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Oct 12, 2018 | 10:30 GMT

6 mins read

China Risks a Backlash to Secure a Western Buffer

This April 19, 2015, photo shows Uighur men gathering for afternoon prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang. China's crackdown on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang could result in U.S. sanctions.
(GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Big Picture

In recent years, China has intensified its security crackdown on Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in Xinjiang as part of its efforts to control the strategic region, but the move has drawn international criticism. Now, the United States is weighing whether to impose human right sanctions as part of its campaign against China.

International criticism is growing against China over its crackdown on Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in the western province of Xinjiang — and now there are rumblings that Washington could impose targeted sanctions against Beijing as peer competition grows. The White House reportedly is considering all its options to increase pressure on China, including sanctions on human rights grounds that could cause wider international ramifications.

What Happened

China has responded to the global criticism by seeking to justify its actions, which primarily target the Turkic Uighur minority and are almost certain to lead to a wider backlash, both internationally and among the Uighurs. On Oct. 7, Xinjiang's government revised local legislation on "de-extremefication." The law, designed to restrict radical religious ideology and "extreme elements," called for the promotion of scientific knowledge, education and the national language, Mandarin, as well as resistance against "extreme" thinking and practices. Xinjiang's government has also legalized the use of "vocational training centers" to "educate and transform" people who have been influenced by extremism — effectively acknowledging the network of such centers after long denying their existence.

Following massive, Uighur-Han riots in Xinjiang in July 2009 and a series of terrorist attacks in Beijing and Yunnan, Chinese authorities initiated a heavy security crackdown, imposed greater censorship over the internet and increased their scrutiny of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims. Since 2014, officials in Xinjiang also have banned men from growing beards and both men and women from donning Islamic garb, in addition to shuttering mosques and imposing greater Mandarin usage among the population. But the crackdown has apparently reached a new level over the past three years, as authorities led by Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo have taken a hard-line approach in attempting to impose control over the resource-rich border region. As many as 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims, such as the Hui and Kazakhs, have been detained or subjected to political reeducation since 2009.

The Stakes for Beijing

For Beijing, the possibility that battle-hardened Uighur militants could return from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq through Central Asia underscores an acute security threat amid the expansion of terrorism and the refugee crisis elsewhere in the world. At the same time, China's struggle to control Xinjiang, along with Tibet, underscores Beijing's historical obsession with creating, expanding and ruling buffer regions to secure a unified and centralized regime. Because of Xinjiang's long history of autonomy and its complicated relations with central Chinese authority far to the east, Beijing views the region as a vulnerability, particularly if its populace pushes for separatism or if a foreign power makes inroads in the region, as the Soviet Union did in the 20th century. And at a time when China sees that the United States is trying to contain it in the Pacific and challenge its export-oriented coastal economies, Xinjiang's significance is only likely to increase for Beijing as it pushes for overland access to Eurasia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative through the western territory.

Beijing sees an iron-fisted approach that has often blurred the boundary between extremism and religion as the only way to solve its problems and strengthen its control over Xinjiang.

Beijing's security crackdown — alongside the consequences of years of resource exploitation and a failure to adequately manage ethnic tensions — has angered locals who feel that authorities have excluded them from the country's economic gains and discriminated against them on an ethnic basis. The government, however, sees an iron-fisted approach that has often blurred the boundary between extremism and religion as the only way to solve its problems and strengthen its control over the restive region. As part of the approach, Chinese authorities reportedly have detained large numbers of Uighurs, sending many to reeducation centers as part of what appears to be an accelerated campaign to implement greater ethnic and cultural assimilation. In addition to the reeducation camps, Beijing reportedly has resettled large numbers of people from largely Uighur southern Xinjiang in the Han-dominated north or sent Uighurs from other regions of Xinjiang to northeast China or elsewhere — a step up from past practices, in which Beijing relied on province-to-province labor contracts or small-scale population transfers between Xinjiang and other provinces to dilute ethnic populations in Xinjiang.

What's Next

The United States and the European Union have ramped up pressure on China over the harsh security measures, while the issue could eventually become a bone of contention between Beijing and Muslim-majority states. At present, Beijing appears to have no qualms about invoking a backlash — whether local or international — over what it views as an internal issue, but the matter could grow if Washington raises the stakes by imposing sanctions.

Looking Ahead

Sanctions related to human rights typically focus on individuals and corporate entities accused of facilitating crackdowns, but the current White House could push the limits of executive action to widen the target before imposing any formal sanctions.

  • The U.S. Congress is currently considering sanctions against Chinese officials such as Xinjiang Party leader Chen Quanguo. The list could also include other political officials or business executives whose companies are active in Xinjiang, such as state-owned energy firms, or which are involved in surveillance.
  • The United States could target Chinese and U.S. tech companies that have contracts with Chinese state security for products like surveillance equipment.
  • Other options could include measures against certain Chinese companies active in Xinjiang that would prohibit them from doing business with U.S. companies or using U.S. financial institutions.
  • Washington could exert greater control over the export of U.S. technologies that are linked to surveillance technologies in use in Xinjiang.
  • The U.S. Congress recently passed a bipartisan bill that seeks to impose a visa ban on Chinese officials who deny American citizens, government officials and journalists access to Tibet. And if the United States were to expand its human rights sanctions to other parts of China, it could target companies involved in strategic materials like rare earth elements.
  • Stratfor is tracking the responses of important Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia, to see how the issue factors into their respective relationships with China.

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