with it repeated conflict with Beijing. 

What the leaders in Beijing cannot stomach is any form of separatism, and when you don’t pledge loyalty to the Chinese state. In Beijing’s view, the unity of the nation state is sacrosanct. Recent decades have seen separatist movements, riots and even terrorism in Xinjiang. 2009 was kind of a tipping point when there were uprisings and mass riots in Urumqi during which many Han Chinese were killed. Since then, there have been frequent terrorist attacks that have been credited to extremist Uyghur groups. Some of them have had links to Al-Qaida, etc. Beijing sees these developments as utterly troublesome and does not want the problem to escalate further. 

Ideologically speaking, Beijing is simply wired in a way that it sees itself as the sole entity that is allowed to define what China is and who is Chinese. What the people are allowed to believe in and how to define patriotism is their decision, even if that means dictating to people how they can define their cultural identity and self-image. 

Is the situation comparable to that of Tibet?

Partially yes. It is comparable to the extent that like Xinjiang, Tibet is part of China’s Western region, a vast area where until 20 years or so ago not many Han Chinese lived in. Economically and geo-politically, this area is unbelievably important to China. Especially from a historic perspective: Beijing views it as an integral part of China. So the more independent Tibetans and Uyghurs have tried to be from Beijing’s influence, the stronger Beijing’s counter-reaction has been. 

As you know, the Tibet question was popular in the mid 2000s, especially in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. Now it is kind of dead and has been replaced by the Uyghur issue. But the origins are the same, namely that an overarching nation-state asserts a claim to these regions and that the indigenous people living there defend themselves against a Chinese takeover. That is the key commonality between Xinjiang and Tibet. De jure both are autonomous regions, de jure there is freedom of religion in China, but in reality the legal status and laws are not adhered to by the Chinese government.

Until recently, the Uyghurs did not have an international lobby like the Tibetans did in the U.S., epitomized by the luminous figure of the Dalai Lama. Now the Uyghurs are galvanizing more international attention. Remember that the Uyghurs are Muslims and not glorified as “peaceful” Buddhists by a West starving for esotericism like the Tibetans are. For the West, that automatically puts Uyghur separatism in close proximity to jihadism. Which is why it has been much harder for them to engender sympathy for their cause. 

Would the Uyghurs actually be content with real autonomy or are they bent on the maximum demand of a fully independent and sovereign state?

That is not that easy to say. There are different views among the Uyghurs regarding the political status of their homeland. Of course there are Uyghurs who profit generously from the Chinese state. Furthermore, the Chinese economy in Xinjiang is booming. Especially for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the role of Xinjiang is highly integral. But the accusation of the average Uyghur is that only the Han Chinese, who are increasingly being resettled to Xinjiang by Beijing, will profit from these plans. It is they who hold all the cards in local politics and the local economy.

But these things are always dependent on the current political mood. I am worried that the current political rigor of Beijing towards the Uyghurs that is intent on making life for these people so hard, up to the point where normal everyday life is not possible anymore, will only exacerbate the rift between the two. I am not sure how the average Uyghur views China and the aspect of Xinjiang’s political status. In my own conversations with Uyghurs I have heard both positions, real autonomy and full independence.

The Uyghurs are not the only ethnic group in China who identifies as Muslim. What is Beijing’s attitude towards them and vice versa? Are they also maltreated in the same way the Uyghurs are?

Partially yes. For instance, Kazakhs in Xinjiang are also subject to enormous repression. In the re-education camps or however you wish to call them, you also have many members from the Kazakh minority among the prison population. Remember that Xinjiang shares a border with Kazakhstan, so there are many Kazakhs living in Xinjiang and many Uyguhrs living on the Kazakh side of the border. The networks that lobby for an independent Xinjiang have strong ties to Central Asia, also to the militant networks there. But naturally that does not justify randomly throwing people in jail like China is doing. But yes, Kazakhs in China are equally targeted by China’s policies. 

There are ten ethnic groups in China that identify as Muslim, and the ones that have to suffer most from Chinese repression are the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. The other ones – with exception of the Hui – are small in numbers. Demographically speaking, the two largest Muslim minorities in China are the Hui and the Uyghurs. The other ones are demographically not important or China does not view them as susceptible to separatism or terrorism. Which is why China’s primary focus is to counter a self-determined Xinjiang and an autonomous Uyghur self-image that says “We have our own traditions, we have our own history and language. Even though we acknowledge a common history with China, we stress our own independent history and our own separate identity.”

And it is Beijing’s primary focus to obliterate this autonomous identity and bully the Uyghurs into believing that they are through and through Chinese and that all the other aspects of their cultural identity are marginal at best. China does not want to obliterate Islam because it knows that is not feasible. China acknowledges its multicultural history and its diversity. But it sees it as troubling that Islam is a strong marker of identity, which is why it views Islam critically. 

