Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, February 09, 2018

Forced national integration

The Chinese method for integrating minorities.

What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State
Imagine that this is your daily life: While on your way to work or on an errand, every 100 meters you pass a police blockhouse. Video cameras on street corners and lamp posts recognize your face and track your movements. At multiple checkpoints, police officers scan your ID card, your irises and the contents of your phone. At the supermarket or the bank, you are scanned again, your bags are X-rayed and an officer runs a wand over your body — at least if you are from the wrong ethnic group. Members of the main group are usually waved through.

You have had to complete a survey about your ethnicity, your religious practices and your “cultural level”; about whether you have a passport, relatives or acquaintances abroad, and whether you know anyone who has ever been arrested or is a member of what the state calls a “special population.”

This personal information, along with your biometric data, resides in a database tied to your ID number. The system crunches all of this into a composite score that ranks you as “safe,” “normal” or “unsafe.”Based on those categories, you may or may not be allowed to visit a museum, pass through certain neighborhoods, go to the mall, check into a hotel, rent an apartment, apply for a job or buy a train ticket. Or you may be detained to undergo re-education…

A science-fiction dystopia? No. This is life in northwestern China today if you are Uighur.

China… boasts gleaming bullet trains, luxury malls and cellphone-facilitated consumer life. But when it comes to indigenous Uighurs in the vast western region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has updated its old totalitarian methods with cutting-edge technology.

The party considers Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking ethnic group native to the nominally autonomous region of Xinjiang, to be dangerous separatists. The Qing Empire conquered Xinjiang in the 18th century. The territory then slipped from Beijing’s control, until the Communists reoccupied it with Soviet help in 1949. Today, several Central Asian peoples, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrghyz, make up about half of the region’s population; the remainder are Han and Hui, who arrived from eastern China starting in the mid-20th century.

Over the past several years, small numbers of Uighurs have violently challenged the authorities, notably during riots in 2009… But the C.C.P. has since subjected the entire Uighur population of some 11 million to arbitrary arrest, draconian surveillance or systemic discrimination. Uighurs are culturally Muslim, and the government often cites the threat of foreign Islamist ideology to justify its security policies…

How does the party think that directives banning fasting during Ramadan in Xinjiang, requiring Uighur shops to sell alcohol and prohibiting Muslim parents from giving their children Islamic names will go over with governments and peoples from Pakistan to Turkey? The Chinese government may be calculating that money can buy these states’ quiet acceptance. But the thousands of Uighur refugees in Turkey and Syriaalready complicate China’s diplomacy.

Tibetans know well this hard face of China. Hong Kongers must wonder: If Uighur culture is criminalized and Xinjiang’s supposed autonomy is a sham, what will happen to their own vibrant Cantonese culture and their city’s shaky “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing? What might Taiwan’s reunification with a securitized mainland look like? Will the big-data police state engulf the rest of China? The rest of the world?

As China’s profile grows on the international stage, everyone would do well to ask if what happens in Xinjiang will stay in Xinjiang.

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