China on Monday said it would "never be soft" in its crackdown in Xinjiang, after a leak of government documents shed new light on the mass detention of Muslims in the far-west region.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs are under detention in so-called “re-education camps” with a view to making them toe the political line from Beijing, and eradicate any suspected sympathies for Muslim extremism.
Over 400 pages of internal papers obtained by the New York Times show that President Xi Jinping ordered officials to act with "absolutely no mercy" against separatism and extremism in Xinjiang.
China is not happy.
“Western media report on Xinjiang lacks morality,” said the state-controlled Global Times on Monday.
Without denying the report, Global Times says that “western elites are eager to see Xinjiang engulfed in extreme violence and chaos, but they hate it when the situations in Xinjiang has fundamentally improved".
The 24 documents published by the New York Times consist of 403 pages covering China’s forced re-education system set up after 2014 in its western Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
They include speeches of Chinese president Xi Jingping, the Xinjiang’s Communist Party (CCP) Secretary Chen Quanguo, and official responses to be given by local authorities in answer to questions from people whose family members were forced to take part in the “re-education program”.
Secretive re-education program
Adrian Zenz, Senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and one of the first scholars to discover the secretive re-education program, estimates that there are currently “over 1000” camps for forced re-education in Xinjiang, with an estimated population of some 1.5 million people. As a result, China’s Xinjiang policy was widely criticised by international human rights organistations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others.
China initially denied the existence of the camps, but later admitted it, stating that they were merely used to give “job training” for unemployed people.
The leaked documents “were brought to light by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions," according to the New York Times.
“These documents give us useful insight into the attitudes of the Chinese authorities towards the Uyghurs and how they are dealing with a problem that arises when adult Uyghurs are being taken away to these retraining camps and their children and relatives in general want to know why,” says Michael Dillon, author of the book Xinjiang and the Expansion of Chinese Communist Power.
“The disturbances in Xinjiang go back to the 1980s. In 1996, the Central Committee’s internal 'Document Number 7' identified Xinjiang as being the greatest problem for the Chinese Communist Party. It was followed by a 'Strike Hard' campaign of repression, which continues today, but could not prevent major unrest, "such as the 2009 riots that left 197 people dead.
Once Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, Beijing’s policy became more hardline. Xi visited the region in 2014, just after a deadly attack by Uyghurs who drove cars into a crowd on a market place in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, throwing explosives, killing 31 and wounding 90 in the process.
"Absolutely no mercy"
This proved to be another turning point. Xi pledged “absolutely no mercy” and he had Chen Quanguo, party secretary in Tibet, who had been successful in suppressing dissent in Lhasa, transferred to Xinjiang. Within just over two years, the current system of electronic mass surveillance, forced “re-education” in closed camps and Sinification of the Uyghur population (learning Mandarin, rejecting Islam) was in place. “We got this hard-line approach. Xi emphasises uniformity, and obedience,” according to Dillon.
But China’s official press rejects all criticism. “Terrorism in Xinjiang has gradually been eliminated since these centers were set up,” says the Global Times. Authorities got increasingly worried after the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of international terrorism and, more recently, US announcements that it is gradually pulling out of Afghanistan.
“Some area which were sensitive in the past in southern Xinjiang are bordered by Pakistan and Afghanistan,” argues the newspaper. “But thanks to some decisive measures taken in Xinjiang, the region has moved completely away from the chaos of the neighboring countries. Moreover, Xinjiang has not become another Republic of Chechnya."
Dillon is skeptical. “It is a fact that over the last couple of years there have been fewer reports of armed resistance to the Chines authorities,” he says.
“On that level, this clampdown has had at least a temporary and limited success."
But he fears that the lull in violence “will be only temporary and at some point the whole conflict will arise again, possibly in an even worse form, because all these people have been taken through this system, quite badly treated in many ways, and there will be a great deal of resentment by them and their families,” he says.