China’s ticking timebomb

China’s ticking timebomb

11-minute read  


On 13 March 2015 Mihrigul Tursun arrived at an Egyptian airport with her eight-week-old triplets. She boarded a plane to China, hardly imagining that she was making the biggest mistake of her life. Mihrigul had planned to visit the children’s grandparents in the western province of Xinjiang, but when she arrived in China she was immediately arrested, her babies were taken away, and she was kept in detention for three months. Worse was to come. The authorities had taken three children, but they returned only two. “Your son died yesterday morning,” they told her, warning that if she screamed or caused a fuss then there would be trouble. They gave her no details. There was nothing she could do but return to her parents’ home, where she found strange scars on the necks of her surviving children. Over the next three years Mihrigul was jailed twice more, charged with ‘inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination’. She was beaten and tortured in custody, and at one point she was held in a cell with 50 other women, nine of whom died while she was there. Like Mihrigul, all of these women were Muslim, and all of them belonged to the Uyghur ethnic group.i


The Chinese Communist Party is currently engaged in the mass persecution of Uyghur Muslims. Citizens with the wrong religion and the wrong skin colour now find themselves closely monitored whenever they leave the house,ii and those that drive have been forced to install a satellite navigation system that allows the authorities to track their every movement.iii They are prevented from applying for most jobs, and they are even prevented from buying train tickets to try and escape their nightmare.iv But the most significant feature of this persecution must be the concentration camps. More than a million Uyghurs have been imprisoned at various sites throughout Xinjiang, charged with laughably banal crimes (‘browsing foreign websites’, ‘contacting overseas relatives’, ‘praying in a field’, or even sometimes ‘not praying enough’.v) Of course these charges are meaningless, and the truth is that the Uyghurs have all been detained for the same reason. They all follow a religion, which means that they implicitly recognise a higher authority than the Communist Party. Inmates are being held without trial and forced to renounce their Muslim faith on pain of torture. Some of them have been beaten to When news of the camps first broke, the Party adopted its usual tactic and denied that they exist, but less than a month later these non-existent camps were officially written into law as “vocational skill education training centres” for carrying out “anti-extremist ideological education.”vii


In January a small number of foreign diplomats were given a supervised tour of the camps and allowed to meet some of its occupants. One dead-eyed inmate agreed to speak for the camera. “All of us found that we have something wrong with ourselves,” he explained. “Luckily enough the Communist Party and the government offer this kind of school to us for free.”viii The scene brought to mind Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford – Orwell’s characters from Nineteen Eighty-Four. These were early leaders of the revolution who vanished into the black hole of Big Brother’s internal security system, reappearing a year later to publicly confess a series of improbable crimes. All three of them wrote “long, abject articles” in the Times, “analysing the reasons for their defection and promising to make amends,”ix and after this ritual penitence they were executed.


Satellite imagery shows that the Party is expanding the camps,x and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that they have grown by 465% since 2016.xi Thousands more police officers were deployed in the region during 2018,xii and security expenses doubled across the region in 2017 alone.xiii This tremendous effort is supposedly an attempt to guard against ‘terrorism’, but reports suggest that even children as young as sixteen are being held in the camps.xiv The evidence points to terrorism, for sure, but not on the part of the Uyghurs. What we are seeing is anti-Muslim terrorism carried out by the Communist Party. Members of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) have suggested that the Party’s actions may be a precursor to genocide, with chair of the board Nury Turkel warning that “something horrific is happening on our watch.”xv Comments from one Chinese official are especially telling: “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one – you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.”xvi The tone is unmistakable, and historian James Millward is among those who have picked up on it, calling this Beijing’s “final solution.”xvii Indeed, some of the Uyghur prisoners have already vanished after undergoing a bizarre series of blood testsxviii – the telltale signs of live organ harvesting, as seen many times over the past 20 years with China’s Falun Gong prisoners.xix


Relationships between the Uyghurs and the Han (the dominant Chinese ethnicity) have always been strained. The former claim to have occupied the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang for millennia, while Chinese authorities insist that the group only migrated from Mongolia in the ninth century. The dynamic is ever-shifting – the Uyghurs have won their independence at certain points in history, and at other times they have come under the authority of the various ruling dynasties. In 1949 the Communist Revolution saw Xinjiang officially incorporated into the Chinese state, but some Uyghurs regard this as an aggressive occupation comparable to the CCP’s notorious treatment of Tibet. These separatists want to rename Xinjiang, calling it ‘East Turkestan’ or ‘Uyghurstan’.


