China wrong on Xinjiang

China wrong on Xinjiang

China has embarked on a dangerous and self-defeating mission in troubled Xinjiang province and should reverse course as quickly as it can. Independent reporters and travellers have recently presented overwhelming evidence that Beijing has turned its anti-terrorist campaign in that region into an anti-Islam campaign.

Thousands of troops and special police are involved, authorities have cut almost all modern communications, and outsiders have been turned away and even arrested for simply trying to enter cities in the province and surrounding regions.

Officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China's most heavily Muslim area seems as far from Beijing sensibilities as it is from Beijing itself — 2,200km. In the past few months, China has increased and widened its so-called domestic war on terrorism to new heights. The campaign aims to track down Islamist extremists and stamp out domestic violence. It is far more likely to enrage the peaceful population of the region and open China to widespread and important foreign criticism.

Reliable reports in the foreign press have recently detailed portions of the crackdown. Last week, Chinese authorities removed the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti from his post as economics professor at a Beijing university. Police took him to Xinjiang and put him on trial in a closed court. The charge is separatism, and the penalty proposed by the state prosecutor is life in prison.

The Chinese media have been forbidden to mention the trial. But they have been instructed to publicise the alleged "rescue" of hundreds of Uighur children from Muslim schools. Sweeps in the region's capital city, Urumqi, have taken 272 children from the schools — and their parents — in the past two weeks. The madrassa schools, similar to the pondok of southern Thailand, stress Islamic studies. The Chinese have claimed the schools teach separatism and "splitism", major crimes in China. So the children have been taken. Many will consider them to be hostages.

A particularly damning report in the Washington Post newspaper last week described Chinese activities in Xinjiang as a war on Islam. It details troops and secret police who seized women for wearing the Islamic hijab headscarf. When residents of Alaqagha protested the arrests of two dozen girls and women, police simply fired on the crowd, killing two.

House to house searches ransacked dwellings in searches for any proof of "conservative" Islamic beliefs. During Ramadan, Muslim students and civil servants were reportedly forced to eat, and to attend work or classes specifically timed at the midday prayer hour. The newspaper's reporting team found that all internet service has been cut for weeks in several counties of Xinjiang, including texting. Foreigners are not just banned from the area, but detained if they even try to enter.

China considers Xinjiang important to its economy and especially its "pivot" to the West through re-development of the Silk Road. Beijing is building a high-speed train link to the region, and hopes to extend it to Europe. China also is working hard, of course, to develop its links to countries closer to home.

The anti-Uighur, anti-Islam crackdown, then, is self-defeating in two ways. It will increase the anti-Beijing feelings of local people, and possibly encourage even greater violence by the extremists. It will also cripple Beijing's campaign to widen its relations, commerce and influence, and bring opposition from both Muslim-majority countries and decent people everywhere.

President Xi Jinping has promoted unity and harmony as a lynchpin of Chinese success, and he must urgently rethink his campaign in Xinjiang.

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