A new cold war in China

Hugh Barnes considers the plight of the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang

THE rise of China as an economic, political and military superpower is a fact of history. Within the next five years, the Chinese economy will overtake its American counterpart to become the largest in the world. Until a few years ago its rapid growth and almost unlimited potential signalled a new era of Chinese investment in our nuclear power plants, mobile phone networks and national debt. In 2015, at the height of ‘operation kowtow’, as it was dubbed in Britain, David Cameron rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping‘s state visit. Since then, however, an escalating trade war, fears of Chinese espionage, human rights abuses and covid-19 have triggered a shift. Polls suggest that an unfavourable view of China is spreading like a virus. Sinomania has turned into Sinophobia.

In the wake of the pandemic, a deadly mixture of Orientalist fantasy and hostility is now brewing in the West. Donald Trump set the template for this New Cold War against China. In an election year the US government took unprecedented steps to sabotage relations with Beijing, sanctioning Chinese Communist Party officials, banning Chinese tech companies like TikTok and Huawei, even interrogating and surveilling Chinese students and scientists. On the campaign trail Trump seemed desperate to convince voters that China – not white supremacy, capitalism or militarism – was public enemy number one.

Joe Biden is unlikely to stop punishing China for its trade practices and authoritarianism. His ‘made in America’ agenda is designed to protect US jobs from Chinese competition, and the incoming president has also been critical of China’s hugely ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) to expand international trade by building links such as railways and pipelines to 70 countries.

East of Turkestan

The most important BRI trade routes pass through Xinjiang, a desert area the size of Alaska in northwest China. Bordered by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west, and by the oppressed ‘autonomous region’ of Tibet to the south, Xinjiang (also known as Altishahr or East Turkestan) is a key region for the Chinese politburo not only because it’s the gateway to Central Asia but also because it holds China’s largest natural gas reserves, almost half its coal and a quarter of its oil. Unfortunately for the 14 million Turkic Muslims who farm the desert oases and steppes of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), their homeland’s strategic location and wealth of resources have brought nothing but violence and oppression.

Scare tactics

Since 2017, the so-called Chinese Communist Party has implemented a vast system of imprisonment and surveillance in Xinjiang to control the Uyghurs in the name of combating separatism and terrorism. Here the analogy between today’s Sinophobia and the Red Scare of the last Cold War is instructive. At the end of World War Two, the indigenous Uyghur people declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic. As part of the Sino-Soviet conflict of the 1960s, the USSR actively fostered separatist tendencies in Xinjiang, chiefly by promoting Uyghur nationalism. This had nothing to do with supporting the national aspirations of the Uyghurs. It was just a cynical ploy to further the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy by weakening the Chinese state. President Xi has vowed to prevent anything like East Turkestan happening again. But now it seems the US and British governments are dusting off the old Soviet tactic, launching a barrage of Uyghur-related criticism at China as a form of economic warfare. Last December, for instance, the House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act calling for trade sanctions as an act of solidarity with China’s oppressed Muslims. Horror was also expressed in the House of Commons at images of Uyghur people hooded and shackled in prison camps. Anyone would think that Guantanamo Bay, where the West hoods and shackles its own Muslim prisoners, had been shut down.

The hypocrisy is staggering. No wonder international coverage of the brutal crackdown in Xinjiang has been dismissed by some leftist voices as yet another display of US propaganda to justify war, like the imaginary attack by the North Vietnamese on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, or the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yet the oppression by the Chinese regime is real. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being detained in camps, while others face extremely repressive conditions. Amnesty International describes Xinjiang as an ‘open-air prison’, citing satellite evidence, the leak of official documents and dozens of witness accounts of surveillance and arrest, forced labour and indoctrination, even sterilisation of women.

Of course the Uyghurs have always been oppressed. Xinjiang was conquered by the Manchu-led Qing empire in the 18th century and inherited by the Republic of China that succeeded the Qing in 1912, though it was only after 1949 under the People’s Republic of China that Beijing began to crush any independent national identity of the Uyghurs. Following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, China helped the United States to support the counter-revolutionary mujahideen, setting up training camps for Islamic fundamentalists in Xinjiang, and provided them with weapons and funds. In the 1990s, there was talk of potential Uyghur jihadis and links to al-Qaeda-type groups. Yet it wasn’t until the Bush Administration unveiled its global ‘war on terror’ that China utilised the new rubric to rebrand its East Turkestan separatists as terrorists, implying a religious rather than nationalist motivation. The Islamist threat in Xinjiang is not entirely made up. In 2013, five people were killed when a car driven by Uyghurs ploughed into pedestrians in Tiananmen Square. The following year, car bombs in a market in Xinjiang’s capital Ürümqi left 43 people dead, and 31 people died in a knife attack by Uyghurs at a railway station in the southwest province of Yunnan, an incident described by state media as ‘China’s 9/11’.

In the first phase of its Strike Back Hard Against Terrorism campaign, China outlawed any mention of a gulag in Xinjiang but soon the government pivoted from denying the camps’ existence to calling them ‘vocational education and training centres’. According to John Bolton, the former US national security advisor, Trump told Xi Jinping, in 2019, that building concentration camps to ‘re-educate’ Uyghurs was ‘the right thing to do’. A few months later, as the trade war intensified and coronavirus spread, any respect for the Chinese leadership gave way to racist alarm. Biden may have pledged to reverse his predecessor’s withdrawal from international co-operation but he has always argued that national sovereignty should come first – and not just for America. Such hypocrisy goes down well in China.

Photo by Simon Sun

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