Tensions rose in this way for decades, finally spilling over in April 2014 when two members of the Turkestan Islamic Party entered a train station at Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and attacked passengers with knives. They had timed their attack to coincide with an official visit to the city by Xi Jinping. The attackers committed suicide by detonating explosives hidden inside their clothing, but it wasn’t over. More people died several weeks later when IEDs were thrown from the windows of two vehicles in Ürümqi city centre. The vehicles ran down pedestrians before colliding with each other, killing all but one of the (Uyghur) occupants. And so here we have the context for the Party’s actions. The guilt of a small number of extremists has been projected onto the entire 11-million-strong Uyghur group, in the apparent assumption that this is the safest way to deal with a religious group when some of its members misbehave.


History has taught us some very clear lessons about the correct dynamic between religion and politics. In 1648 the exhausted powers of Europe finally learned, after more than a hundred years of blood-soaked religious war, that states cannot force their religious beliefs on other states. The lesson was set down in the Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the current nation-state system into existence. Over the course of the next century the lesson became more sophisticated, and by the time of the Founding of the United States James Madison was able to codify it handily in the opening words of the US First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words the state has no right either to prescribe a religion for its citizens, or to stop them from practising the religion of their choice. The state must be secular, keeping its nose out of private religious affairs. But when a law is broken then religion must bow before the state. It must recognise the law as the highest authority of all. Like much of the United States constitution and its various amendments, these principles are universally applicable. If we look around us today we can see what happens when they’re not followed: Saudi Arabiaxx and Bruneixxi are showing us how bad things can get when the state is religious, and China is showing us how bad things can get when the state is anti-religious.


The term ‘anti-religious’ is the right one, because Islam is not alone in suffering the wrath of the Party. For decades Falun Gong practitioners have been demonised as the number one enemy of the state. They have been tortured and killed in their thousands, and as mentioned above, they have also been the victims of forced organ harvesting.xxii More recently the persecution of Christians has begun in earnest: churches have been closed, Bibles can no longer be purchased online, and pastors have been jailed. Churchgoers have been forced to remove posters of Christ and replace them with portraits of President Xi Jinping, the people’s True Saviour.xxiii Journalist Lily Kuo reports claims from Chinese Christians that they are living through “the worst crackdown on religion since the country’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s government vowed to eradicate religion.”xxiv


Xi has even called for the ‘Sinification’ of Christianity, a term which immediately evokes the ‘Nazification’ of Christianity in 1930s Germany. This alarming echo suggests that James Millward was right to use the phrase “final solution,” and Dr. Eric Foley, CEO of Voice Of The Martyrs Korea (part of a worldwide fellowship of organisations aiding persecuted Christians) has taken the comparison further. Xi Jinping and Adolf Hitler “both pledged freedom of religion to those who would hang national flags and leader’s portraits in their sanctuaries. Both trotted out theologians who insisted the Bible needed to be retranslated to be properly understood. Both accused those who disagreed of seeking to subvert the state.”xxv Clearly the Party’s target is not Islam in particular, but religion in general.


Islam, however, is not like other religions, at least not in its twenty-first century incarnation. You may protest that this statement is terribly politically incorrect, but such protests offer no analysis and no solution. We have to face facts. Jihadists exist within the Islamic faith and they do not exist within other faiths (at the moment). This is not an indictment of Islam in general – it is simply a cold hard fact about a tendency that sometimes manifests itself. The issue is fraught with misunderstanding in modern discourse, so perhaps I should state it again very clearly: most Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding citizens, but a tiny minority have been infected with radical ideology. It is of the utmost importance that this minority be kept separate from the rest so that the infection doesn’t spread. The Chinese authorities do not understand this, and in their ignorance they court disaster.


