While Steve Bannon has long be absent from the White House, his calls to “fuck up” the Belt and Road initiative remain a worryingly powerful rationale which underlies much of the Trump administration’s anti-China policies. While the US can do little to negatively impact the stable security situation within China, what the US can do and is in fact beginning to do is weaponise public option in Muslim majority countries that are partnering or considering the possibility of economic partnerships with China.
While the United States and its allies are responsible for more aggression against Muslim majority nations than any bloc of nations in modern history, the demoralised feelings running throughout much of the Ummah (the global Islamic community), in addition to the proliferation of extremism in some Muslim majority nations (which itself is typically the result of multiple neo-imperial wars), makes it easy for rumours, innuendo and outright lies to spread like wildfire among an Ummah that has tragically become accustomed to being on the receiving end of violence.
Having long ago crossed the threshold into utter shamelessness, the same state forces that have brought death and misery to millions of Muslims since the turn of the 21st century alone, have now engaged in a campaign of defamatory hatred against China and its partners in which the false narrative states that China is violating the human rights of some of its Muslim citizens in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Last year, the US offered the world a sneak preview of coming attractions when the State Department and its friendly media channels tried to weaponise the hardship of Rohingya Muslim’s in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in order to paint China as somehow complicit in the regional atrocities due to Beijing restoring positive economic ties with Naypyidaw over the last three years.
Generally though, the US narrative on Myanmar had little long-term impact for several reasons:
1. Some Muslims who realised they were misled by the US over the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya implicitly understood that while the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine was real, much of it was conducted by local militias and not the state.
2. China’s peace initiative for Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh (where many Rohingya have fled, much to the consternation of Dhaka) has experienced success in its early stages, thus making an hysterical anti-China narrative harder to convincingly sell.
3. As America’s south Asian partner India courts Myanmar as an ally as much if not more so than China, the US did not need to risk a rift with New Delhi over the events in a country that has been in the midst of multiple ongoing civil conflicts since 1948.
And yet the Myanmar issue was something of a dress rehearsal for a far more devious and this time entirely false narrative regarding Muslims in China’s XUAR. There is no need to repeat the inflammatory defamation about the XUAR that has been published uncritically by much of the western media, but suffice to say, the best argument against it are statements from Muslim Pakistanis who are able to see the situation in neighbouring Xinjiang without prejudice. This is the case for two reasons. First of all, as a long time partner of China, most Pakistanis do not have an inbuilt racism towards Han Chinese as many still do in the west. Secondly, as Pakistan is constitutionally an Islamic Republic, a true Pakistani believer would be violating his or her religious beliefs by saying that Muslims are living well in Xinjiang if they were not. If a lie was told, it would likely be quickly exposed, as such is the nature of Pakistan’s media.
This is why it was important that Pakistani Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Faisal urged calm in the face of further sensationalist reports about Xinjiang. Responding to false reports that Chinese citizens in Xinjiang who have family relations with Pakistanis (usually through marriage) were undergoing hardship, Mohammad Faisal stated:
“Some section of foreign media are trying to sensationalise the matter by spreading false information. As per Chinese authorities, out of 44 women, six are already in Pakistan. Four have been convicted on various charges, three are under investigations, eight are under going voluntary training. Twenty-three women are free and living in Xinjiang of their own free will”.
Such an official statement is important, as will be the increased human-to-human connectivity between Pakistanis and those living in Xinjiang thanks to a new bus service from Pakistan into China.
Last month saw the inauguration of a luxury bus service that transports passengers between the Chinese city of Kashgar in Xinjiang province to Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s province of Punjab. According to Muhammad Anwar, the CEO of the company that operates the service, pre-bookings were strong among those eager to take the thirty hour journey across the border to China. Beyond Lahore, the bus route will also eventually take passengers along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the port city of Gwadar, thus enabling individuals to see first hand the route that looks to open up a new era in pan-Asian connectivity.
