Geoffrey Cain, investigate journalist, technology writer, and author of The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China's Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future, spoke to a June 13 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about China's authoritarian regime and its use of new forms of technology against its Turkic Muslim minority, the Uyghurs.
Cain, who visited the Xinjiang region in Western China as a foreign correspondent, said the Uyghurs, "one-tenth of the Muslim minority population [of China]," are being held in "a network of about three hundred concentration camps," with many transferred to labor camps "where they engage in labor and other forms of repression." The Chinese government "brainwash[es] ... [and] psychologically and physically torture[s]" its detainees "to erase Uyghur cultural and religious identity" until the state "turn[s] you into a good patriot." As of last year, the total number of Uyghurs incarcerated, along with other ethnic groups that include the Kazakhs, "reached its high" of approximately "1.8 million people."
Cain's reportage is a result of many years interviewing Uyghurs who found refuge in Turkey. While there is a "history of Islamic insurgency" across the East Asian and Southeast Asian region, he finds the new systems of technology the Chinese government employs to "profile, document and surveil" its Muslim population "alarming." Cain said there was a "fundamentalist Islamic threat in China" that was a combination of an East Turkistan Movement to create "an independent nation," and a faction of "extremist Muslims" whose aim was to "wage a jihad in Western China." The latter's ultimate objective is the creation of a "Central Asian caliphate."
The Chinese responded with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) as a surveillance system called "Skynet" to monitor every resident in the region. It uses this AI system as a "predictive policing system" in which people are arrested for "pre-crime[s]," based on the computer's calculation. Cain called it "George Orwell in the flesh," in which the government sends people to a camp even if they have not been convicted of a crime. He said the Chinese government's reaction "is completely disproportionate to the actual threats" and does not justify "putting 1.8 million people in concentration camps."
Cain said the Chinese state's project has succeeded in subjecting the Uyghur and Kazakh minorities to a "cultural and social genocide" to ensure that "they're assimilated to the majority Han Chinese ethnic group." The U.S. and other Western governments said the Chinese government's use of "forced sterilization," pressuring the Uyghurs to speak the "majority language," and "erasing monuments," constitutes "cultural genocide" under international law and the United Nations Genocide Convention.
The topic has "shaped China's relations with the Middle East" and impacted Beijing's position as a "patron" of Muslim countries that include "Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, [and] the UAE [United Arab Emirates]." Part of China's "Belt and Road Initiative," the project, formally begun in 2013, contains an "estimated $1 trillion mega-package of infrastructure projects, ... aid, and investment." The aim is twofold: (1) Restore "Chinese greatness along the Central Asian corridors" that were part of the "historical Silk Road," and (2), enable China "to gain leverage over various authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Central Asia."
Although many expected Middle Eastern countries to "condemn China's treatment of the Uyghurs" when the "atrocities" were more widely publicized five years ago, Cain said China has bought their silence with generous investments. Egypt, "with one of the biggest Uyghur populations outside of China," received "security infrastructure" aid packages from China in 2016 and 2017, with the proviso that "Egypt will help China with security issues." The Uyghurs in Egypt are mainly "small business owners" and students who went to Egyptian universities, sometimes to study "religion and the Quran." The aid package deal has resulted in the return of approximately "ninety percent" of Egypt's eight thousand strong Uyghur population back to China, "despite having legal residence permits."
Instead of speaking out in defense of their co-religionists, Middle Eastern governments are either silent or promote "propaganda" that China is engaging in a "counterterrorism operation" to contain its "Muslim threat." The Middle East states have gone as far as to illegally detain Uyghur Muslims "who are Chinese citizens" in their countries and deport them "en mass back to China" to hold and torture them in concentration camps. Cain said arguments used to defend China's actions "would require some very serious intellectual gymnastics" that, in essence, are a defense of "fascistic Chinese authoritarianism."
The refuge that Uyghurs have found in Turkey is not only because they are a fellow Turkic group. Erdoğan's "geopolitical and economic reasons" for welcoming them extend beyond the "legitimacy" the country has gained as a safe harbor for refugees. With approximately fifty thousand Uyghurs in Istanbul, Erdoğan would incur "political damage" if he were to order them back to China. Turkey is also an "economic competitor" with China in the "construction industry," as well as the "geopolitical terminus of the Eurasian region that leads into Europe." It is not worth Turkey losing its "neo-Ottoman influence" in the region by selling its "strategic position" to China.
Beginning in 2019, Turkey is the only Middle Eastern Muslim government to take China to task for its treatment of the Uyghurs. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which includes "some South American, African and Middle Eastern members," issued a letter in defense of China's actions, but Turkey's foreign minister and other government officials publicly charged China with a "major human rights violation."
Cain said the "geopolitics of the region" shifted after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban aligned with Beijing. The Taliban see China as a "potential benefactor" and "ally," with former terrorist groups stating publicly they will not "wage a war on China," and will instead keep their focus against the West. Cain said the irony is that China supports the Taliban and "fundamentalist Islamic groups around the world," while oppressing its own Muslims.
Various peaceful groups have documented China's human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, but Chinese officials and its state media are "angry and defensive" when sanctions are placed on state officials and entities. Cain said China is "deeply set in their policy," and even though "China does not care what the world thinks" about its treatment of the Uyghurs, the Chinese government will "deeply care" about sanctions because Beijing is "tied to supply chains with the outside world" and will economically suffer.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.