The persecution of Christians and Falun Gong members led only to vague statements of condemnation from the international community, but the persecution of Muslims may have a very different result. What this persecution really shows is that the Communist Party failed to learn anything at all from the rise of Islamic State. If the CCP leadership had been paying attention, then it would know that members of al-Qaeda and various other groups were casually thrown together in the Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca prisons after the US invasion of Iraq, and that this had disastrous results. The facilities became ‘jihadi universities’ where the extremists radicalised the non-radicals. Future ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi was able to choose his high command from the jihadis and former Iraqi military officials who surrounded him, and then to plan and organise for his caliphate.xxvi


This is not to say that these criminals should have avoided imprisonment, nor is it even to say that the US should never have invaded Iraq in the first place. The mistake, rather, was mixing charismatic jihadis with embittered military experts and failing to see what the outcome would be. Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca turned into hugely effective radicalisation centres – two great smouldering powder kegs in central and southern Iraq. Imagine how much worse the situation could be when the number of prisoners is in the millions rather than the thousands, and when the vast majority of these prisoners have committed no real crime at all, but are being punished for peacefully following their religion. There are very few real extremists in the Xinjiang camps, but there are certainly some, and these individuals now have the opportunity of a lifetime. They find themselves surrounded by fuming legions of disenfranchised young men: men with grievances greater than anyone in Abu Ghraib. These men have been tortured and abused and are now ripe for radicalisation.


Muslim-majority states Malaysia and Indonesia have already seen what is coming – they fear a wave of East Asian jihadists.xxvii Xinjiang could be the site of catastrophic civil war, the ripples of which would be felt throughout the entire region. In fact, the Uyghur persecution is likely to radicalise those outside China as well as inside. Millward asks us to imagine the reaction from the governments and citizens of countries like Pakistan and Turkey when the news trickles through – when they hear, for instance, that the Chinese authorities have banned fasting during Ramadan, forced Uyghur shops to sell alcohol, and banned Muslim parents from giving their children Islamic names.xxviii What kind of response was the Party expecting? Al-Baghdadi himself has already told his followers that “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China,”xxix indicating that the Communist Party are now on the ISIS radar, and Turkish and Syrian Islamists are mobilised. They have begun recruiting Uyghur refugees who are fleeing China, prompting activists like Seyit Tumturk to worry that “We are losing the deradicalisation battle.”xxx


Islamic State has been largely beaten back in recent months – “100% territorial defeat,” according to the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) – but it hasn’t been erased from the face of the earth. The caliphate may be in ruins but the organisation lives on. More importantly, the ideology lives on – spreading like a virus from mind to mind. It would make perfect sense at this point for ISIS to turn its gaze from west to east, and for its leaders to begin constructing a new narrative for their young recruits. China, they will say, is the real enemy. The Great Satan may have wounded Islam in the past, but it is China, the Great Dragon, that is most grievously hurting Islam today. They would not find it hard to convince people. Soon enough we could see the beginning of a new holy war, and it’s not at all clear that the Communist Party is equipped to deal with this. ISIS launched a string of prison breaks in Iraq back in 2014, freeing large numbers of inmates,xxxi and it may be that the Xinjiang concentration camps are next. “Your top priority,” Baghdadi has told his followers, “is to free the Muslim prisoners everywhere.”xxxii In the past the Party has always responded with a heavy hand when faced with internal strife, and so we can probably expect increased oppression of the entire Chinese populace when the chaos begins. As the Party escalates, the terrorists will escalate, and so on. It’s even possible that ordinary citizens will come to see the government as the greater enemy.


