Evidence of meeting #123 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was state.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Chair  Ms. Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West—Nepean, Lib.)
Darren Byler  Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

1:30 p.m.

Ms. Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West—Nepean, Lib.)

The Chair

Moving to our second round, we'll go to Mr. Tabbara for five minutes.

October 23rd, 2018 / 1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, professor, for being here today.

I'm just trying to get the feel of the central government and how China views the Uighurs. Does the state have any evidence of extremist acts or violence that Uighurs have committed? Where is the threat coming from, and how does China view it in their central government?

1:30 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

In my opening statement, I told you a little bit about what happened in the 2010s when there was a turn to pious forms of Islam. The Chinese state viewed that turn towards more pious forms—and they're really just mainstream forms of Sunni Islam and Hanafi Islam—as the Talibanization of the Uighur population. They feared that the Uighurs were turning more and more towards Afghanistan and central Asia.

Then there were also a few violent incidents, one in Kunming where there was a knife attack that killed over 30 people. China refers to this as their 9/11. There were also some sorts of ISIS-style attacks using vehicles to run over populations of civilians in both Beijing and in Urumqi. People who were killed numbered in the tens, and in one case 30 or more. Also, the people who carried out those incidents were carrying black flags with Arabic inscriptions on them that seemed to indicate that they were doing some sort of Islamic act in carrying out those violent acts. China viewed those things as signs of terrorism arriving in the country, and they do meet the standard of what could be defined as terrorism.

The problem is really that they're conflating those who carried out those acts with the population as a whole, whereas most Uighurs have no desire—and had no desire—to carry out violent acts towards civilians, the police or the state. Instead, they just wanted to live their lives. They wanted to perform their faith. They wanted their children to have a better life. That was their primary concern. The state is not recognizing that.

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

You mentioned in your statement that China sees how the Uighurs are living their daily lives and practising their faith as a threat to the status quo. I think I heard you say in your testimony.

1:35 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

Do you mean the status quo among Uighurs—

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

Yes.

1:35 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

—or that Uighurs were a threat to the Chinese status quo?

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

Yes.

1:35 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

No, I don't think the Uighurs have ever been an existential threat to China. I think what they do see, though, is that Uighur autonomy and Uighur society, as it was, was preventing open access to markets and to the natural resources of the region. That was part of the reason they wanted to re-engineer them and, through that process, remove them from their land to make it available for Han settlers and Han companies to exploit and to extract resources. That was how I understood what was happening.

China did see them to some extent as a security threat, the primary security threat that China has. My understanding, based on all the evidence I have seen, is that this was a gross exaggeration.

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

This is a weak claim.

Also, in Xinjiang province, the population is roughly 22 million, if I am correct.

1:35 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marwan Tabbara Liberal Kitchener South—Hespeler, ON

Are there other minorities who are subject to the same type of treatment? Is it primarily Uighurs, or do you see this in other different minority groups as well?

1:35 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

It's directed primarily towards Uighurs, but there are other minorities in the province. There are around 11 million Uighurs, around 1.5 to 2 million Kazakhs, and another one million Hui, who are Chinese Muslims who live in the province. Those three populations of Uighurs, Kazakhs and Hui are now subject to the potential detention, the Hui much less so because they're not seen as an existential threat in any sort of way. They speak Chinese and they're quite assimilated into the mainstream population in most cases.

Uighurs and Kazakhs are seen as a threat to some extent because they have territorial claims to the land, or at least they feel they do. They have been granted autonomy in the past, and they also speak a Turkic language as their first language, so they're seen as radically different.

They also appear phenotypically different in terms of their racial profile—in the Chinese discourse, at least—so they're seen as a distinct group that's different from the Han majority, whereas Hui can blend into the Han majority.

1:35 p.m.

Ms. Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West—Nepean, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you very much.

We're out of time, so we'll move on to Mr. Anderson for five minutes.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Conservative Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you for being with us today.

You made a strong statement at the beginning of your presentation when you said, “This process resonates with the most horrific moments in modern history.”

Are you comfortable with the level of evidence that you've acquired in order to make the claims that you've made, comfortable with how you cite them and back them up? I'm just wondering, because we had some questions the other day about whether these accounts are accurate or if we can verify them. I want to get your opinion on whether they can be verified. Are what we're hearing accurate accounts of what's taking place in this area?

1:40 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

In terms of the scale on which it's happening, we can say with pretty good confidence that it's actually happening to that scale. When I was there visiting, it was apparent in the cities themselves that large segments of the population were missing. In talking to people, as I have, many of them confirm that they've been taken to what they call “the schools”, or they say they've “gone to study”and that sort of thing. In terms of scale, it's definitely happening.

