Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why are there reeducation camps for Uighurs but not Tibetans in China?

Yan Sun

Since mid-2017, reports of massive “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province have set off global outcries over the mistreatment of Muslim Uighurs in western China. Promoted as schools for deradicalization by local authorities, their sheer scale – with an estimated total of detainees ranging from several hundred thousand to over one million – covers a significant portion of the Uighur population of 10 million. The widespread use of surveillance technologies, including DNA collection, further heightens the human rights crisis.

Why does China feel so threatened that it has resorted to draconian methods to combat “religious extremism” in Xinjiang? Why, however, are there no “reeducation camps” for Tibetans, the other politically sensitive minority group in China? On the surface, the two groups share many similarities. Among China’s 55 minority groups, only they make up geographically concentrated local majorities, with distinct religions and languages. These features make it more difficult for them to assimilate or for the state to assimilate them. They are also the only two ethnic groups who have set off violent and deadly riots that shook authorities and the public. But why do only the Uighurs now face draconian programs of “deradicalization”? To understand the state’s gross overreaction in this case, it is useful to start with the sources.

Above all, the state’s threat perceptions differ drastically with the two groups. Between 1990 and 2016, hundreds of major episodes of state defined terrorism occurred in Xinjiang, along with thousands of minor episodes. Regardless of how one may define their nature or purpose, the violent acts involved deadly assaults on countless innocents by so-called “talibs” trained in private madrassas. By contrast, although sporadic protests by Tibetan monks have occurred since the late 1980s, the form of Tibetan violence – over a hundred cases of self-immolation since early 2009 – did not pose lethal threats to the general public.

Geopolitical settings reinforce divergent threat perceptions. Islamic extremism spreads not just in Xinjiang but in many of China’s neighboring countries along Xinjiang’s borders in west and central Asia, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan. By contrast, Tibet’s external neighborhood of a Hindu state and several Buddhist statelets poses no extremist threats. The absence of a high geopolitical pressure obliterates the need for draconian state controls in the Tibetan case.

Secondly, the presence or absence of imported religious influences makes a key difference. Since the mid-1980s, Xinjiang has seen the influx of Wahhabism, jihadism, Hizb ut-Tahrir (a transnational pan-Islamic movement) and Hijrat (the traveling jihadist), to name the major strands. These spread by way of visiting delegations from Islamic countries (which were allowed in the early post-Mao era), haji returnees from Mecca, porous borders, private madrassas, social media and global Islamic websites. Imported sects not only caused sectarian strife within Uighur communities but were also used to justify forsaking local religious traditions for Arabianized forms as authentically Muslim. In the Tibetan case, the flow of communication and personnel has been open between local monasteries and those in exile throughout the reform era. But there have been no comparable religious movements and security threats associated with madrassas.

Thirdly, religious traditions make key differences. Rural Uighur parents prefer some religious education for all children, while rural Tibetan families follow the convention of sending one child to the monastery, thus easing the need for private religious teaching sites. Contention over madrasas is a major cause in the cycles of state control and Uighur violence in Xinjiang’s case. But the same dynamics are absent in the Tibetan case. The religious ban for minors applies in both Uighur and Tibetan regions, but the absence of violence in the latter renders it unnecessary for the state to be overly vigilant. For adults, similar religious bans exist for public sector employees, but enforcement is far more strict in Xinjiang.

Instead of madrassas, contention over loyalty toward the Dalai Lama is at the centre of state intervention in the Tibetan case. Public display of that loyalty is banned as a sign of separatist sentiments, and monasteries are asked to condemn the Dalai Lama as part of their patriotic display. State demonization and the Dalai Lama’s failure to return contributed importantly to self-immolation. Nonetheless, things can be quite different in private. The Dalai Lama’s portraits hang in some monasteries and rural households I had visited in some Tibetan regions.

Fourthly, the openness of Tibetan Buddhism mitigates threat perceptions. The lack of gender, costume, and dietary restrictions makes Tibetan Buddhism accessible to the Chinese public. While no women can enter mosques in Xinjiang, they can enter Tibetan monasteries as disciples or visitors, or even become nuns. During field trips, I encountered hostility in front of mosques in Xinjiang, but always received a welcome reception inside Tibetan monasteries (those not for tourists). As materialism consumes China, many Han Chinese are drawn to Tibetan piety. It has become a fad among some Hans to be financial sponsors or students of Tibetan monasteries and elite lamas. Among China’s minority groups, Tibetans have relatively more intermarriages, while Muslims are the only ethnic minorities who require their marriage partners to have the same faith, resulting in the lowest rate of intermarriages in the country.

Given these local contexts, do Xinjiang’s reeducation camps deserve the global condemnation they have received? The answer is yes, because they greatly exaggerate the scope of radicalism. Xinjiang’s deradicalization program started in the mid-2010s as part of new “community correction centers” nationwide. Designed to reform petty criminals in local communities instead of prisons, those centers in Xinjiang were initially used for individuals who participated in extremist activities but were not criminally charged. Since mid-2016, the program has been expanded to individuals “enrolled” on grounds of suspicious attitudes or ties, arbitrarily blurring the lines between cultural Muslims, conservative Muslims, occasional grumblers and politically motivated Islam. Local authorities claim the absence of violent attacks since late 2016 as proof of success, but ignore the injustice done to many who had nothing to do with radicalism or terrorism.

Due to this injustice, reeducation camps can be counterproductive in the long run. The involuntary and arbitrary nature of confinement would deepen Uighur resentment and interethnic grudge. It would undermine rather than serve the cause of national integration, the ultimate goal of reeducation.

About The Author

Yan Sun

Yan Sun is Professor in the Department in Political Science at Queens College and at the Graduate Centre, The City University of New York....

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