Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
Among many observers of China over the past few decades, it has been hoped that China’s ongoing economic liberalization would bring a blossoming of political freedoms. Unfortunately, such an outcome has failed to materialize. For all of its economic and diplomatic ascensions into the group of developed countries, China remains plagued by a legacy of political oppressions and human rights abuses. At the same time, China has joined the group of countries that have felt threatened by the emergence of Islamic-based terrorism in recent years, and have pursued an aggressive campaign to counter this threat. Both of these issues have intersected in the Chinese government’s treatment of the ethnic minority group known as the Uyghur. Situated primarily in the province of Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people have had to endure a slew of politically repressive policies and social persecution at the hands of officials. Though this stems from valid concerns regarding national security, it has accumulated in an unsettling degree of human rights negligence. Thus, another troubling example of the challenge in balancing strong anti-terrorism with the need to preserve civil liberties has materialized.
Although much of the debate concerning Islamic extremism focuses on the West, China has also been forced to react to the threat of Muslim terrorists in recent years. Much of this involves the Uyghur, a Turkish ethnic minority based heavily in Xinjiang province. A largely Muslim group, the Chinese Uyghur has experienced the rise of a vocal faction calling for national autonomy from China. This has manifested itself in violent forms. In 1990, Uyghur separatists staged an armed uprising in the region of Xinjiang known as Baren. In 2011, Uyghur members of the so-called “East Turkmenistan Islamist Movement” attacked the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, killing eleven civilians . As recently as last year, attacks by Uyghur Muslim extremists resulted in the deaths of approximately 60 people in the cities of Kunming and Urumqi. These and other attacks over the two decades have forced Chinese leaders to step up its counterterrorism efforts, and direct them at Xinjiang’s Uyghur population specifically .
Any country ought to exercise a right to defend itself from terrorist threats. That does not, however, condone national counterterrorism policies that breach citizens’ political rights and oppress minority groups. Yet China appears to be conducting exactly such injustices towards the Uyghur through its security policies. A so-called “strike-hard” campaign, intended to route out Muslim extremism among the Uyghur, has only further deteriorated regional stability and exacerbated tensions. A house-to-house police search in Xinjiang earlier this month made this fact all too evident: an ensuing armed clash left 17 civilians and police dead . Authorities have additionally imposed less violent yet equally troubling restrictions on Uyghur religious freedoms, restraining “acceptable” religious attire and worship practices of practicing Muslims . The Uyghurs’ web freedoms have also been victimized by the Chinese push to maintain security: the Uyghur Human Rights Report, a regional non-profit organization, reports that officials have increasingly constrained Uyghur Internet users’ access and have censored online content. Officials have even utilized the Internet to disseminate misleading information about the Uyghur in order to turn public opinion against the groups’ desire for increased autonomy and religious freedoms . As concerns of Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang amplify, the crackdown on human rights against the Uyghur will only mount accordingly.
Yet the potential repercussions extend far beyond the Uyghurs’ role in Chinese society. It could also ferment unintended backlash for China’s role in the international community, interstate security, and religious extremism worldwide. Directly, China’s mistreatment of the Uyghur compounds an already-unsettling national record of human rights violations and political repression. In addition to the Uyghur, Chinese authorities have historically engaged in violence against Tibetan autonomy demonstrators  and have suppressed political rights activists across the country. Widespread and persistent efforts to suppress civil autonomy and free expression–Internet censorship, restrictions upon culture and academia, persecution against lawyers and government critics, etc.–have aggregated China’s already-poor human rights legacy . The Chinese repression of the Uyghur may also adversely impact human migration security. Many Uyghur families have fled to Turkey, risking starvation and death via harrowing conditions along the way . The situation not only represents an egregious lack of safety for the refugees, it also poses serious security concerns for the Turkish people.
Not even Chinese state security might be spared from the blowback of Uyghur oppression. Already, some observers question whether China’s Uyghur are even at significant risk to radical religious ideology, given the normal restrictions on free information imposed by Chinese authorities. The Uyghurs’ cultural aversion to violent action further undermines arguments that they are susceptible to extremist doctrines as a whole. Yet rather than deter Uyghur inclination towards terrorism, China’s repressive policies may in fact drive the Uyghur closer to such. Members of Xinjiang’s Uyghur community may feel driven to a level of desperation or bitterness at which they feel that they have no alternative to radicalization . Such an ironic turn of events could prove disastrous for both the Uyghur and China as a whole.
China’s government finds itself at a precarious crossroads. Its valid concerns for security from religious extremism cannot be downplayed. Yet its ongoing mistreatment of the Uyghur adds to a sordid human rights record and augments the difficulties the entire nation faces in achieving political liberalization. Continuation of the status quo may render conditions in Xinjiang unlivable for its Uyghur inhabitants, adding to both internal and interstate instability, and may in fact ferment terrorist ideologies within the country. China must learn to balance the need for security and the need to protect and promote political and social freedoms. Otherwise, it puts itself at risk of even graver consequences.