Illustration by Hannah Robinson

The author of this piece has asked to remain anonymous so to protect their freedom travelling to and from China.

A BBC exposé in October 2018 reported satellite imagery revealing camps detaining Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz Muslims in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Recent reports estimate between one to two million Uighur Muslims, along with other minorities, have been detained in these prison style internment camps, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) masks as “vocational-training” centres. Additionally, an unknown number of children have been forcibly separated from their families and put into “child welfare” institutions. News of such widespread and systematic human rights abuses has ignited international condemnation. 

But reports and analysis rarely connect the current crisis in Xinjiang with the CCP’s past and current actions in Tibet. Additionally, they fail to conceptualize the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang and Tibet within the CCP’s broader geopolitical strategic interests in Central and South Asia. The CCP employs settler colonialism and cultural genocide to subdue Uighurs and Tibetans in an effort to secure its hold on vast amounts of strategically significant and resource-rich territory, a crucial facet in its efforts to form an alternative world order.

Since the CCP’s invasions of  Xinjiang and Tibet (conducted in various stages between 1949 and 1951), formerly de facto sovereign states, it has employed settler colonialism and cultural genocide in an effort to subdue anti-CCP sentiment and the sub-national identities of Uighurs and Tibetans. The CCP’s methods of suppression and surveillance have advanced technologically but we must keep in mind that its policies and actions have a long history; this needs to be acknowledged as it is difficult for people in Xinjiang and Tibet to challenge the CCP narrative.

Beijing has encouraged ethnic Han migration to Xinjiang and Tibet through its “great western development program”, justified as a policy to close the economic gap between China’s east with its “underdeveloped” west. However, this is simply a vehicle for settler colonialism.  It exploits both regions’ resources and economic potential while economically advancing the Han majority and physically overwhelming the Uighur and Tibetan minorities. While reliable population statistics and demographic breakdowns are inaccessible, Tibetans in exile report there are fewer Tibetans than Han in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Why are Xinjiang and Tibet so important to the CCP’s regional and global ascent?  First, Tibet’s towering Himalayan Mountains serve as a geographical fortress to China’s regional rival, India.  Additionally, Tibet’s most valuable resource to the CCP is its abundance of freshwater, the need for which will only be augmented by population growth and climate change. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s third largest freshwater repository and its water reserves are not only essential for China to meet its development and economic needs but also represent a strategic asset over the rest of South Asia. 

Bordering eight countries, Xinjiang is China’s springboard for expanding political and economic influence into the Middle East and Central Asia. Xinjiang provides a steady supply of natural resources essential for China’s continued economic prosperity and social development. Xinjiang is China’s largest natural gas producer, its third largest internal producer of oil, and serves as its transit route for various other energy resources from the East. Most importantly, Xinjiang is indispensable to the success of CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative, an expansive effort to establish a global China-centred trading network.

I hope to have demonstrated that the systematic oppression and destruction of the Uighur and Tibetan populations’ distinct national identities and self-determination has been calculated to further the ascendance and prosperity of the Chinese state in the international arena. As history shows, the ascent of one nation is often fuelled by the robbery and destruction of others. Additionally, I hope to have challenged the international community, which prides itself on championing liberty and human rights, to acknowledge its failure to effectively challenge the CCP’s actions in Tibet and once again in Xinjiang even as it bows to China’s economic power and continues to trade with it.

As China continues to craft and assert an alternative world order within its conquered borders, it is imperative that we, as an international community, do not forget a people’s right to self-determination and that the destruction of distinct sub-nations should not be the cost of security and economic growth.