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Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Pakistan Press on Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Parliamentary System: New Age Islam's Selection, 30 September 2020
By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
30 September 2020
• Pakistan’s Parliamentary System — A Colonial Relic
By Ali Khan
• Lost In Xinjiang
By Rafia Zakaria
• Chinese Muzzle
By Mahir Ali
Pakistan’s Parliamentary System — A Colonial Relic
By Ali Khan
September 29, 2020
Still reeling from the horrifying Lahore-Sialkot motorway incident, the nation recently saw one of the country’s seasoned politicians stand in parliament and exploit the sickening events for political point scoring, woefully out of touch with the people’s suffering. Why are we not shocked? Because, it’s typical of our politicians. Our political system encourages and rewards such acts of party interest over national wellbeing.
Our parliamentary system — the dusty, awry pass-down from a former marriage — is fundamentally inappropriate for a country of Pakistan’s size, diversity, and complexity. A tool of majoritarian politics, it incentivises ill-intentioned and incompetent rulers to pander to powerful majorities, vital to their parliamentary seat count, at the expense of society’s most vulnerable. In Pakistan, it has further mutated into dynastic rule, where two of the country’s wealthiest families also control two of the largest parties, both lacking any real ideological core, with their members pledging absolute allegiance to their monarch-like leaders in return for a get-out-of-jail free pass to accumulate wealth themselves. In reality then, when politicians use national tragedy to gain an upper hand, they are simply doing what the system demands of them.
The choice of a presidential system is not only wise, it is obvious.
The topic is complicated, confounded by petty party-members’ propagating sham logic in fear of losing their grip on a system they can twist. Simply put, the choice whittles down to three primary points: justice, merit, and representation.
The parliamentary system undermines justice and fairness in Pakistan. Our system is designed to disproportionately favour large majorities (e.g. a province), and breed divisiveness. In theory, Punjab could choose the PM even if not a single vote was cast for his party outside of its borders, incentivising politicians to pander to its interests. Throughout history, we can see the root of our many problems in the similar exploitation and neglect of discrete segments of the country including religious minorities and tribal populations. A presidential system would maintain a proportional representation in the National Assembly while allowing us to choose our representatives at the local and federal level based on the individual’s promise and commitment.
Our parliamentary system also undermines meritocracy — the right people are not in the right jobs. The PM cannot appoint his own cabinet. Instead, he chooses from a list of ill-suited ministers to lead ministries they know little about. A presidential system promotes meritocracy, allowing appointments of experts in key positions, such as Abdul Hafeez Shaikh and Moeed Yusuf, to be the norm, not the exception. Pakistan could finally leverage its talent, calling on its citizens to serve as and when needed, instead of relying on “electables,” who ply power through perverse feudal and economic influence.
Finally, our system does not truly represent its peoples’ interest. It attracts an incompetent ilk of legislators, interested only in wielding executive power. We vote not to elect representatives to legislate, but to indirectly elect a PM. Our MNAs have no incentive to improve their constituency, and unsurprisingly there is little intelligent debate in the chambers; with politicians not accountable to the people they represent. A presidential system would decouple our executive leadership from local government elections and provide the public a chance to judge their local representatives on performance.
Still, a presidential system is not a magic pill. The threat of an authoritarian regime under a presidential system is real so we must meticulously design a transition, ensuring government work is conducted with effective “checks and balances”. Done well, it will align the incentives of our government to the people’s interests.
So, let us choose a system befitting our diversity and scale. Let us begin to write our own history. Do we want a just and meritocratic country where our rulers represent the people’s interests? If yes, then the choice is clear: we vote to move to a presidential system of democracy.
SAKANDAR Hayat is a Pakistani who had settled in the Uighur city of Kashgar. There he ran a successful garment business. His wife and three children, two daughters and one son, were all ethnic Uighurs from the area. In 2017, when Ramazan came around, Hayat decided to take a trip to Pakistan with his son. They came down from Xinjiang and crossed the border into Pakistan. They had spent three weeks in Pakistan when they received an alarming phone call from back home. His wife had been picked up by Chinese authorities and placed in one of the so-called re-education camps set up by the Chinese Communist Party. His two daughters, seven and 10 years old, had been placed in an orphanage. He begged and pleaded for more information about them, but was unable to gather any news.
