A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.
The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.
The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.
The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.
Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.
China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.
The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.
The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.
Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan
China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets
China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.
The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.
Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.
The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.
Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.
The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”
A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”
The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”
The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.
At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.
Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.
The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.
A review of popular unrest in China in light of the ongoing anti-lockdown protests
Late 1970s saw the Chinese people standing up to exercise their right to dissent for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic, coinciding with the end of the Mao era. Here, I touch upon some of the iconic protests that China witnessed in the past five decades.
The ongoing popular protests in mainland China against the Xi Jinping-led party-state’s harsh “zero-Covid” policy, entailing strict lockdown measures, were triggered by a fire outbreak incident in an apartment building in northwestern China’s Urumqi that killed ten people and injured many. The tragedy happened on the night of 24 November 2022 as the residents were unable to escape the building, with the rescue efforts hampered due to the excessively strict lockdown policy. Tens of millions of people in mainland China are still under an extended lockdown of some kind or the other, while much of the rest of the world came back to normal.
Some Chinese workers were reportedly forced to sleep inside the factories itself, while undergoing quarantine. Previously, reports of people trying to come out of shops and factories due to fears that they could be locked inside surfaced in the media. In this backdrop, when the news of Urumqi fire incident came out, it soon struck a chord with the Chinese people, which soon acted as a catalyst for protests and demonstrations in several cities throughout the country, including in Beijing and Shanghai. Hundreds of people took to the streets, pouring out their frustration and anger against the state’s continued oppression of their freedoms under a maximalist approach to Covid response.
Contrary to expectations, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that concluded in October 2022 never announced any relaxations to the “zero-Covid” policy, despite the damages it has done to the economy. For the first time in at least three decades, the CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, who also holds the ceremonial position of the President of China, has consolidated all powers in the recent party congress, in which he eliminated all the rival factions within the party from yielding power in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the other higher ranks in the party. The “Xi faction” is now the only faction within the CCP’s higher echelons of power.
Déjà vu 1976
Democratic protests seem to be a far-fetched dream in a communist one-party authoritarian state like China. However, the country do have a history of protests, particularly following the dictatorial Mao era (1949-76), when people were given the freedom to express themselves during the “reform and opening-up period” that began in 1978 under the new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who openly denounced Mao’s hardline policies, which curtailed civil rights of the people and pushed millions into starvation and poverty, resulting from disastrous movements such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It is estimated that during this period, about 65 million Chinese people lost their lives by execution, imprisonment or human-made famines.
Thirteen years before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre happened, there was another mass gathering of Chinese people in the same place, in April 1976, that was triggered by the death of the widely-popular Premier Zhou Enlai, who has also served as the foreign minister of China from 1949 to 1958. Back then, the Chinese people protested for their right to mourn their much-loved leader as the CCP placed limits on public mourning. People gathered at the Square, coinciding with the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day (Qingming Festival) and protested the actions of Mao’s team of protégés known as the “Gang of Four”, who ordered the place to be cleared. This was probably the first instance of mass protests in mainland China since 1949 as the Mao era drew closer to its end.
With the heralding of the Deng Xiaoping-era, shortly following a power struggle with Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng at the third plenum of the 11th CCP Central Committee in December 1978, some amount of toleration of political dissent and political expression were allowed, in what came to be known as the “Democracy Wall Movement” or the “Beijing Spring”. But, it lasted only for a year. This was also the time of rapprochement with the United States, which saw the opening of formal diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic for the first time. Washington recognized Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, at the cost of Taipei. Shortly after this, Deng Xiaoping became the first paramount leader of mainland China to visit the U.S. in January 1979.
Despite these happenings in the diplomatic stage, the CCP continued to remain autocratic at home. The 1980s witnessed the beginning of China’s transformation into a modern industrial powerhouse as private corporations and foreign investments flooded into the country. With the socioeconomic transformation underway and the higher exposure to new ideas of living, the Chinese people started demanding more political freedoms. Hu Yaobang, one of the most trusted lieutenants of Deng, had overseen much of the changes that happened in China in the 1980s in his capacity as CCP General Secretary. He passed away in 1989, two years after he was stripped of power by the party hardliners.
