By James M. Dorsey
The effectiveness of China’s effort to brainwash Uyghurs and Central Asian Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang may be tested.
With the recent release of 40 Uyghur wives of Pakistani traders, businessmen and professionals, some of the former re-education camp detainees hope that after three months of observation by Xinjiang authorities, they will be able to return to their husbands who are resident in Pakistan’s conservative northernmost Gilgit-Baltistan province.
That is if the Xinjiang authorities allow them to travel.
If the case of Mirza Imran Baig’s wife, Mailikemu Maimati, is anything to go by, the women may be disappointed. Ms. Maimati was detained in 2017 but unlike most of the wives released after two months. Chinese authorities have since refused to return her passport and that of her four-year old son.
Most of the detained women disappeared in 2017. Some were resident in Xinjiang, others were detained while on family visits. In some cases, the men’s children, who often are Chinese nationals, were sent to orphanages while their mothers were being re-educated.
In line with Chinese efforts to prevent contacts between Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and the outside world, the wives are believed to have been detained because they were married to foreigners. Pakistan is one of 26 countries that China is particularly concerned about.
Chinese officials assert that Uyghurs with foreign contacts risk being influenced by "three evil forces" -- terrorism, extremism and separatism.
The officials further fear that Uyghurs living abroad could campaign for independence of Xinjiang, propagate Islam or associate themselves with militants, some of whom joined the Islamic State in Syria.
The husbands initially quietly lobbed Pakistani and Chinese officials but with no real response have since repeatedly spoken out publicly in the hope that international pressure would get their spouses released.
The women’s detention was part of a larger crackdown that has seen at least one million Turkic Muslims disappear into re-education camps where they are forced to not only ignore but violate Islamic laws and accept Xi Jinping thought, the ideology of China’s president, as superior to Islam.
Husbands of the released women told Agence France Press that their spouses were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol while in detention and during their three-month probation. Some were obliged while in detention to dance wearing revealing clothes.
One husband said his wife since her release carries with her a book of guidelines with illustrations such as a mosque marked with a red cross and a Chinese flag with a green tick.
The women are less certain to continue to adhere to do so if they were allowed to leave Xinjiang and are no longer under Chinese control even if they may experience a difficult transition.
The women, who were released in the last two months would, if allowed, be returning to a religiously conservative part of Pakistan where social pressure alongside their cultural roots could persuade them to discard Chinese re-education.
Abandoning lifestyles and beliefs imposed in re-education camps would demonstrate that Chinese brainwashing only has a chance of succeeding if it is continuously brutally enforced for at least a generation, if not more.
Obviously, if the women were to continue to follow their newly adopted beliefs, China could claim that its harsh approach is producing results.
The stakes for China and Pakistan are high.
Funded to the tune of US$45 billion plus, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Behind a façade of mutually laudatory statements, the two countries have differed over calls by Prime Minister Imran Khan to shift the focus of CPEC from infrastructure to job creation and manufacturing.
Bloomberg reporter Peter Martin concluded after a recent carefully choreographed government-organized visit to Xinjiang, including re-education camps, that “Beijing is becoming more worried about an international backlash that has intensified of late, raising risks for investors already assessing the impact of a more antagonistic U.S.-China relationship.”
Mr. Martin noted that inmates he was allowed to speak to all used similar phrases when asked why they had been detained and repeated the same answer word for word when asked a question more than once.
Some husbands, who describe their wives as strangers since having been in the camps, believe re-education may have a lasting impact. They describe their wives as paranoid, fearful and suspicious of everybody, including their families.
The risk for China is that irrespective of how the women would respond to a non-Chinese environment, it could stir debate in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world that has so far largely turned a blind eye to the crackdown and in some cases gone as far as endorsing it.
So could escalating US criticism. The United States this week accused China of putting at least a million Muslims in “concentration camps,” in some of the strongest US. condemnation to date of what it calls Beijing’s “mass imprisonment” program.
The Defense Department’s assistant secretary focused on Asia policy, Randall Schriver, told a Pentagon briefing that the number of detained Muslims could be “closer to 3 million citizens out of a population of about 10 million” rather than the one million that has been the figure used by United Nations officials, government representatives, human rights groups and activists.
Mr. Schriver’s estimate has raised eyebrows among some Xinjiang scholars. “Could there theoretically be 3 million in camps? Of course! The bigger problem is that the higher the presumed internment figures, the more speculative they become, unless specific evidence can be cited,” tweeted Adrian Zenz who has documented the network of camps.
The governor of Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, the region’s most senior Uyghur official, has dismissed comparisons to concentration camps, saying the re-education camps were “the same as boarding schools.”
Mr. Khan shares China’s risk. He, like Indonesian president Joko Widodo, evaded questions about Xinjiang in recent Financial Times interviews by claiming he knew nothing about circumstances in the Chinese province.
A return to Pakistan of some of the former detainees would make it more difficult for Mr. Khan to maintain his claim that was already called into question by earlier public protests and statements by some of Mr. Khan’s officials.
Said one husband: “My wife, a practising Muslim, has been turned into someone I could not even imagine. She has given up her prayers, drinks and eats pork. I am afraid our marriage will not last long because she is a completely different person, someone whom I don't know."
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.