I NEVER KNEW my maternal grandfather, but I grew up with his weapons. One of these, an 1896 Mod Mauser rifle, was taken as a trophy during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Captain William Marshall served two “tours” in South Africa with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. His second tour coinciding with the most brutal phase of the war, during which the British commander, Lord Kitchener, invented the concentration camp.
These camps, in which 26,000 Boer women and children died from all the predictable diseases associated with poor nutrition and overcrowding, were constructed to house a belligerent population which would otherwise have given aid and comfort the Boer guerrilla fighters who were then inflicting such serious casualties upon the Imperial British forces.
As a grown man, I sometimes wonder whether Van Rijn, the previous owner of that German-made rifle (one of thousands sent secretly to the Boer republics by Kaiser Wilhelm II) had a wife and children in one of those British concentration camps. On the day his deadly-accurate weapon acquired a new owner, was he fighting to free them, or avenge them? In a curious way, that name, “Van Rijn”, carved into the rifle’s stock, still haunts me.
More than a century after New Zealand’s mounted infantry gave their support to the inventor of the concentration camp, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, and Senator the Hon Marise Payne, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, have appended their signatures to a statement reiterating their “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation.”
That “pre-emptive counter-terrorist measures” are in force in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is undisputed. That these measures may have given rise to “severe human rights abuses” is, moreover, an entirely credible claim. Counter-terrorist measures, whether undertaken in Bloemfontein, Abu Ghraib, or Xinjiang, usually do. Missing from Minister Mahuta’s statement, however, is any explanation as to why the Chinese Government remains willing to endure the criticism of other nations for its actions in the XUAR.
Most New Zealanders would struggle to locate Xinjiang on a map of the world. That’s a pity, since the XUAR’s geographical location speaks eloquently to the reasons for Beijing’s concerns. Strung along Xinjiang’s western border are no fewer than five predominantly Muslim states: Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Were a Uyghur independence movement in search of allies – and arms – it would not have to look very far.
Most New Zealanders are equally unfamiliar with the history of Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. According to the 2002 article written by Assistant-Professor Chien-peng Chung, of Singapore’s Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, published in Foreign Affairs, Uyghur separatists were responsible for 200 attacks against Chinese targets between 1990 and 2001. These attacks killed 162 people and injured 440 others. In 1997, in the town of Ili, more than 100 people, most of them Han Chinese, were murdered in an abortive Uyghur uprising.
Between the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the present crackdown on the Uyghur population which began in 2018, Chinese Intelligence struggled to keep on top of jihadist agitation and infiltration inspired by terrorist organisations in South-East Asia and the Middle East.
The Chinese Government’s shift of focus, from individual to collective punishment, was inspired by exactly the same considerations as Lord Kitchener’s: to deny the separatists the aid and comfort of sympathetic compatriots. In this respect, China’s collective repression differs little from the CIA’s notorious “Phoenix Program” of 1968-71. Designed to assist the South Vietnamese Government’s “pacification” of villages known to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong, the Program is estimated to have killed in excess of 26,000 persons – many of them victims of the most brutal torture.
To explain the strategy and tactics of a ruthless regime is to risk being accused of justifying them. Such is certainly not my intention. All I am attempting to make clear is that the Chinese Government is very far from being the first to crush an insurgency by adopting the methods of collective punishment.
As, no doubt, Minheer Van Rijn would testify.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 March 2021.