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The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.

The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15  percent of its proven oil reserves, 22  per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.

Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.

The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”

Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.

Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was ‘following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.

Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Hong Kong: No more China’s disheartened capitalism, please

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Hong Kong’s unrest started in June 2019. It was triggered by the plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Critics felt this could compromise judicial autonomy and jeopardise free-speech legacy.

Until 1997, Hong Kong was under the British rule as an overseas territory (effectively a colony), but then returned under the mainland China jurisdiction. Under the Deng’s “one country, two systems” arrangement, it has considerable autonomy, and Hongkongers (Mandarin: 香港人) enjoy comparatively more civic rights.

The controversial bill was finally withdrawn in September 2019. Under the slogan ‘too little too late’, the demonstrations continued, growing even larger. Protesters now demand full democracy and an independent inquiry into police actions.

Lately, clashes between police and activists have turned worryingly violent; police firing rubber bullets and occasionally even live rounds, while protesters counter-attacking officers by throwing stones and petrol bombs.

Generational and Class struggle is back?

What still remains rather underreported are social and generational dimensions of the protests. Hence, it indeed feels to comment on some distorting interpretations and oversimplified views.

As an illustration, one can take reporting such as James A. Dorn’s columns (eg. “If protesters want to protect Hong Kong’s way of life, they must win the war of ideas”). This author is cited as a China specialist. Essentially, he is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank similar to The Heritage Foundation, which often declares Hong Kong the “world’s freest economy”, even though Hong Kong’s working class endures horrid living conditions here.

Authors like him allude to a “war of ideas” and do criticise socialism with Chinese characteristics, even though China has made tremendous economic progress and enjoyed political stability. One wonders why such views and opinions about Hong Kong or China should be considered or adopted.

China has not dictated how the US or other Western countries should run their economies or political systems, nor has it solicited advice from these free market theoreticians or think tanks. China has lifted at least half a billion people out of poverty, helping to alleviate poverty globally.

Another country which has done exceptionally well and which has not subscribed to neoliberal dogma but retains strong state control of the economy and political freedom is Singapore.

Hong Kong’s main problem is that the sacrosanct free market has become a political excuse for government non-interference, allowing tycoons and big businesses to freely game the system, gorge themselves on Hong Kong’s resources and create large wealth disparities that have contributed to our current social and political instability.

This neither alleviated the suffering of Hong Kong’s working class nor solved the housing problem. Rather it has allowed tycoons to profit. The city needs tax reform so that government revenue does not rely on land sales.

The policy of non-intervention has led to tycoons and big businesses privatising necessities like housing, health care, education and, through the Mandatory Provident Fund, retirement savings. This benefits the private sector at the expense of the public.

Driven by an unrestrained greed, someone wishing to monetise, gambles with our future. Simply, compare the Gini for Hong Kong of 1997 and of today, and see yourself.

Massive social costs to enrich few – Parasites among us

Nowhere in the world is housing as unaffordable and nowhere has it made property developers as wealthy. Allowing markets to set prices only reinforces the housing crisis, as does letting local and foreign investors buy up property despite the housing shortage. Another absurdity is calling for more free competition to break up the property cartel.

As professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic observed and compared: “… it seems that the narrative by which the ‘freedom’ obsessed and spoiled capitalist youth is fighting the big egalitarian communist apparatus is overly simplified and is, thus, short in capturing the truth… It is [what is happening last months in Hong Kong] closer to an outcry of excluded and pauperised youth – quite similar to the one on the streets of Europe, whose protests faded away years ago … [Well] educated but disfranchised youth that feels the generational warfare replaced the social welfare… The Hongkongers are not fighting against the egalitarian ideas or system. Quite to contrary, they are bitterly opposing social inequality and endemic generational exclusions. The very tomorrow of European society might be – prudently or violently – decided on the streets of Hong Kong.”

A low-tax regime mostly benefits the landlord class and big business. Hong Kong residents actually pay among the highest taxes in the world in the form of high rents and housing prices, yet they have scant social safety nets. A wealth tax and more progressive taxes should be imposed to generate government revenue, instead of relying on land sales.

Hong Kong needs the opposite of the free-market dogma, so we can have more humane living conditions and social stability. Or as a former Vice-chancellor of the Hong Kong University wonderfully captured: “Neither violence, nor Beijing, can fix City’s housing shortage and lack of a social safety net.”

