A Chinese ‘re-education’

January 13, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

IN an interview with a Turkish television channel, Prime Minister Imran Khan completely sidestepped a question about the condition of Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province. He admitted that he knew little about the issue, and, instead, preferred to focus on and highlight Chinese financial assistance and investment in Pakistan.

China is under stiff criticism for its alleged persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, especially Uighur Muslims. Freedom House’s 2018 country report on China classified it as ‘religiously-not-free’ on its freedom index. China is seriously concerned about this growing perception that hurts its efforts to promote a ‘soft image’ of China for a successful execution of its Belt and Road Initiative and other global commercial and strategic projects. Last week, China said that it welcomed UN officials to visit Xinjiang provided that they stay out of its internal affairs.

Pakistan usually avoids commenting on China’s internal affairs. But many Pakistani men, married to Chinese Uighur women, claim their spouses are being held in so-called re-education camps and are demanding their release. The issue has put Pakistan in a difficult position, mainly due to China’s huge investment in the country, as well as the extreme sensitivity of Chinese authorities to discussions on the subject.

Mystery continues to shroud the nature of the camps in Xinjiang.

Mystery continues to shroud China’s re-education camps, with authorities least interested in opening them up to independent observers. However, Chinese scholars claim that they are a part of the country’s countering violent extremism strategy, which was not built in isolation from rest of the world. They assert that China has designed its re-education strategy after carefully examining CVE approaches in practice in the West and Muslim world, which also employ similar community engagement programmes. Though they tend to justify their muscular approach by quoting examples from the Gulf, and South and Southeast Asian Muslim nations, the Chinese CVE strategy still appears highly politicised and opaque to Western practitioners and policymakers.

Much of the information about China’s re-education centres comes from West. Though the criticism has forced Chinese authorities to ‘release’ some information, it is insufficient to make a proper assessment. Last year, a state-run news agency published an interview of Shohrat Zakir, the Xinjiang governor, describing the camps as “professional vocational training institutions” for people influenced by terrorism and extremism who have not committed an offence warranting criminal punishment.

Similarly, in a seminar in China last November, local scholars explained China’s CVE approaches. Alluding to diverse and disparate CVE practices in different countries, they tended to conclude that no uniform or global CVE programme exists. One Chinese scholar presented a four-layered model based on the four principles of breaking, establishing, preventing and developing. ‘Breaking’ referred to isolating individuals from an extremist environment; ‘establishing’ meant introducing them to the true spiritual values of religion; ‘preventing’ was seen as educating; and ‘developing’ was interpreted as a skill development programme.

However, one of the best works available on the subject of China’s CVE strategy is by Zunyou Zhou, a Germany-based Chinese scholar. In a paper published in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence in 2017, he noted that the Chinese CVE strategy is based on multiple approaches and, interestingly, that they consulted Western CVE and deradicalisation approaches extensively and then built their own, more muscular model. The approaches include ‘five keys’, ‘four prongs’, ‘three contingents’, ‘two hands’ and ‘one rule’. Viewed together, these approaches point to legal, religious, cultural, ideological, and scientific aspects of the deradicalisation effort, implemented by governmental agencies, public institutions and non-governmental organisations in the region.

The Xinjiang government has developed several programmes to target different groups of people, including those who are ‘radicalised’ as well as those who are not but considered vulnerable to recruitment. The ‘five keys’ — ideological, cultural, customary, religious and legal — give a long-sustaining solution to terrorism. The ‘four prongs’ refer to a combination of four methods: ‘squeezing by correct faith’; ‘counteracting by culture’; ‘controlling by law’; and ‘popularising science’. ‘Squeezing by correct faith’ refers to clarifying people’s understanding of Islam while ‘counteracting by culture’ means seeking effective and practical solutions to thwart extremism and guiding people towards secularisation and modernisation. The ‘three contingents’ refer to the policy of reinforcing three main groups of people the government can count on to maintain stability and security. The ‘two hands’ refer to the one ‘firm hand’ that cracks down on terrorists, and the other ‘firm hand’ that educates and guides Uighur people, and the ‘one rule’ means the policy of ruling Xinjiang according to the law.

The author also provides historical background on the evolution of the Chinese CVE strategy and mentions that it materialised in a policy document entitled Several Guiding Opinions on Further Suppressing Illegal Religious Activities and Combating the Infiltration of Religious Extremism in Accordance with Law, issued by Xinjiang’s CCP Committee in May 2013. The policy document was also referred to as ‘No. 11 Document’, and described the borders between ethnic customs, normal religious practices and extremist manifestations.

For the CVE strategy’s smooth implementation, the Xinjiang authorities have introduced new legal regimes, and the latest amendment (titled ‘Regulation on Anti-Extremism’) was introduced in April 2017 to ban a wide range of extremist behaviours. Under the new legal framework, authorities have launched many programmes including deradicalisation for prisoners, and social programmes for those who have engaged in terrorism or extremism but do not deserve criminal punishment.

The re-education camps — or ‘rehabilitation centres’ — have been created as a part of China’s social programming. These centres run through civil society groups in Xinjiang or through ‘Fang Hui Ju’ working groups, dispatched by the regional government, comprising practitioners tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the people.

For CVE practitioners, the Chinese model may have a lot of substance to learn from. But the Uighur problem is more complex than religious extremism, as it has added dimensions of ethnic, cultural and political rights. For Pakistan, the Chinese CVE model offers nothing to learn from except to find a way of resolving the issue of Pakistani citizens’ spouses held in these camps.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2019