Tiananmen turns bloody
Like Zhou Enlai, Hu was also a widely respected and loved leader in China. Tens of thousands of people gathered at his funeral venue in April 1989 and called for greater political freedoms, mostly youngsters and students. In the weeks that followed, protesters reached Tiananmen Square again. The CCP officials initially had differing views on how to deal with the escalating protests, but only a few maintained a liberal outlook. The hardliners ultimately prevailed over the others in party deliberations. It was also the time the Soviet Union was beginning to disintegrate and China was patching up its ties with the crumbling superpower.
The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in Beijing, in May 1989, while the student protests were still underway. This was the first engagement between the two countries since the onset of the “Sino-Soviet split” in the 1950s. Martial law was declared in Beijing later that month. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to clear off the protesters. The first of week of June 1989 saw the PLA tanks and troops marching on the roads of Beijing, finally reaching Tiananmen Square, where they opened fire on peaceful, unarmed protesters and brutally crushed the protests.
Hundreds of Chinese civilians, mostly university students, were killed in the military action, inviting international condemnation of the CCP regime, which continues to erase this dark episode from the public memory. Commemorations of this incident is not allowed in the mainland, while Hong Kong used to do so until 2020-21, when Beijing hijacked the city’s security apparatus by opening a national security office there, which made sure that Tiananmen vigils remained banned in Hong Kong as well.
The purge of Falun Gong
The 1990s saw the rise of a new spiritual movement in China called the Falun Gong, rooted in the traditional practice of Qigong that combines meditation, slow physical movements, and regulated breathing exercises. Having endorsed atheism as state ideology, the CCP under Jiang Zemin perceived the rise of this movement as a threat as it never aligned itself with the official party line. By the end of the decade, China has about seventy million Falun Gong practitioners. Famous China scholar David Ownby mentions in his 2008 book “Falun Gong and the Future of China” that the group has been engaged in about 300 protests and demonstrations between 1996 and 1999.
In April, protests escalated initially in Tianjin and later spread to Beijing’s central administrative area where the CCP and the Chinese State Council were headquartered. This is often cited as the beginning of the end of the movement in China as the CCP started a series of propaganda campaign, chiefly led by the Ministry of Public Security, against its practitioners, which in some cases entailed the use of excessive force including arbitrary arrests, forced labor and physical torture, and at times resulting in deaths, according to a 2000 report by Amnesty International. However, Falun Gong continues to survive among the Chinese diaspora in North America, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
The killing of Hong Kong’s democracy
Hong Kong is one of the two special administrative regions (SAR) of China, along with Macau, with a history of living under a democratic system. In 2014, Hong Kongers protested an attempt by Beijing to dilute the democratic procedure to elect the city’s Chief Executive by introducing a new mandatory pre-screening of candidates. This was aimed at jeopardizing the “one country, two systems” principle and to install a pro-CCP regime in the city, where polls were scheduled to take place three years later. The protesters occupied the city for 79 days, bringing it to a standstill. This came to be known as the “Umbrella Movement” as they used umbrellas to protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas used by the police.
Five years later, in 2019, Hong Kongers took to the streets again when the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong tried to introduce an extradition bill that would have allowed the handover of crime suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, which could end up in arbitrary detention and unfair trials. This led to series of demonstrations with several instances of violence. Even though the bill was eventually suspended, the protesters numbering in tens of thousands, continued to raise a new set of demands for democracy, thereby spiraling into a broader movement that led to Beijing upping the ante on its crackdown on dissent in the city. Beijing termed the protesters as ‘separatists’ and introduced a new national security law in 2020 that effectively jeopardized the city’s autonomy, in what was dubbed as the Hong Kong’s worst crisis since 1997, the year in which the city’s sovereignty was transferred back to China from the UK.
Oher than the aforementioned instances, China has also witnessed various other protests in the past, but most of them were sporadic in nature, relating to corruption, forced evictions of people for development projects, labour strikes, environmental degradation and so on. With the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, having the firmest grip on power since Mao Zedong, Chinese democratic aspirations appear to be doomed in the foreseeable future.
Unmasked by Qatar World Cup, China’s Nationalism Is Transforming Itself to Internationalism
Perhaps for many Chinese, the proudest moment during Qatar World Cup 2022 was not when Ma Ning made his World Cup debut as a FIFA listed referee, but was when Japan came from behind in stunning win against Germany – a seismic shock to tell the world that an Asian team could actually defeat a powerful European one.