While the announcement of the new bus service predictably garnered negative attention from India as the route travels through Gilgit-Baltistan, an area claimed by New Delhi, a far more meaningful geopolitical consequence of this new bus route is the fact that it can provide for more human contact between Pakistanis and residents of China’s Xinjiang at a time when anti-Chinese media outlets are running a hateful campaign attempting to defame China’s anti-extremism education initiatives in parts of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to an Islamic population that has not been immune to the same kids of extremism as those in parts of Pakistan. In order to fight extremism in Xinjiang, China has implemented measures to combat extremism that are remarkably similar to those which the provincial PTI government has employed in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2013. When the PTI party which now forms a national government under Imran Khan was first elected to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly in 2013, they inherited a part of Pakistan that many felt was ungovernable.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was home to some of the most notorious terrorist groups that infiltrated Pakistan as a result of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Extremist groups under the leadership of terrorist warlords began to exert more power in north-western Pakistan than the central government over the course of many years. 2013 marked a notable change in the fortunes of the innocent civilians of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the PTI government in cooperation with national security services and the intelligence services began to work jointly to neutralise extremism through a combination of intelligent policing, crackdowns on armed groups and parallel moves to improve education, economic opportunity, social cohesion and the material wealth of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In many ways, PTI’s success in turning the ungovernable into an area where violence as dramatically deceased was one of the reasons that PTI scored an historic nationwide victory in general elections earlier this year.
While Xinjiang has not suffered the kinds of extreme hardship that the civilians of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have endured, China has been careful to police noticeable trends in the fomentation of extremism by taking proactive positive measures to ensure that education, material fulfilment and social enlightenment expunge the international forces of violence, extremism and gangsterism. China continues to lavishly fund educational facilities where adults can learn new professional skills and trades while the young can simultaneously be given an education that emphasises community values, harmonious relations with one’s fellow man and an aversion to the rhetoric of hatred. At the same time, China has invested evermore in developing the modern infrastructure of cities and remote areas throughout the province.
Yet in spite of or perhaps because of the success that both China and Pakistan have had in fighting and deterring extremism, both countries have been subject to hateful campaigns that have seen Pakistan being accused by the US President and multiple Indian politicians of harbouring rather than fighting terrorism while China has been accused of committing hostile acts against its own people rather than educating them with valuable skills that in other countries people pay copious amounts of money to receive.
For both nations, the best way to quash hateful rumours is by allowing human contact across the China-Pakistan border to foster a real life understanding about the not dissimilar success stories in both nations. Recently, Pakistani scholar S.M. Hali wrote about his own experiences in Xinjiang over the decades. He emphasised how he has seen a province transformed both in terms of rapid economic development and in respect of a more socially cohesive and contended mindset among locals. Hali’s writing ought to be the first piece of reporting one ought to explore in the pursuit of the truth regarding the contemporary situation in Xinjiang.
These kinds of positive interactive experiences ought to be replicated not only among scholarly individuals but more importantly among all individuals who can share their first hand experiences across social media as well as with their friends and families. The bus route from Xinjiang to Lahore consequently represents a golden opportunity not only for individuals to conduct win-win cross border commerce but to engage in powerful culture immersion in order to learn first hand about the experiences of those from other regions and cultures.
As more Pakistanis visit China, they will see that Chinese characteristics and Islamic values are not mutually exclusive but instead mutually compliment one another while Chinese visitors to Pakistan will come into contact not only investment opportunities but a fraternal nation whose people will welcome them with traditional hospitality.
The best way to fight negative lies based on conjecture and perverse imaginations is to gain real life experiences in seeing the world for how it really is. Therefore, the bus route across the China-Pakistan border is not just a journey into a different place but a journey into a more elevated state of mind that will help to enlighten observers from around the world.
As Pakistan’s fight against extremism is one that is mutually understood and respected among Pakistan’s Chinese partners, it is crucial not only for Pakistani officials to draw parallels between Islamic Pakistan’s fight against extremism with analogous threats in China, but both at an official level and at the level of ordinary human-to-human contact, Pakistanis are well placed to globally expose the myth claiming that China is behaving in a violent way towards its Muslim citizens in Xinjiang.
As the US and its partners continue to exploit elements of the Ummah that it has so violently attacked in multiple wars, Pakistan is in a unique position to explain the truth about China with an openness and honesty that ought to resonate throughout the Ummah in a far more convincing way than statements made from the country that produced George W. Bush’s anti-Islamic so-called “war on terror”.