China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims and Pakistan’s shocking silence Edit Desk

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China had been blocking India’s attempts to secure designation against the JeM chief almost for a decade. But now with the removal of objection regarding Azhar’s listing, China seems to have given up its obsession with Azhar. However, one still wonders why the terror ideologue of Jaish-e-Mohammed and former head of the Harkat-ul-Ansar has been the favorite jihadist for China for so long? What promoted China to prevent the UN Security Council from listing Azhar as a global terrorist, while he continued to mastermind several high-profile terror attacks, including the attack on Parliament, the Pathankot air base, murderous assaults on army bases in Uri, and the recent attack in Pulwama. The question arises as to what impelled China to block four international attempts to list Azhar as terrorist, in the last decade through its “technical hold”.

In fact, China’s engagement with the terrorists in the AF-Pak region has a historical legacy based on its vested economic, security and geostrategic interests. The key reason behind China’s long-standing romance with Azhar and other AF-Pak terrorists is safeguarding its economic interests. Masood Azhar has been China’s go-to guy to ensure security of its geostrategic investments under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the top Chinese project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Af-Pak region, one of the world’s most crowded terrorist landscapes.

Strategically, China has been involved with the terror groups in the Af-Pak with an aim to contain the ‘extremism’ creeping into Xinjiang. By doing this, China expected from the Af-Pak terror groups not to support the Uyghur separatism and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

This reeks of China’s double standards and inconsistent policies towards Muslims in general and the radical Islamists in particular. The Chinese government blatantly justifies the harsh measures taken against the Muslim minority—Uighurs— with its detention of a million Muslims in Xinjiang calling it ‘The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism’. In August 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council was informed that China was involved in the religious persecution of the Uighur Muslims in the name of ‘de-radicalisation’. It has literally converted the Xinjiang region into a mass jail. Several human rights activists reported at the UNHRC last year that the Uighur Muslims are forced to learn Chinese Mandarin, swear by the Chinese Communist Party, eat pork that is strictly forbidden in Islam and swear loyalty to the Chinese President Xi Jinping. But the Chinese government in in a White Paper claims that its counterterrorism policies in Xinjiang, which attempt to alter Islamic practices, are in accordance with the rule of law and protecting human rights.

Shockingly, Islamic countries including Pakistan have remained silent onlookers at China’s arbitrary detention and torture of Uyghur Muslims. They have not yet demanded the closure of these “re-education camps”. Pakistan which shamelessly raises the Kashmir issue at international forums including the United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has tragically ignored the Uyghur persecution in china’s ‘concentration camps’. Ironically, while Saudi Arabia audaciously justified China’s steps to curb ‘terrorism’ in the Uyghur dominated area, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan blatantly refused to have a fair idea of the Uyghur issue. The so-called ‘Islamic republic’ of Pakistan has no idea of the plight of the Uighur Muslim minority who are not allowed to observe even the Roza and Namaz (fasting and prayer). Not only the Pakistani state, even those in India and Jammu & Kashmir who keep protesting against the ‘violation of Muslim religious rights’ in India seem unworried about the genuine issue of the Muslim persecution in China.  

At the time of writing this, a new deadly phase in China’s religious persecution of the Uighur Muslims has begun and the repression has snowballed from Xinjiang to Beijing and Shanghai. Worst, China is targeting the Islamic cultural heritage and has demolished dozens of mosques and shrines in Xinjiang. According to investigators from The Guardian and Bellingcat, at least 31 mosques and two major shrines have undergone “significant structural damage”. Using satellite imagery, they have identified sites which underwent complete or partial destruction between 2016 and 2018. The World Almanac of Islamism 2019 published by American Foreign Policy Council states that China has stepped up its repression of the Uighurs as part of a stepped-up effort to contain the ‘manifestations of Islam viewed as nonconformist or threatening’.

Human rights NGOs report that not only the Uighurs, but Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities are also being detained in the ‘re-education camps’. They are not allowed to fast during the ongoing Islamic month of Ramazan, and are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.

In fact, it was the extremist groups in Pakistan which trained and indoctrinated the Uyghur community into separatism in the wake of the Afghanistan situation. Consequently in 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1987, several separatist agitations were held in Xinjiang by the indoctrinated Uyghurs. This anti-China movement, motivated by the Pakistani jihadists, began to spread in several places in Xinjiang including Urumchi, Kashgar, Khotan, Kucha, Aksu and Artush. On 6 April 1990, a mass protest of the Uyghurs erupted to wage jihad against the Chinese and establish the East Turkestan state.

Following the subsequent riots in which the Uyghurs killed six police officers, the Chinese govt. alleged that the rioters were trained in the Af-Pak region. This gave rise to Beijing’s fears about the Af-Pak terrorists bred by foreign interests against China. Therefore, China adopted two-sided policy in order to crack down on this ‘foreign’ onslaught.

As part of its internal policy, China started cracking down on the Uyghurs to the extent of an ethnic cleansing through its “re-education” drive. Up to one million are reportedly detained in China’s mass “re-education” camps. According to Amnesty International, China has intensified its campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. Ironically, while China sent over a million Chinese Muslims to detention centers on the pretext of counterterrorism, it prevented the Pakistani terror ideologue Azhar from being officially designated a terrorist by the United Nations.

But as an external policy, China engaged with the Af-Pak terror groups, particularly the JeM and Taliban, to stem the tide of terrorism in Xinjiang hoping that they would prevent them from supporting the Uyghur and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Given Azhar’s influence over the radicalised elements in the region, China courted with Masood Azhar in particular. Azhar has emerged one of the most influential jihadist leaders in the region with his close ties with the jihadist groups like Harkatul-ul-Mujihideen, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. He is also an active member of United Jihad Council (UJC).

Among the key factors that may have prompted China’s fascination towards Azhar is to safeguard its strategic and economic interests. It has been obsessed with the JeM chief particularly to secure the CPEC. With Pakistan facing mounting debt to Beijing from CPEC, and with several Belt and Road countries having backed out of projects over the past year due to financing concerns, Beijing may have wanted to make a gesture of goodwill to get Islamabad to shake off any emerging discontent over CPEC. Furthermore, Beijing may have wanted to offer a sop to Pakistan to preclude any chance of Islamabad calling China out for its Uighur policy. In return, Beijing sought to use Azhar’s influence to strengthen the Taliban, as they are antagonistic to Indian interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

In light of the above, it can be gauged that China has been protecting its favorite jihadist leader, Masood Azhar due to major strategic and economic interests. But now it has released its technical hold on the UN blacklisting of Azhar not because of any major policy change. But rather China is currently facing bigger problems than protecting the JeM chief. With India challenging them on the strategic chessboard, especially in the backdrop of the massive buildup of Western and Japanese military forces in the dragon’s backyard, the Chinese don’t have the capacity to open yet another front.

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