Many Hongkongers have lost out due to economic changes, and many have deep-seated distrust of mainland China. The Hong Kong government must first address their social exclusions and financial insecurities, enhancing all-generational debate before it can work on fostering a sense of Chinese identity.

 From our partner International Affairs

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China struggles to fend off allegations of debt trap diplomacy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Desperate for cash, Tajikistan is about to sell yet another vital asset to China at a time that countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives are demanding renegotiation of debt settlements that either forced them to surrender control of critical infrastructure or left them with unsustainable repayments.

The pending Chinese acquisition of  a stake in Tajikistan’s aluminium smelter, coupled with earlier tax concessions to Chinese companies that would substantially reduce the trickle down effect of investments for the troubled Tajik economy, suggest that China has yet to fully take account  of frequent criticism of its commercial approach to Belt and Road-related projects.

The Washington-based Center for Global Development warned last year that “23 of 68 countries benefiting from Belt and Road (BRI) investments were “significantly or highly vulnerable to debt distress.”

The centre said eight countries — Tajikistan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, and Montenegro — were particularly at risk.

“There is…concern that debt problems will create an unfavourable degree of dependency on China as a creditor. Increasing debt, and China’s role in managing bilateral debt problems, has already exacerbated internal and bilateral tensions in some BRI countries,” the report said.

Progress on the construction of a road in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip in the east of the country that touches the Chinese border and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, may explain China’s seeming insensitivity to the concerns of beneficiaries of the People’s Republic’s largesse.

The road would link the corridor to Central Asia in the north and Pakistan’s Chinese-built Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in the south, a crown jewel in China’s infrastructure- and energy driven Belt and Road initiative.

To be sure, the road has local rather than geopolitical significance for workers building the road and the region’s shepherds as documented by anthropologists Tobias Marschall and Till Mostowlansky.

The road creates temporary employment for labourers. For shepherds, it facilitates access to mountain pastures.

For China, the stakes are geopolitical and economic.

The road would not only facilitate commerce with Central Asia as well as traffic from Gwadar but also construction of shorter pipelines as well as a fibre optic cable.

Perhaps more importantly, it would together with a military base in Tajikistan and Chinese cross border operations in the corridor itself, facilitate the movement of troops in China’s gradual projection of military power beyond its borders, particularly in regions adjacent to its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

The road’s potential military significance raises questions about the sustainability of a presumed division of labour between Russia and China under which Russia shoulders responsibility for security in Central Asia while China concentrates on economic development.

Ironically, if the examples of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan and Malaysia coupled with anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia, fuelled in part by the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, are anything to go by, China’s approach to Belt and Road-related development could turn out to be a threat to its broader geopolitical ambitions and regional security policy.

Sri Lanka recently demanded that China return control of Hambantota port.

Sri Lanka became the poster child of allegations that China was pursuing debt trap diplomacy when it two years ago surrendered to China control of the port as part of a deal to reduce the country’s debt payments.

China lent Sri Lanka US$5 billion between 2010 and 2015 for infrastructure projects that included development of Hambantota at interest rates of up to 6.3 percent.

By comparison, World Bank and Asian Development Bank rates on soft loans range from 0.25 to three percent.

“The perfect circumstance is a return to the norm. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all,” said newly appointed Sri Lankan prime minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal.

Similarly, the foreign ministry of the Maldives said earlier this month that it was seeking to restructure its Chinese debt.

“Borrowings by the previous government were unreasonable and put us in difficulty. But we can solve this mess through diplomatic means,” said foreign minister Abdulla Shahid.

Last month, former president Abdulla Yameen was jailed for five years and fined US$5 million for corruption during his term that ended late last year. Mr. Shahid’s government has accused China of land grabs during Mr. Yameen’s reign.

In a rare success, Malaysia earlier this year negotiated a one third reduction in the cost of a US$15.7 billion Belt and Road-related rail project.  In a further concession, China agreed that 70 percent of the workforce would be Malaysian and that Malaysian contractors would get 40% of the civil works.

China has repeatedly been accused of employing Chinese rather than local labour for Chinese-funded projects along the Belt and Road and importing materials from China rather than sourcing them locally.

The government of Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has been less successful than its Malaysian counterpart.

