The State Department in its annual report described China’s treatment of Uighurs as “genocide.” The United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union in March imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and a business for infringing on the rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and Australia and Japan may soon join them. Beijing considers such accusations unfounded: 56 national minorities are officially recognized in China, and five regions — at least on paper-are endowed with broad autonomy. NEWS he understood who the Uighurs and other peoples of the People’s Republic of China are and why the Western powers are making more and more claims to Beijing.
Han Chinese, or ethnic Chinese, make up more than 90% of the country’s population. However, 56 officially recognized nationalities also live on the territory of the Asian power. Five regions where national minorities make up a significant percentage are granted the status of autonomous regions – Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Tibet, Guangxi Zhuan, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Hui. They have expanded powers in the field of legislation and are headed by representatives of the titular national minority.
Two other territorial entities — Hong Kong and Macau-have the status of special administrative regions, but their special position is not due to their ethnic composition, but to their colonial history. The first was governed by the United Kingdom until 1997, the second by Portugal until 1999. Both became part of the People’s Republic of China on the principle of “one country — two systems”, while maintaining their own democratic institutions of power and capitalist economy.
In recent years, Beijing has been strengthening its control over the public life of these territories. In 2020, the Hong Kong National Security Protection Act was passed, punishing calls for independence and inciting hatred against the central authorities with prison. A year earlier, a wave of protests against the crackdown swept through the autonomous region, but the demonstrators failed to get their way. The attack on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms was the basis for US sanctions against a number of Chinese officials.
Another region that worries Western human rights activists is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), located on the western border of the PRC. It is 45% inhabited by Uyghurs — a Turkic people who profess Islam. In addition, there are a significant number of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and even Russians living in the region. Officially, Beijing protects the region’s national identity: the governor of Xinjiang is an ethnic Uighur, Shahran Zakir, and the right to use the Uighur language and practice Islam is protected by law.
However, according to Western human rights activists and Uighur political refugees, the reality is exactly the opposite. They claim that China is actively resettling Han Chinese in Xinjiang and encouraging intermarriage, and sterilizing some Uighur women. This policy has already affected the demography: when Xinjiang was granted the status of an autonomous region in 1955, there were 28% more ethnic Uighurs than there are now.
The so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang are also notorious. Researchers estimate that more than 1 million Uighurs have passed through them. Beijing insists that the” pupils ” of the camps receive an education in them-they learn Chinese, master a profession, engage in creativity and get rid of extremist ideas. Those who have been in the camps and managed to escape from the country say that they are held by force and often tortured. You can get into such a camp for the slightest offense, for example, if the total surveillance system installed in Xinjiang detects the banned WhatsApp messenger on the Uighur’s phone.
Andrey Yashlavsky, a senior researcher at IMEMO RAS, who visited the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 2019 at the invitation of the Chinese authorities, said in a conversation with NEWS even after a visit to one of the re-education centers, it is difficult to conclude who can be trusted: the accusations from the West or the statements of Beijing. China is obviously interested in promoting its version of events. However, the US sanctions may be motivated not only by concern for the rights of Uighurs, but also by political reasons.
It is very difficult to draw conclusions about what these camps really are. In the centers I visited, a variety of disciplines were taught: from agronomy and cooking, to hotel business and hairdressing. Mostly there are relatively young people between the ages of 20 and 40. As a rule, these are residents of rural areas who have somehow been noticed in showing interest in materials of a religious and radical orientation. One of my interlocutors, who was held in such a center, for example, said that she was sent there for praying in public places, which is prohibited by law.
Andrey Yashlavsky is a senior researcher at IMEMO RAS.
Andrei Yashlavsky draws attention to the fact that re-education camps appeared in Xinjiang in response to the growing extremist threat in the region and a number of terrorist attacks.
There are a number of political forces, including radical ones, which, on the one hand, advocate the separation of Xinjiang from China and the creation of an independent East Turkestan, and on the other, build their ideology on a radical reading of Islam, ” the expert adds. – Terrorist groups associated with the Uyghur separatist movement, throughout the late XX — early XXI, staged terrorist attacks both on the territory of the XUAR and outside it, including Beijing.
Beijing also has problems with Tibet. Here, the percentage of the national minority is higher — about 90%, its representatives profess Lamaist Buddhism. China annexed the region by force — in 1950, the troops of Mao Zedong invaded it. After that, the political and spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama XIV, fled to India, where he headed the government in exile until 2011.
This is due to the fact that many Tibetans still regard Chinese rule as an occupation. Human Rights Watch estimates that 55 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest against the Chinese authorities since 2009. The non-governmental organization adds that the Tibetan administration severely restricts freedom of religion, speech, movement and assembly. Monks of Buddhist monasteries are tested for loyalty to the regime and expelled from Tibet for the slightest manifestation of sympathy for the Dalai Lama.
Three other autonomous regions of China are less well known. The oldest of them is Inner Mongolia, which received the status of autonomy in 1947, that is, before the establishment of communist rule. Today, the Mongols make up 18% of its population. In the 1960-80 years, this region was a buffer between the PRC and the Soviet Union and a potential line of defense. This explained its high militarization.
Today, Inner Mongolia is a source of both concern and great hope for Beijing. On these vast lands, rich reserves of rare earth metals are found, which are used in the production of electronics. In addition, it is planned that this region will become one of the key links in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which will connect China with the European market through Mongolia and Central Asia. At the same time, ethnic Mongols are concerned about the urbanization and mining of their land, which undermines the traditional way of life of this people. In 2011, such sentiments resulted in mass protests by the Mongolian population, forcing Beijing to strengthen its control over the region.
Little is known about Guangxi Zhuan outside of China, but it is in this southern region that the country’s largest national minority, the Zhuang, lives. They make up 32% of the population of the autonomous region and speak a dialect close to Thai. China conquered these lands in the third century BC, but the locals managed to preserve the original culture to this day. It is interesting that this region received the status of autonomy quite late — only in 1958.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is about one-third populated by Hui people. They speak Chinese, but they have been practicing Islam for centuries — this is the main difference between the titular nation of the region. Ninxia is located in the heart of China — separatist sentiments are not relevant there. But religious protests occur regularly, although they do not turn into extremism, as in the SUAR. So, in 2018, the Chinese authorities had to abandon plans to demolish a mosque in Weizhou due to mass actions of the Hui people. However, Beijing decided to rebuild the mosque in the Chinese style to make it look “less Arab”.
Thus, Beijing, on the one hand, is sensitive to the sentiments of national minorities, trying not to create reasons for mass discontent. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities are slowly but surely pursuing a policy of “Sinicizing” autonomous communities and fighting local nationalism, despite occasional concessions.