But that is also the fate of other faiths in China, like Christianity and Judaism. Especially Christians and Muslims who have been subject to stronger control in recent years and have always been victims of state repression. What Beijing is increasingly trying to do now is to adjust the theological ideologies of these faiths to the new ideological guidelines of the party, however hollow the latter might sound in our ears. Remember that if you hold a religious office in China, it doesn’t matter if you are an imam or a priest, you will be subject to a high level of surveillance and control and cannot speak freely. I have visited mosques in China where a sermon is typically started with something like “We have to love this country.” Practising religion in China automatically means having to be patriotic and to affirm one’s “Chinese-ness”. The government keeps a close watch on what is preached and taught in mosques. 

Is China’s relation to Islam comparable to that of Russia? Like China, the former Soviet Union is also a world power with an atheist tradition, and has a large Muslim population and an ambivalent attitude towards Islam. Moscow is Europe’s largest Muslim city, but at the same time the Muslim community in Russia is subject to surveillance and general suspicion like in China. Is atheism the reason for this or are these still reactions to 9/11?

A little bit of both. The comparison to Russia is somewhat flawed though, as Russia  – at least in the eyes of the government in Moscow – is de facto Orthodox Christian. But with regards to Islam, there are of course striking parallels to China: separatism like in Chechnya for example as well as other separatist movements, some of them interfacing with terrorist movements and committing attacks.

The other parallel is that the Soviet Union collapsed, and that scenario is China’s nightmare. The unity of the country and its people is sacrosanct and is therefore China’s top political priority. It stands above everything else. Especially above human rights. China knew  – and this is also mentioned in the leaked documents – that the West and the Western media would sooner or later focus on the situation in Xinjiang and report on it, which would in consequence sully China’s image. But China is willing to endure these consequences in order to guarantee the unity of the nation state. 

The Chinese constitution has freedom of religion written into it. China knows of its religious and cultural diversity and has – at least on paper – routinely emphasized that it will defend and safeguard them. But in reality it has rarely done so. Islam is alien to many politicians in Beijing, not to say a thorn in their side. But I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize this as an extermination fantasy. China views Islam as a problem because it suggests cultural differences and a hybridity that does not simply say: “We are Chinese, we follow the party.” These people derive their sense of identity from other things as well. And that is disturbing for the leaders in Beijing. 

What can Germany and the EU do to stop China’s maltreatment of the Uyghurs? I can understand if a West that is increasingly dependent on China is reserved in its criticism of China and only pays lip service to human rights there. But what about rich Muslim states like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar that co-signed a declaration in support of China’s anti-Uyghur policies? Why would they feel the need to do that?


But is profit-seeking really the reason? Can’t a state like Qatar, the richest country in the world thanks to it’s abundant natural gas reserves, afford to not do business with China, especially if it sacrifices its own Muslim brothers and sisters in the course?

I am not sure how much something like religious brotherhood factors in when it comes to trade and doing business. But with regards to Germany: we know that China is an “Unrechtsstaat” [literally: a state without rule of law, the nearest English term would be “rogue state”]. Chancellor Merkel travels to China every year, I’m not kidding, every year, I think she has been to China 14 times during her tenure. She always meets with human rights activists, whoever they might be, says one or two things in order to show that she is ideologically behind them, and that’s that.

When you are in Shanghai where every second car is a Volkswagen, you quickly realize where Germany’s profits come from. China’s rapid economic growth did not happen on its own, but through intensive economic cooperation. Germany does massive business with China, it is our biggest trading partner together with the United States. That is something the German government is not willing to give up. Which is why Merkel always tries to have her cake and eat it too whenever she says “Yes, we always say that China should respect human rights.” But at the same time we don’t sanction China or isolate the country politically. Germany profits off of the economic cooperation with China so much that this will always have primacy over human rights considerations. 

What can we therefore do? I think it is a positive development that we are talking more and more about this and are therefore creating political pressure. As a sinologist, I am constantly shocked with regards to how little people know about China and that it seems to completely bypass them as to how significantly China will shape the 21st century. And I’m talking about all our lives. Which is why I would wish that there would be a stronger public awareness for the human rights situation in China, and with it for the situation of the Uyghurs, and that increased awareness is followed by political consequences. 

Is it really possible to take concrete measures if we are economically – and therefore also in terms of Realpolitik – so dependent on China? What kind of government would we need in Germany and the EU in order to put pressure on China?

One that really takes human rights seriously. But remember that we as Europeans need to get our own house in order first. With all that is happening with Europe’s closed-border policies and the refugee issue, one cannot say that these developments sound like an honest commitment to universal human rights. Therefore I don’t know if the current EU and German governments can be trusted with putting pressure on China regarding its treatment of the Uyghurs.

Aaron, I thank you for your time and words.

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