Dubbed as the “Light of Asia”, Japan’s victory gave Chinese soccer fans vicarious thrills. If anything, it is reminiscent of China’s painstaking resistance to imperialism and colonialism in its modern history – a period of fighting to rid itself of the Western-imposed insult “Sick Man of Asia”. On top of a flurry of praise for Japan, reflections are sparked on why Japan and other Asian football teams are making strides while Chinese team is mired in a tailspin. All of a sudden, so many political fanatics in China – those who feed on nationalism and the so-called “Chinese Dream” – have made an about-face and started to join the witch-hunt of Chinese football quagmire.
“When the gap between ideal and reality is too large, people can’t help but ask why the difference is so big.” The comment posted by one Chinese netizen captures the crux of the issue represented by Chinese football. For decades, China has been dreaming about becoming a football superpower, which is often bantered as an easy task of “picking 11 players out of its 1.4 population”. That dream, however, is crushed over and over again by China’s repeated World Cup elimination since 2002 to an extent which even President Xi Jinping’s passion about football has failed to galvanize the sluggish Chinese football. Flaring nationalism may help cook up a fairy tale of a forthcoming powerful football team, but it cannot belie the fact that China is nowhere near there.
Unmasked by Japan’s performance during Qatar World Cup, the reality that many Chinese can no longer shy away from is that China’s football dream is ill-founded, as is its superpower dream. They realize that when football fans from all over the world assemble in Qatar to celebrate the once-every-four-year carnival, their quarantine life is entering the fourth year. They find out that while workers in western countries can strike for a higher pay without the fear of being arrested, they can only choose to be passive aggressive through quiet quitting. The rise of China gave them the rise of work time but not the rise of pay, and the nationalism fed them with illusion instead of promotion. It does not take a genius to figure out that something went wrong with the once-exalted China model.
Blatant humiliations of western countries that were once dominating Chinese social media was taken down a notch this year, not by the government, but by Chinese people themselves. The rhetoric used by the Chinese government to pump up nationalism – “East is rising and West declining” – is being supplanted by the burgeoning “run philosophy”, a jargon for disillusioned Chinese longing to emigrate. As the Chinese government has strengthened internet censorship to a level which is almost on par with the Cultural Revolution standard, discussions on news deemed as having negative impacts on the stability of the society are largely forbidden. Ironically, that has provoked more Chinese people to rethink the freedom of speech, especially after many of them had the first-hand experiences of various forms of inhumane treatments inflicted on by the zero-Covid policy.
“Now it looks like BBC was not exaggerating. Instead, it was actually being reserved.” Sarcastic comments as such appear more frequently under videos implicitly unveiling the dark underbelly of China, ranging from the chained woman to bank customers beaten up by an unidentified mob to the bus crash killing 27 people who were forced to be transported to a Covid quarantine facility. The incessant government-led tragedies and repressions have made more people realize that western media such as BBC, once intentionally demonized by the Chinese government, is an outlet they are now in desperate need of.
Caught between the endless nationalist frenzy and the grimmer reality, more Chinese people are recalibrating their lives in accordance with the international standard. They begin to realize that they are exposed to issues of human rights more closely than they ever thought. Due to their quarantine experiences, they can relate to Uyghurs incarcerated in “education camps”. Because of their desperation for food, they can feel the hopelessness felt by those migrant workers who were brutally evicted in that bitter winter. “Even prisoners of war are treated better under Geneva Convention!” Exclamations as such highlight the ongoing transition from hollow nationalism to humanistic internationalism in the Chinese society.
The Chinese government seems to forget the old Chinese wisdom that “things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme.” The higher nationalism rises, the harder it eventually falls. It was true for Germany, Italy, and Japan during the WWII and all the other governments attempting to exploit nationalism in history. China’s veneer of the “Great Wall of Steel” buttressed by the top-down nationalism is faltering and the bottom-up internationalism is spreading. The Chinese government may never know why their grand strategy of nationalism would ultimately fail, just as they never know that Japan has spent decades preparing for their victory over Germany.
China’s Manifestation of Geoeconomics & BRI
China in an unprecedented space of time has emerged as the second largest economy in the world and is exerting a form of ‘geoeconomics’ influence that is transforming the nature of international relations in the 21st century. Through this remarkable achievement, China has enticed so much attention in the world and international actors are curious about what Chinese leadership intends to do with its growing power and economic leverage.
China’s Belt & Road Initiative is one of the key manifestations of China’s goal to re-establish the fabled ‘Silk Route’ which historically had an important expression in China’s long-standing economic significance in Asia. In the context of long-run economic restructuring, an expanding material geoeconomics influence, and the development of a more self-confident and externally oriented policy agenda, it is no coincidence, that China’s leaders, especially Xi Jinping, have been talking about this possibility which potentially incorporates direct and indirect sources of influence.