It recently bowed to Chinese pressure to revive hundreds of projects initially suspended after it came to office in 2018.

The appointment of a retired lieutenant general as head of a new authority overseeing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that groups Belt and Road-related projects reflected China’s wariness towards messy Pakistani politics and preference for dealing with the country’s military.

With Sri Lanka as the anti-thesis, analysts suggest that China is determined to make Pakistan a success story.

“The big battle at the moment is about CPEC’s reputation, and Beijing cares about salvaging that. They need to show BRI has been a success, that it hasn’t put Pakistan’s economy in trouble and that there isn’t a backlash. If they can’t do it in a context like this, it suggests that there is something flawed in the model,” said Pakistan and China scholar Andrew Small.

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Standing up to China: Czech mayor sets a high bar

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Czech mayor’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s One China policy potentially sets a high bar as Western powers grapple with how to respond to allegations of excessive use of violence by police against Hong Kong protesters and the implications of leaked documents detailing a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib rejected a sister city agreement between the Czech capital and Beijing in late October because it included a clause endorsing the One China policy, which implicitly recognizes China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.

Mr. Hrib argued that the agreement was a cultural arrangement and not designed to address foreign policy issues that were the prerogative of the national government.

The mayor’s stance has since taken on added significance against the backdrop of US President Donald J. Trump’s signing of legislation that allows for the sanctioning of Hong Kong officials, embarrassing Communist party leaks that document repression in Xinjiang, the election of a new Sri Lankan government that intends to adopt a tougher policy towards China, and simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia and beyond.

Mr. Hrib’s rejection was in fact a reflection of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Czech Republic as well as opposition to the pro-China policy adopted by Czech president Milos Zeman.

To be sure, Mr. Hrib, a 38-year old medical doctor who interned in Taiwan, was shouldering little political or economic risk given Czech public anger at China’s failure to fulfil promises of significant investment in the country.

On the contrary, Mr. Hrib, since becoming mayor in mid-2018, appears to have made it his pastime to put Mr. Zeman on the spot by poking a finger at China.

Mr. Hrib visited Taiwan in the first six months of his mayorship, flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s city hall, and rejected a request by the Chinese ambassador at a meeting with foreign diplomats to send Taiwanese representatives out of the room.

Beijing’s cancellation of a tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in response to Mr. Hrib’s provocations forced Mr. Zeman to describe the Chinese retaliation as “excessive” and his  foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, to declare that “diplomacy is not conducted with threats.”

Perhaps more importantly, M. Hrib was taking a stand based on principles and values rather than interests. In doing so, he was challenging the new normal of world leaders flagrantly ignoring international law to operate on the principle of might is right.

“Our conscience is not for sale,” said Michaela Krausova, a leading member of the governing Pirate Party of the Prague city council. Ms. Krausova and Mr. Hrib’s party was founded to shake up Czech politics with its insistence on the safeguarding of civil liberties and political accountability and transparency.

While couched in terms of principle, Mr. Hrib’s stand strokes with newly installed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intention to wrest back control from China of the island’s strategic Hambantota port that serves key shipping lanes between Europe and Asia.

Hambantota became a symbol of what some critics have charged is Chinese debt trap diplomacy after Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease because the government was unable to repay loans taken to build it.

“I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Fears of a debt trap coupled with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which targets not only Uighurs, but also groups that trace their roots to Central Asian countries, have fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

“Given that China is likely to continue to expand its presence, further irritating local publics, the temptation of opposition groups to exploit such anger will only grow. If that happens…the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place to date will be only the prelude to a situation that could easily spiral out of control, ethnicizing politics in these countries still further,” said Central Asia scholar Paul Goble.

Beyond Xinjiang, anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fuelled by some of the same drivers that inform Czech attitudes towards China.

The shared drivers include unfulfilled promises, idle incomplete Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, widespread corruption associated with Chinese funding, and the influx of Chinese labour and materials at the expense of the local work force and manufacturers.

Beyond Xinjiang, Central Asians worry about potential debt traps. The Washington-based Center for Global Development listed last year two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as risking China-related “debt distress.”

Warned China and Central Asia scholar Ayjaz Wani: “Chinese principles in Central Asia are hegemonic. China has always interacted with Central Asian states without regarding their cultural identities, but according to its own vested interests… However, the ongoing anti-China sentiments may be coming to a tipping point.

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