As the whole world knows, there have been numerous reports of the Uighurs of Xinjiang being subjected to terrible coercion and abuse over the past several years. Drone footage shows camps built to detain hundreds of thousands of them. Recent reports using Google’s satellite imagery show that new camps are being built to house even more Uighur Muslims. Those who have been in the camps report their hands being tied together as they languish in rooms of 35 prisoners each.
One former detainee told reporters that they would be woken up at 4a.m. to listen to lectures about the Chinese Communist Party and how it cares for them. For breakfast they received hot water and a piece of bread, followed by being made to run in circles, and five hours of instruction in the Chinese language. Those who provided any resistance or did not show proper interest in being re-educated to be ‘Chinese’ instead of ‘Uighur Muslim’ were punished and even tortured. In simple terms, the camps are pure hell.
It is no wonder, then, that Sakandar Hayat was terrified that his wife had been taken away and detained in one. Unable to get information about her, he and his son made their way to the border. As soon as they got there, they were met by Chinese border guards, who arrested Hayat’s son. They told Sakandar that his son would be returned to him in a week, after he was questioned about what he did in Pakistan. He would not see him again for two more years.
They had spent three weeks in Pakistan when they received an alarming phone call from back home.
Sakandar’s story is not the only one. In their feature on Hayat’s case, the Los Angeles Times also detailed the cases of several more Pakistani men married to Uighur women who have faced similar problems. In the case of one, he was only allowed out of the camp himself if he promised to be an informant. Others talk of similar oppressive measures and a feeling of complete helplessness before the Chinese authorities.
Mohammed Umer Khan, a Pakistani Uighur whose family moved to Rawalpindi in 1967 to flee oppression by the Chinese government, has faced problems despite the fact that he lives in Pakistan. Using funds from the Umer Uyghur Trust set up by his family, Umer was running a small school outside Rawalpindi. The school, which was first set up in 2010, intended to promote the Uighur language and culture among those Uighurs living in Pakistan. Not long after, he received a visit from law enforcement officers who told him to close the school and accused him of “harming Pakistan-China relations”. When he did not agree to their demands, he said they came back and destroyed it. In 2015, he tried to reopen the school, but it had to be shut down again after a month, allegedly owing to harassment by Pakistani authorities. In 2017, he spent several days in detention.
Pakistani and Chinese authorities also appear to be cooperating with each other in terms of collecting information about when ethnic Uighurs visit Pakistan. A recent rule requires them to register themselves and their family members with an organisation funded by the Chinese Embassy, which Umer fears would be used to monitor them. The onus behind all of this is no mystery: Pakistan is an indebted country and quickly becoming a vassal state to China. If China believes that Uighurs must abandon their culture and faith in order to ‘assimilate’ as Chinese, then so too does Pakistan. This is true to such an extent that, last year, Pakistan joined 36 other countries in signing a letter supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang.
The future for Pakistanis married to Uighurs appears terribly bleak. Pakistan’s authorities appear to believe they cannot (as they should) negotiate on their behalf. In the case of Sakandar Hayat, this meant he had to wait two years to get a visa to return to Kashgar. When he went, he found a wife who now remained silent, as if all the life had been drained from her owing to what she had endured in the camp. Hayat’s son still has to live in the camp, except for two days when he works for a Chinese telecommunication company on a labour contract that he had to sign. Sometimes he receives payment for his work, at other times he does not.
There is give and take in every relationship. While Pakistan does not have much leverage over China, it does have a close relationship with the country. This close relationship is not enough to thwart what appears to be a decades-long master plan to change the cultural, religious and demographic characteristics of Xinjiang. It could however, be just enough to at least ensure that Pakistani Uighurs and Pakistanis living in Xinjiang are safe and able to travel back and forth without fear that they or their family members will be forced into a camp. The request may not be fulfilled by imperious and super-powerful China, but it is one that Pakistan’s government should make.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
LATE last week, China’s President Xi Jinping was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying at a two-day conference: “Viewed overall, Xinjiang is enjoying a favourable setting of social stability with the people living in peace and contentment. The facts have abundantly demonstrated that our national minority work has been a success.” The Communist Party’s policies were “totally correct” and efforts to plant the national identity “deep in the souls” of Uighurs and other minorities “must be held to for the long term”.