BRI is a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program and a global initiative aimed at infrastructure development and acceleration of the economic integration of countries along the historic Silk Road with a prime focus on Asia, Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East- a region of great significance in terms of emerging markets. The Belt Road Initiative was unveiled by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013 and was initially known as One Belt One Road till 2016. According to the official data, as of March 2022, 146 countries and 32 international organizations have taken part in the Initiative through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), representing more than a third of the world`s GDP and two-thirds of the world`s population altogether.
BRI was officially launched to achieve five major goals including policy coordination, infrastructure, trade, financial integration, and people-to-people cooperation. China, via the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, is developing an inclusive, mutually open, balanced, and valuable economic cooperation framework aimed at regional integration and connectivity. In the early years of the BRI, eight whimsical trade routes were central to Beijing’s ambitions of trade connectivity: six land-based economic corridors encompassing the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and two maritime trade routes containing the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. The Chinese government departments: National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) laid the action plans for these trade routes of BRI in 2015, in the “Vision and Actions” agenda.
The two principal aspects of the BRI constitute the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR). MSR is designed primarily to effectively link and integrate the maritime states of Southeast and South Asia in particular whereas, SREB, on contrary, intends to re-establish and modernize traditional overland connections with Central and South Asia, connecting them to both China itself and ultimately to Europe. BRI combines new and old projects, covers an extensive geographic scope, and includes efforts to strengthen hard and soft infrastructure, and cultural ties. It envisages an integrated network of ports, railways, and roads, a development that will help consolidate China’s place at the center of economic activity across much of Asia and Europe.
The initial stimulus for BRI was provided by the economic downturn in the face of the Global Financial crisis of 2008 in the West that provided China with a huge opportunity to come to the front and play a leading role in global economic development by bringing more countries into its economic orbit. Therefore, since BRI’s launch in 2013, it has been serving Beijing’s geopolitical and geoeconomic objectives by expanding China’s influence around the globe. In its early years, Beijing sought to simply strengthen its ties with the governments abroad and gain a foothold as one of their key economic partner using the strategy of offering loans, investments, and summitry while avoiding confrontation with the US. Thus, China engaged diplomatically with the countries where the US was less-invested politically such as countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa and the economic corridors situated at the heart of BRI mainly traverse these regions. The economic corridor of Pakistan serves as the best example, signifying this approach of Beijing.
CPEC, the principal BRI in Pakistan, a mega project worth billions of dollars is not only an economic corridor or transit route for the Chinese market but includes infrastructure and energy projects, construction of modern transportation networks, industrialization, and the improvement of Gwadar Port which is the most operational port regarding oil and gas shipping lanes. Moreover, there is a range of proposed special economic zones that runs about 2700 km along the route from Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, through central Pakistan to Gwadar port on Pakistan’s southwest coast, with these projects mainly focused on boosting the economic performance of Pakistan making the country a regional economic hub.
Rationally speaking, BRI has the full potential to achieve considerable economic and political gains for China and many of them have been explicitly acknowledged in China’s official policy communique, for example, the expansion of China’s export markets, the reduction of trade frictions such as tariffs and transportation costs and the promotion of the Renminbi (RMB) as an international currency. China’s growing economic stature has enabled it to transit from a grand strategy that merely sought its economic goals to one that benefits it to leverage its growing economic power in achieving unreachable foreign policy goals.
China’s economic rise has also given China’s leaders generally, and Xi, in particular, much greater potential agency. Chinese leaders are keen to use it to restore their former dominant status at the forefront of international diplomacy and great power politics and especially in its region which is widely supported by both the leadership of the PRC and by the population more generally. It cannot be denied that China’s enhanced geo-economic influence and rising power are giving it an upper hand to pursue these ambitions much more rapidly that had hardly been possible a decade ago or two.
Though predictable implications and consequences of BRI cannot be fully judged its possible trajectory is already becoming clear. China has both the state capacity and the practical experience in making such a project a reality. It has both the material resource and the key agencies, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC), that have developed detailed plans for the successful implementation of specific aspects of the BRI. It is therefore important to emphasize that despite the shift to a more market-oriented economy, Beijing and its developmental agencies continues to play a major role in the overall coordination of economic development while projecting soft power in the form of geoeconomics.
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