Mihrigul Tursun made the worst mistake of her life when she stepped on that plane in 2015, and there will be many unfortunate individuals with similar stories. But the Chinese authorities are making a mistake themselves by persecuting Uyghur Muslims. Indeed, the Party has made a great many mistakes over the course of its 100-year history, from the economic blunders of the Great Leap Forward to the political horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and each miscalculation has brought a terrible human cost. The camps in Xinjiang may be the final, decisive error.



i Ivan Watson & Ben Westcott – “Uyghur refugee tells of death and fear inside China’s Xinjiang camps,” CNN, 21 January 2019

ii James A. Millward – “What it’s like to live in a surveillance state,” The New York Times, 3 February 2018

iii Edward Wong – “Western China region aims to track people by requiring car navigation,” The New York Times,24 February 2017

iv Millward, op. cit.

v Shohret Hoshur, Alim Seytoff, Mamatjan Juma, & Joshua Lipes – “Chinese authorities jail four wealthiest Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s Kashgar in new purge,” Radio Free Asia, 1 May 2018

vi Staff and agencies in Geneva and Beijing – “Detention of Uighurs must end, UN tells China, amid claims of prison camps,” The Guardian, 31 August 2018 Article cites United Nations – “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews the report of China,” 13 August 2018

vii Ben Westcott & Yong Xiong – “China legalizes Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’ after denying they exist,” CNN, 11 October 2018

viii Watson & Westcott, op. cit.

ix George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, London, 1989 edition, orig. 1949), pp. 78-9

x Shawn Zhang – “Satellite imagery of Xinjiang ‘Re-education’ camp no. 54,” Medium, 23 September 2018

xi Lily Kuo – “‘If you enter a camp, you never come out’: inside China’s war on Islam,” The Guardian, 11 January 2019–9tDprVlrJbW8LxOF4SFdQwRTNMkoLwmj2z4eI. Kuo cites Fergus Ryan, Danielle Cave, & Nathan Ruser – “Mapping Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 1 November 2018

xii Ibid.

xiii Adrian Zenz – “Xinjiang’s re-education and securitization campaign: evidence from domestic security budgets,” China Brief vol. 18 issue 17

xiv Kuo, op. cit.

xv Kate Lyons – “Uighur leaders warn China’s actions could be ‘precursors to genocide’,” The Guardian, 7 December 2018

xvi Millward, op. cit.

xvii Lyons, op. cit.

xviii Freedom House – “The battle for China’s spirit: religious revival, repression, and resistance under Xi Jinping,” February 2017, p21

xix COHResearch – “Medical genocide: hidden mass murder in China’s organ transplant industry,” 4 May 2017

xx Four Corners – “Women are trying to escape Saudi Arabia, but not all of them make it,” ABC News, 4 February 2019

xxi Ben Westcott – “Brunei to punish gay sex and adultery with death by stoning,” CNN, 28 March 2019

xxii Deerpark Studios – “Harvested alive: 10 years’ investigation of forced organ harvesting,” 27 May 2017

xxiii Nick Taber – “The worst totalitarian since Mao,” The American Conservative, 2 October 2018 Taber cites Associated Press and Kelsey Cheng – “China demolishes hundreds of churches and confiscates Bibles during a crackdown on Christianity,” Mail Online, 7 August 2018

xxiv Lily Kuo – “In China, they’re closing churches, jailing pastors – and even rewriting scripture,” The Observer, 13 January 2019

xxv Dr. Eric Foley, ChinaAid press release, 13 February 2019

xxvi Joshua Eaton – “US military now says ISIS leader was held in notorious Abu Ghraib prison,” The Intercept, 25 August 2016

xxvii Roger Boyes – “If the US-China tango is out of step we will all pay the price,” The Times, 30 November 2018

xxviii Millward, op. cit. Millward cites “China bans Muslims from fasting Ramadan in Xinjiang,” Al Jazeera, 18 June 2015; Simon Denyer – “China orders Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol, cigarettes, to ‘weaken’ Islam,” The Washington Post, 5 May 2015; Javier C. Hernández – “China bans ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Jihad’ as baby names in heavily Muslim region,” The New York Times, 25 April 2017

xxix Alexa Olesen – “China sees Islamic State inching closer to home,” Foreign Policy, 11 August 2014

xxx Gerry Shih – “AP exclusive: China’s Uighurs work to fend off pull of jihad,” The Associated Press, 29 December 2017

xxxi Aki Peritz – “The great Iraqi jail break,” Foreign Policy, 26 June 2014

xxxii Bill Roggio – “Al Qaeda in Iraq claims nationwide attacks that killed more than 100 Iraqis,” Long War Journal, 25 July 2012

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