Is China's Muslim reeducation plan really over?
For nearly three years, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has carried out an extensive campaign of repression aimed at the Muslim population of its western province of Xinjiang. At its peak, the United Nations estimated that over a million souls had been detained in mass camps as part of a broad official effort to eliminate Islamic radicalism, anti-government sentiment, and spread conformist political thought among its Uighur minority.
In late July, however, the PRC suddenly announced that most of those detainees had been released. That news, however, has been met with skepticism from U.S. officials, who are convinced that Beijing's anti-Muslim campaign remains alive and well.
The evidence suggests they are right. According to London's Independent newspaper, there are currently estimated to be at least five large camps in Xinjiang, where "reeducation" activities are continuing away from the public eye. Moreover, journalists on the ground in western China have uncovered clear signs that the PRC is working in secret to erect even more such facilities, despite its claims to the contrary.
The Chinese government, in other words, isn't winding down the vast network of facilities and policies that make up its anti-Muslim offensive. To the contrary, the effort appears to be growing in both size and geographic scope.
Indeed, Chinese authorities appear to be thinking beyond Xinjiang in their efforts to repress the Islamic faith, and have begun implementing restrictions in other parts of the country as well. For instance, in late July, officials in Beijing ordered shops and restaurants in the Chinese capital to cover all Arabic signs and Islamic symbols as part of a broad effort to eliminate "foreign culture." Local businesses, facing the prospect of crippling fines or outright closure, have had no choice but to comply.
To be sure, China's efforts are mirrored by increasingly onerous restrictions that are now being placed on other faiths, such as Christianity. But it would nonetheless be fair to say that Chinese authorities see Islam as a particular ideological threat to the primacy of the Communist Party, and Chinese Muslims as particularly susceptible to radicalization by extreme ideologies. As a result, China's anti-Islam campaign has emerged as the centerpiece of the broader war on religion now being waged by Beijing.
All of which should, in principle, matter a great deal to the Muslim World. But it doesn't seem to. With precious few exceptions, majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East and beyond have stayed silent in the face of China's excesses.
Last month, for instance, twenty-two countries jointly issued a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the PRC's repressive practices in Xinjiang. Tellingly, not one Muslim country chose to sign on to the message. However, a number of Muslim-majority states – including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Algeria – did join a subsequent public communique by thirty-three nations defending China's policies of mass internment and reeducation.
Indeed, even Muslim states that previously had been vocal opponents of China's treatment of the Uighurs have grown silent of late. Most conspicuously, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – which earlier this year had condemned the "torture and political brainwashing" taking place in Xinjiang – has softened its tone toward Beijing in recent weeks. It can hardly be a coincidence that Ankara's change of heart comes on the heels of a massive, $1 billion cash infusion from China's Central Bank – an investment that Turkey's tottering economy desperately needs. Other prominent Muslim countries which have chosen to mute their criticism of the PRC, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been similarly rewarded.
The conclusion is unmistakable. Through its economic outreach, Beijing is effectively buying the silence of Muslim states about its repressive domestic practices. More and more countries in the Muslim World, meanwhile, appear to be happy to let the PRC make the purchase.
China's Uighurs deserve much better. So, too, do their co-religionists abroad.