China once attempted to create a Chinese utopia, where people would be able to fully enjoy the fruits of rapid economic and social development. This revolutionary “Great Leap Forward” movement (1958-1963) followed by another cultural revolution (1966-1976) quickly became a “Great Leap Backward,” as the government’s failure to aptly respond to rising issues such as mass violence and famine, plunged the country into chaos. Chinese citizens were silenced, fearing the label “counter-revolutionary”, which has led millions to be humiliated, tortured, and executed. Today, China is taking another Great Leap Backward as its oppression of the Uyghurs continues, in the name of counterterrorism. While the international community criticizes China for its massive human rights violations, China claims its actions are like any other counterterrorism policies in the West, just more effective.
Today, over a million Uyghurs are locked up in camps that the Chinese government claims are “vocational education and training centers.” The international community calls them concentration camps. However, China claims they are helping the Uyghurs assimilate into Chinese culture and find jobs upon release. The international community calls China’s actions human rights abuses. In the midst of such conflicting claims, China stands alone in its sense of righteousness. To address the issue, China should cooperate with the UN and international organizations on fair resource distribution and economic development policies for the Uyghurs, as well as address terrorism and information transparency issues. This approach will allow China to gain the support and legitimacy it seeks from the international community, while effectively and appropriately addressing national security concerns.
China should start by collaborating with international organizations on resource distribution. Initially, the Chinese government’s take on dealing with the Xinjiang riots was to harshly suppress them and spur economic development. Over the past 70 years, Xinjiang’s vast reserve of mineral wealth and China’s central government’s investment of billions of dollars’ has resulted in the achievement of an average annual growth rate of 8.3 percent for the region. However, the main beneficiaries of this development have been Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang. Economic opportunities failed to trickle down to the Uyghurs. Instead of reassessing and reducing the wide wealth gap to mitigate conflict between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese population, China chose the mass detention of Uyghurs in response to protests. This, of course, only exacerbates resentment amongst the Uyghurs. Conflict will continue.
In addition, China should also allow international organizations to release official reports on the Uyghur conflict. China’s failure to disclose information diminishes the credibility of its claim that the training camps are merely part of terrorism prevention measures. Precise information on Xinjiang, the Uyghurs, and especially the camps, is hard to obtain due to China’s censorship of the media. If China truly has nothing to hide, then it should not have a problem with allowing international organizations to release unaltered official records and assessments of the situation. China will also be held accountable for its actions.
Finally, China needs to cooperate with international organizations that can provide guidance on developing its anti-terror law. China’s anti-terror law refers to the “three evil forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. Its broad and controversial definition of extremism allows the government to justify harsh actions against the Uyghurs. The law gives the government leeway to intervene and manipulate the Uyghur culture, customs, and even the thoughts of the local people, under the guise of anti-terror measures. With the involvement of international organizations, China can develop a proper counterterrorism law, differentiating between their idea of counterterrorism measures and the reality of mass human rights abuses.
Whenever China is accused of human rights violations, it brings out its sovereignty card. However, the country needs to realize that the sovereignty it so adores, also comes with the responsibility to protect its citizens. If China wishes to keep the Uyghurs as a part of China, then it needs to start addressing their issues through a framework that respects human rights and reflects the shared nature of threat with the international community, instead of mass imprisonment and forced assimilation.
China needs to rethink its approach to counterterrorism. With the help of international organizations, China can fairly distribute resources, enhance information transparency, and develop a proper anti-terror law. By cooperating with international organizations, China will be able to address human rights violations appropriately and resolve the ongoing conflict and criticisms it receives from the international community.
Joohyun Park is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in Security and Development. She holds a B.A. in Sociology and International Studies from Hanyang University, South Korea.