The same week, fresh evidence emerged of what that “national minority work” entails, with analysis of satellite imagery by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) revealing that 380 detention facilities have either been built or expanded since 2017. “We don’t believe we have found them all,” says the ASPI’s Nathan Ruser. “The largest is more than 300 acres in size. That is more than three and a half Disneylands.”
It is estimated that about 10pc of Xinjiang’s Uighur and Kazakh minorities have involuntarily been enrolled in what are officially described as vocational re-education institutes. By most accounts, trades are indeed taught in these facilities, but that is only part of the purpose. Much effort is focused on indoctrination, both cultural and ideological.
The campaign is not restricted to Xinjiang. There have lately been reports of a similar “mass labour programme” in Tibet, apparently aimed at turning rural agricultural labourers into factory workers. In Inner Mongolia, meanwhile, protests erupted last month against a policy to gradually replace Mongolian with Chinese as the medium of instruction in schools.
The largest detention camp is 300 acres plus.
Such measures are sometimes officially depicted as part of Xi Jinping’s campaign to eradicate poverty by the end of this year. How could that possibly be construed as an undesirable goal?
On the face of it, the intent is welcome. On the other hand, the very fact that poverty still exists in China more than 70 years after the communist revolution seems like an indictment of much that has occurred in the interim. The failure is even more stark if one compares the ostentatious wealth of Shanghai with the deprivation in the vast countryside. China boasts the second highest number of billionaires after the United States, yet half its population subsists on an annual income of about $1,500, roughly equivalent to the price of a Chinese-manufactured iPhone.
President Xi has himself approvingly cited the scholarship of Thomas Piketty in the context of inequality in the US, but the publication of the French economist’s latest book, Capital and Ideology, was nonetheless held up in China because the author refused to agree to the excision of segments referring to economic disparities in China, notably the fact that wealth distribution between the top 10pc and bottom 50pc is “only slightly less inegalitarian than the United States and significantly more so than Europe”.
China can perhaps justifiably boast of many achievements in the past few decades, during which it has insinuated itself into the global economy by becoming the world’s leading manufacturer, albeit largely on the strength of an underpaid and overworked workforce without recourse to the organising options available to labour, to some extent, in most capitalist societies.
Its response to the Covid-19 pandemic has also been remarkable, despite egregious initial slip-ups, at least if the official figures are to be taken at face value. Its economy has by some accounts roared back into life while much of the rest of the world is still struggling with a range of restrictions. China’s apparent strategy, as in many other countries, is to henceforth rely more on the domestic market.
However, the impressive ability to construct a hospital in Wuhan within a week or so also extends to the rapid erection of detention centres elsewhere.
If Xi Jinping does not particularly stand out among the international rogues’ gallery of dilettantes running the world, it’s largely because his attentions are focused locally. There are indications, but no conclusive evidence, that there is substantial opposition to him within the Communist Party. Which is hardly surprising, given that critics and dissidents face extended incarceration or worse, and it is never easy to tell whether those incarcerated or executed for graft or corruption are actually guilty.
The cultural genocide unfolding in Xinjiang has lately begun to provoke some pushback, both economic and political, although there is cause to suspect it is more directly related to other aspects of Beijing’s belligerence on the economic and geopolitical fronts. Were Xi to kowtow to the usual capitalist deities, the outrages in Urumqi and Kashgar would probably soon be forgotten.
But China’s largely facetious claim to socialist ideals deserves a sceptical eye-roll, and the idea that “Xi Jinping Thought” is “21st-century Marxism” hardly bears scrutiny, yet it will be important to keep a close eye on China’s future trajectory, in respect of both its formidable achievements and its egregious — and often repellent — excesses.