Two actions taken by China this week reveal its inconsistent policies toward the Muslim world in general, and toward the threat of Islamic extremism in particular. In the first, China once again admitted this week that it is running “vocational training centers” for Muslims in its Xinjiang region, and that the facilities are designed to counter a threat of Islamic extremism inside of China.
But within hours of that statement in Beijing, China refused to condemn the founder of an Islamic terrorist group in Pakistan to a United Nations blacklist, despite irrefutable evidence of his support for extremist violence. What’s going on with China’s policy toward Islam and Muslims?
In the first instance, the chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Shohrat Zakir, made in an obvious attempt to assuage international condemnation of its “vocational” facilities, where up to a million Muslims are being held for “training.” Zakir said this week that the centers will eventually disappear when they are no longer needed.
Speaking on a panel during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, Zakir said, “Generally speaking, we will have fewer and fewer people at these centers and if one day the society no longer needs them, then these training centers will gradually disappear.”
The “training centers” are described as concentration camps by observers and governments worldwide. Former detainees have testified that they have been tortured. There are additional reports that many have died within the enclosures, and that, while China insists that residence with the facilities is “voluntary,” the compounds are ringed with barbed wire and watch towers.
There is, however, no disputing that the facilities are engineered to re-educate Muslims in Xinjiang, for the purpose of stamping out any dormant or active extremist inclinations. And one must wonder whether now that a top Chinese Communist Party official, himself a Uyghur, has proclaimed that the centers may one day close, Muslim-majority countries will find any relief in his statement. Many of these countries are nations that China is wooing into its Belt and Road Initiative with massive investments in key sectors, and have been reluctant to speak out.
As evidence, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s latest Council of Foreign Ministers meeting took the almost unbelievable step of “commend[ing] the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.”
Will the Muslim world take Zakir’s statement at face value, heave a collective sigh of relief, and forget any linger pressure to express outrage on behalf of their Muslim brothers in China — all so that they can enjoy the benefits of Chinese investment?
It took long enough for the few condemnations from the Muslim world to come in the first place. After months of cascading and ever-nightmarish reports on the camps, in which most agree that at least hundreds of thousands of mostly Uyghur Muslims are living in forced confinement, Turkey finally broke its silence in February. Calling the camps “a great shame for humanity,” Turkey’s rebuke of China comes at a time when China is investing heavily in the country.
According to the Daily Sabah, China now has over 1,000 firms “investing in Turkish energy, infrastructure, finance, tourism, and e-commerce sectors.” Turkey is seen as a logistics gateway to China’s expansion and investments into both Europe and Africa.
The Muslim world is now experiencing the conflict of interests that majority-Christian nations have been experiencing for decades in attempting to change China’s behavior toward its religious faithful of any stripe. Promises, prevarication, and pointing to the religious freedom clauses of its constitution comprise China’s typical responses to the catalogue of religious rights abuses of which it is accused.
At the same time, the mostly Western countries that lambast China on its treatment of Christians also have economic interests with China, which usually and ultimately override meaningful consequences for Chinese repression of the faithful.
It is clear that China expects Muslim nations to be equally mollified. Beijing has anticipated that its BRI investments in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other majority-Muslim countries will supplant any issues those nations may have with China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. But with its second action involving the Muslim world and Islamic terrorism this week, China now seems to be falling into a similar trap of inconsistency and hypocrisy.
While making an epic attempt not just to eradicate potential terrorist activity from within its borders, but to effectively erase the Muslim faith itself, the Chinese government has, at the same time, exercised its United Nations Security Council vote to block the addition of a name to the UN’s global terrorist blacklist. The man in question, Masood Azhar, is the founder of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, which carried out a deadly terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir on February 14, killing over 40 and bringing India and Pakistan to the brink or war.
The JeM has been under UN sanctions since 2001; the goal of the March 13th vote, proposed by India, was to put its founder there, too. This is the fourth time in ten years that the Security Council has brought the sanctioning of Masood Azhar, to a vote, with each round of voting consistently blocked by China. It seems that China is now in its own thorny trap of managing conflicting interests, causing it to take a hard line toward Muslim minorities within its own borders, while refusing to condemn and constrain a known Muslim terrorist across the border in Pakistan.
For China, its growing military and security relationship with Pakistan is paramount, and refusing condemnation of Azhar pacifies the Pakistani government. Not only that, as Professor Harsh V. Pant at King’s College London writes, Beijing is primarily concerned with the fate of the “ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s flagship investment project in Pakistan, estimated to be worth more than $62 billion. It is being talked about as a potential game changer as it could revive the economic profile of a region that has traditionally been an economic backwater.”
China prides itself on what it sees as consistency in its international relations. As it expands and deepens its relationships in new ways around the world, however, it is learning that its foray into globalism is fraught with uncomfortable inconsistencies and conflicting interests that it must manage and reconcile. Welcome to our world.