Photo: miyake juin, flickr.com
Scepticism has been raised regarding the Chinese government’s justifications for the mass incarceration of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, a north-western region in China. Since 2014, over one-million Uyghurs have been arrested under terrorism allegations. However, Xinjiang’s abundance of natural resources and strategic geopolitical position should be analysed as possible ulterior motives for the Uyghur prosecution.
Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government has classified the Xinjiang Region in north-western China a terrorist zone, owing primarily to its substantial Muslim Uyghur population. This decision came after Muslim Uyghurs violently protested in 2009 in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi. The underlying cause of the riots was rising discontent over the mass migration of Han Chinese into the region – a circumstance both enabled and promoted by the central government in forcefully assimilating the local inhabitants. This decision, in turn, resulted in the increasing economic and cultural marginalisation of the Uyghur peoples.
The rise of the Global War on Terror since 9/11 has provided the Chinese government the impetus to detain and dilute its Muslim population under the guise of eradicating “separatism, religious extremism, and international terrorism”. Under Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary, approximately 1,200 detentions camps were built between 2014 to 2018, which have detained over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Continuous denial over the existence of the camps by the Chinese government has placed into question Beijing’s future designs for control over Xinjiang, and its persecution of the Uyghur population.
Securitisation, in the world of international relations, is a political tool used to classify matters into security issues, allowing influential actors to concentrate and exert extraordinary amounts of power under the claim of promoting security. In the case of the Uyghur persecution, securitisation can be seen through the Beijing’s declared “war on terror” in 2017 – labelling any expression and practice of Islam as ‘terrorism’ – which led to increased ‘de-extremification’ campaigns to deradicalise Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This classification of Muslim Uyghurs as ‘terrorists’ enabled the government to construct detention camps under the guise of legitimate anti-terrorism measures. However, the security discourse surrounding the Uyghur peoples is not solely motivated by social security, but also by political and economic factors.
The province of Xinjiang comprises over a one-sixth of China’s territory, and is bordered by eight countries – including India, Russia, Kazakhstan and Pakistan – which are geographically and politically influential actors. Furthermore, Xinjiang produces between 25% and 40% of China’s natural resources. These factors must be taken into consideration as possible ulterior motives for Beijing’s control over the region.
Xinjiang provides China with 40% of its coal, 20% of its petroleum, and 30% of its gas – making it one of the most productive regions in China. However, Xinjiang has not always been China’s historical ‘cash cow’, with the region having continuously sought independence as an East Turkestan State since its annexation in the 18th century. This political turmoil has set the stage for what many scholars consider a ‘natural resource curse’. Proposed by researcher Hossein Mahdavy, the theory claims that resource abundance correlates to a lack of democracy and economic instability. Examples of countries rich in resources but suffering political and economic consequences are Saudi Arabia, Russia and Nigeria.
Conversely, scholars who refute this theory claim that resource abundance promotes an increased level of democracy, an outcome observed in Norway. What is worth noting from both views is that although resource abundance plays a significant role in political motives, it is a country’s social, political and economic consolidation that ultimately influences its outcome. In respect to Xinjiang, its political instability since annexation – due to ethnic differences – has resulted in the need of the central government to strengthen its hold over the region. This has resulted in Beijing’s securitisation of the region, deeming it as ‘unstable’ and in need of excessive control. This was initially expressed through the state-incentivised mass migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, later through the expropriation of Uyghur businesses, and finally in the construction of detention camps.
Furthermore, existing infrastructure plays a significant role in Beijing’s continued control over the region. This is because the world’s longest natural pipeline, the West-East Pipeline (WEPP), originates in Xinjiang and connects China’s Eastern domestic markets to the Yangtze and Pearl Delta regions. Transporting over 30 billion cubic metres of gas a year, the WEPP is a significant economic and energy security factor in China’s continued control over the region. Further, where Xinjiang provides China with an annual 170 billion RMB in GDP and 40% of its resources, such exists as an additional possible motive for political control. Additionally, Xinjiang’s abundance in natural resources may not be the only motives behind Beijing’s domination in the region, as the geographical location of the province provides a key strategic location from which China may project its influence into central Asia.
As outlined, the province of Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries. The region has been a vital buffer zone in central Asia for China since the 18th century, and an essential trade route for international commerce through the Silk Road. While the relevance of the Silk Road was diminished following the advent of maritime sea routes and trade, China’s present lack of a blue-water navy has contributed to a continued emphasis on land-based infrastructure as its primary means of hard power projection.
Announced in 2013, the Silk Road Economic Belt has resurrected China’s dominant role in the international economy, with its intensified emphasis on the joint development of land and maritime routes with international partners having bolstered Beijing’s s geopolitical influence. As a portion of the Belt runs through Xinjiang into central Asia, Beijing’s control over the province is a crucial factor in the Belt’s success.
While the Economic Belt initiative has succeeded in branching into 76 countries, it is not solely its economic aspects that interest Beijing. The reopening of channels between China and the West have played a central role in strengthening trading ties between its China and its neighbours, while also rebalancing the US’ hegemonic dominance as the world’s sole superpower since the end of the Cold War.
In the context of the escalating trade war between the US and China, a continuing firm hold on Xinjiang by Beijing represents a geopolitical power play, highlighting Beijing’s confidence and capacity to simultaneously juggle both domestic and international affairs. Amid all this, the Uyghur peoples have suffered from unjustified measures of political exploitation and human right violations at the expense of China’s greater geopolitical and economic interests.
The assorted factors surrounding Beijing’s continued interest and control over Xinjiang leave us with numerous questions. Has China’s persecution of the Uyghur peoples been an unintended side effect of Beijing’s counter-terrorism initiatives, in the interest of national security? If so, has the use of force been proportional and legitimate? Or has China’s persecution of Uyghurs been conducted as a means of maintaining control over Xinjiang’s natural resources and strategic location in central Asia?
Internationally, public outcry over the plight suffered by the Uyghur peoples has been downplayed, owing to China’s economic position and influence vis-à-vis other major economic powers. States in business or political alliances with China have applied insufficient diplomatic pressure concerning the Uyghur issue, seeking to maintain favourable positions and avoid economic repercussions from Beijing. This unsavoury situation places the priorities of global actors and their devotion to human rights into doubt, while raising the question of how the international community can collectively counter China’s influence and control.
Emma is a final year university student at UNSW studying International Relations and Politics. Her honours degree thesis will centre around contemporary religious terrorism in the Middle East. She hopes to have a career in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade one day.