In terms of what's happening in the camps, we don't have as much knowledge as we would like. We do have reports of people who have been in the camps and then released, who are very few to date. Most of those who have been released were Kazakhstani citizens who were taken by mistake and ended up in the camp for a number of months before being released and sent to Kazakhstan because the Kazakhstani government intervened on their behalf.

The reports we have are coming from them. We can see that the camps are there by using satellite imagery. We can see them being expanded over time. We have data, based on those people who left, of the crowding, the conditions in the camps and the starvation diet that people are on. We can't prove or say with certainty that they're trying to starve the population, but according to basic health standards, they're not feeding them enough calories to live comfortably. People are being weakened through the process. We've heard reports of experiments being done with various drugs, like tranquilizers and things like that, but we can't verify all of those things.

We wish we had more data, but it's something that China is not really willing to share with us.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Conservative Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Right. Exactly.

I just want your opinion on this repression that's taking place.

There's been a commitment by the government to sinicize all religion in China, basically. Do you see this spreading to some of the other faith communities? I think this is an amplification of what happened in Tibet. How do you see this playing out across the country, particularly when the government is now targeting Christian churches as well?

1:40 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

There's definitely a targeting of what they call “foreign religions”, which are religions that are not traditional to the Han majority. Christianity is being targeted to some extent, as is Islam. I think Islam is targeted to a much greater extent, though, because it's seen as a threatening faith. It's seen as an ideological disease. It's often framed as a disease that needs to be cured or eradicated. It's a tumour, a cancer in society. Islamophobia is widespread and rampant in the population as a whole and in the discourse the Chinese state is producing. It's to a much greater extent than anti-Christianity, but there is also repression of Christians. Most Christians are from the Han majority, so they're treated slightly differently than the Uighurs or Kazakhs.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Conservative Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Last week there were reports that they passed legislation or regulations to legalize camps. How does that change the situation? What was the attempt there? Was it just a public relations attempt within China? Who were they trying to convince that this is somehow a legitimate exercise?

1:40 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

My sense is the legalization of the camps was a direct response to international pressure from the UN, from western governments, and from the international media discourse that's talking about what's happening in these camps. It's them doubling down, in some ways, on what they're doing, and saying, “No, this is what we're doing, and we're proud of it.” It's a different strategy, they say, from doing counter-insurgency, but it's a better one. They're thinking it's something they could market to other countries, such as authoritarian states that want to control Muslims.

At the same time, it could also be—and this often happens in China—that on the face of it, they're doubling down, but in the end they might be deciding they've gone a little too far and they need to pull back.

It's too soon to say exactly what will happen, but these are the sorts of things that could be happening.

1:40 p.m.

Ms. Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West—Nepean, Lib.)

The Chair

We're moving to Mr. Fragiskatos for five minutes.

1:40 p.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

Mr. Byler, can you comment on the place of Uighurs within the Chinese national imagination, if I can put it that way; within Han nationalism, for example? Perhaps Uighurs have been perceived from the perspective of strong Han nationalists as constituting an inherent threat to state identity or unity. Is there any truth, any validity there?

Let me ask a quick side question with this. To what extent does this explain what appears to be happening now?

1:45 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

Uighurs are one of 56 ethnic groups in China, according to the official framework. For a long period of time, Uighurs and ethnic minorities in general were permitted. They were celebrated as a form of a socialist multiculturalism, but really only certain permitted differences were allowed. Uighurs could perform their ethnic dances and they could dress in a particular way; that was fine. The ideology they practised, however, needed to be in line with the Communist ideology.

This began to change, I think, in the 1990s, when the central Asian republics came into being following the fall of the Soviet Union and Uighurs begin to talk again about having East Turkestan or Uighurstan, about having their own nation. Tibetans also came to the fore as wanting to have their own state.

China saw this development as an existential threat to the nation. They have a “one China” policy. Taiwan is also included in that policy as being among the threats to the nation. Breaking up the nation is seen as something that would be detrimental for the future.

In 2001, when the U.S. began the global war on terror following 9/11, China, instead of talking about Uighurs as separatists, began to talk about them as terrorists. That in turn amplified the threat of violence in the Chinese imaginary. Uighurs in general are seen as thieves, as violent, and Uighur men especially are seen as threatening. Addressing this is something that the Chinese nation as a whole and people in Chinese society have seen as important. They feel safer.

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

There are many other ethnic groups, as you say. Is it the Uighur minority that stands out as a particular concern from the Chinese state's perspective?

1:45 p.m.

Lecturer, University of Washington, As an Individual

Dr. Darren Byler

They're far and away the most threatening to the nation, from the Chinese state's perspective.