Narratives and internment camps in China, US, Israel

Last Thursday, US lawmakers reintroduced legislation that could sanction China for rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang, where more than a million people are believed to have been held in internment camps over the past two years.

The bipartisan “Uighur Human Rights Policy Act” put forward by Senators Marco Rubio (Republican from Florida) and Bob Menendez (Democrat from New Jersey) would dedicate resources from the State Department, the FBI, and intelligence agencies to document Uighur abuse in Xinjiang as well as Beijing’s intimidation of Uighur US citizens and residents on American soil. 

The Chinese have protested that re-education camps are necessary measures in face of terrorism and threats to their national security, accused Washington of meddling in their domestic affairs, and threatened retaliation should the US proceed with sanctions.

Interestingly, the Chinese “security” argument is reminiscent of the US “security” rationale for Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, as well as for Palestinian internment camps during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Which raises the age-old question: How does a government balance protection of human rights while safeguarding national security in times of war?

This is especially important in an era when the US is still engaged in the “global war on terror” and wrestling with post-9/11 Islamophobia, with increasing trade war and military competition in post-Trump Sinophobia.

Just as Washington rounded up Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor, and conducted racial profiling of Muslim Americans post-9/11, should a conflict break out between the US and China in the Pacific, would Chinese-Americans – similar to Uighurs in Xinjiang – be subject to surveillance and incarceration by the US government in the name of national security?

Also at a time when both China’s Xinjiang province and Gaza are described as “concentration camps” by some critics and rights groups, if Washington sanctions China for human rights abuse when Beijing protests it is countering terrorism, would this pave the way towards sanctioning Israel as well for anti-terror measures in Gaza especially in the face of growing BDS support in a new US Congress?

Moreover, in the battle of narratives, how does one differentiate between legitimate counter-terror measures to protect public safety and illegitimate human rights abuses all in the name of safeguarding national security? And is there a necessary tradeoff between security and human rights, or is this a false dichotomy?

There are no clear answers to these questions, but perhaps revisiting past cases could help lend insights on the complexities of balancing the security-human rights nexus.

National security and Japanese Americans

With current US media focus on China’s incarceration of Uighurs, it is easy to forget that America also has a past with internment camps in World War II.  After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US began rounding up more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born US citizens, and incarcerated them in 10 internment camps with additional detention facilities.

Source: Wikipedia, National Park Service

After the attack, there were widespread hysteria and prejudice against Japanese-Americans as a potential fifth column, so the US government moved swiftly to solve the “Japanese Problem” on the west coast. FBI agents arrested more than 5,500 selected “enemy” aliens and on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans, and move them to military enclosures described by various terms from “reception centers”, “relocation centers” to “internment camps” and “concentration camps.”

The most widely known of the camps was Manzanar, located about 220 miles north of Los Angeles, which became known in popular culture from the movie Farewell to Manzanar that aired in 1976. It housed about 10,000 Japanese Americans who were put to work making camouflage net for the US War Department, and when World War II came to an end, all the camps eventually closed as well.

However, controversy surrounding the camps remained, and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to examine the rationale for the camps. The finding was not one of safeguarding national security, but rather of human rights abuse with “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. The US government ultimately disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-Americans who had been interned and their heirs, and this chapter remains a scar in American history.

National security and Palestinians

Israel also has a history of internment camps, according to a 2014 study in The Journal of Palestine Studies, describing how the young Jewish state interned some 6,300 Palestinian citizens without charge in the 1948 War of Independence. Nathan Guttman of Forward Magazine noted this study launched a battle of narratives between the Israelis and Palestinians and referenced the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.

Guttman observed how on the one hand Palestinians describe these prisons as “concentration camps” of torture, forced labor, food deprivation and ethnic cleansing, while the Israelis maintain these are legitimate POW camps in times of war and open to observation by the Red Cross. The prisoners were held in five camps: Ijllil near Tel Aviv, Atlit just south of Haifa, and three smaller camps in central Israel.

While the facts of these camps are not disputed, diverging terminology and context by Israelis and Palestinians provide very different interpretations of what transpired.  For the Palestinians, these camps are illegitimate concentration camps for ethnic cleansing while the Israelis see them as legitimate POW camps in times of war, and this has carries over in Gaza today, where one side sees rights abuse and war crimes while the other side sees legitimate counter-terror operations.

National security and Chinese Uighurs

Another arena where the battle of security-rights narratives is raging is in China, with Beijing accusing CNN of spreading fake news over Uighur deaths and torture, reminiscent of past Western efforts in weaponizing human rights to delegitimize foreign governments.

Once again, the Uighur narrative is similar to the Palestinian one, coining re-education/detention camps as “concentration camps” to commit cultural genocide, while Beijing protests it is countering Islamic extremism and terrorism with tens of thousands of Uighur having joined al-Qaeda in Syria to attack China.

China fears the US and Turkey would exploit Uighur militants as proxies to destabilize Xinjiang, and there are historical reasons for this concern given that the CIA tried to destabilize Xinjiang and supported separatists in Tibet during the Cold War.  As Israeli sinologist Yizhak Shichor pointed out, in the 1950s Washington tried to exploit Muslim grievances against China and the Soviet Union, by attempting to form a Middle Eastern Islamic pact to organize fifth columns in these countries.

Given resource-rich Xinjiang is at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), destabilizing the province would spoil Eurasian integration and development, weaken China’s economy by cutting off its overland energy supply line from the Middle East, hamper its market access such as the current row over high-tech and infrastructure investments in Israel, and keep Beijing bogged down in an ethno-religious conflict.

However, some observers note that by deliberately stoking Chinese fears about Xinjiang destabilization and thereby egging Beijing to clamp down on Uighurs, Washington is in effect exploiting the ethnic Uighur’s plight for narrow geopolitical agenda.

As Yizhack Shichor perceived in the use of narratives, “Vocal criticism of China related to its Uyghur persecution comes primarily, in fact almost entirely from outside the Middle East, from Western non-Muslim countries…[which] may have little do to with loving the Uyghurs, and much more to do with opposing China.”

Given this, it seems the battle of narratives over the security-rights nexus for Uighurs and Palestinians will likely continue for quite some time.

An earlier version was published in Asia Times on 21/1/19.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a California-based academic and consultant specializing in China-Mediterranean/Middle East relations. Specific areas of interest include China's Belt and Road Initiatives, Defense and Peace Economics, Conflict Management, and U.S.-China-Israel relations.
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