The existence of the “re-education camps” in Xinjiang is well-known and highly contentious. Human rights activists and Western leaders have condemned them as an atrocity. Many leaders in the Muslim world have remained conspicuously silent, likely not wanting to draw China’s ill will in a time of massive Chinese investment abroad. Beijing has defended the program as non-abusive and effective in countering extremism and violence in the autonomous region.

China has remained relatively unfazed by the condemnations made by rights groups, the US, and even the UN, but it may possibly remain more open to an offering of better options from closer friends. By asking questions about the effectiveness of the program and by contributing valuable and hard-earned knowledge, other nations, especially silent Muslim ones, may be able to offer better solutions in Xinjiang that combat extremism while better preserving human rights.

Counter-terrorism cooperation

Initially hidden and denied, China has reversed course on how it portrays the program. Official legalization of the camps came in early October followed quickly by a defense of the program by Chinese diplomats in Pakistan in which the “peace and contentment” within Xinjiang were praised. Just recently, leaders of the Chinese province of Ningxia, home to its own Muslim population, signed a counter-terrorism cooperation agreement while praising Xinjiang’s practices. Beijing claims it has an effective solution in place for countering violent extremism (CVE), one that seems poised to continue and even expand.

The “effectiveness” is probably due to the camps’ potential for “incapacitation.” In criminology, “incapacitation” is one of the key functions of a corrections system. Individuals in prison simply have a harder time carrying out crimes; the corrections program incapacitates them and prevents crimes they may otherwise commit. Incapacitation on a scale of this size may be effective in reducing acts of terror in the present but does little for the future. Also, it is severely lacking when it comes to addressing the causes of extremism, and as more experienced nations are beginning to recognize, prisons or re-education camps of this nature can quickly become catalysts of extremism and incubators for extremist networks.

Many large nations have a route for engaging China on Xinjiang in a non-hostile manner. Indonesia, for example, faces a rising domestic terror threat and is learning the best method for combating extremism within its own borders. Combating both Islamic extremists and separatists, Jakarta experiences a threat landscape not too dissimilar to that claimed by Beijing. Having experienced a lethal prison riot in May of this year in a facility holding extremists and challenged by prison-overpopulation, it is also being forced to reckon with the limitations of imprisonment in counter-terrorism. Chinese Uyghurs have even attempted to join extremists in Indonesia in the past, prompting previous cooperation between the two nations. A more effective strategy in Xinjiang is not only in Indonesia’s “human rights” interest, but potentially in its security interests as well.

Where Jakarta may contribute to China’s understanding of CVE is not only in impressing upon Beijing the dangers of high-density imprisonment of individuals with a potential to radicalize, but also the potential for success with other methods. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are a key force for CVE in Indonesia, as recently highlighted by the regional counter-terrorism meeting on November 6.

According to Cameron Sumpter of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, CSOs in Indonesia have filled vital CVE gaps that security forces and government initiatives cannot, gaining the trust of the communities in which they exist and rehabilitating and reintegrating people as well as preventing radicalization. Organizations work in communities to provide financial and entrepreneurial support to rehabilitated individuals, strengthen communities against radicalization through traditional and religious education, and utilize the experience of former extremists to discourage fresh radicalization.

While Beijing is loath to empower civil society, perhaps it may glean from Indonesia the importance of community-based initiatives and what effective rehabilitation and reintegration look like

Sumpter credits the community roots and independence from governmental programs for much of the success seen by CSOs. While Beijing is loath to empower civil society, perhaps it may glean from Indonesia the importance of community-based initiatives and what effective rehabilitation and reintegration look like. Indonesia is of course only one example of a state which may contribute to Beijing’s understanding.

This strategy is not limited to nations unwilling to directly confront Beijing. The UK, as another example, may also share its own experience with internment. In 1971, IRA internment camps in Northern Ireland were met with increased terror activity, recruitment, and funding. Plagued by human rights abuses, internment had fueled the very resentment which drove IRA violence. Beijing may hope that technological advances and sheer scale can protect against such a reaction, but Britain can offer experience to the contrary.

Beijing is partially correct in claiming that Xinjiang holds a potential threat. In addition to domestic attacks like the one in Kunming in 2014, large numbers of Chinese Uyghurs traveling to Syria as well as smaller numbers acting regionally have shown that there are extremist individuals residing within Xinjiang. Beijing’s understanding of this problem as well as methods for rectifying it, however, are in need of adjustment.

Counter-terrorism cooperation provides a route for nations that are unwilling to confront China on a human rights basis. It promotes human rights as a side-effect of more effective CVE strategies; not ideal for rights groups, but more palatable for Beijing. It also provides a face-saving mechanism that Chinese leaders will need before any changes may occur by allowing them to claim they are improving their strategies for better effectiveness rather than bending to Western pressure. Silent nations, especially Muslim nations, need not ignore Xinjiang, they simply need to talk to Beijing in its own terms.