China’s Uyghur Repression

In the name of combating Islamic extremism, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on a massive campaign of harassment and detention of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province.

Chinese soldiers march in front of the Id Kah Mosque, China's largest, on July 31, 2014 in Kashgar, China. Getty

International attention on the question of Xinjiang, the autonomous region in the northwestern corner of China, and the oppression of its native Uyghur population by the Chinese state still lags behind the well-publicized case of Tibet. Yet in the mind of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xinjiang, which many Uyghurs call East Turkistan, now outweighs Tibet as a policy priority.

In the name of combating Islamic extremism, the party has embarked on a massive campaign of detention and indoctrination of ethnic minorities. Its goal is to eradicate all possibility of opposition here once and for all and turn this huge territory into a stable platform from which to extend its Belt and Road Initiative and dominate Central Asia.

The emergence in Xinjiang of a new network of political reeducation camps has been a poorly kept secret for some time. But research and reporting is giving us hard evidence of the scale of this new policy. Since the middle of 2017, a major construction boom has thrown up a variety of detention centers and prisons whose inmates number in the hundreds of thousands. These camps combine many of the brute horrors of China’s earlier reeducation-through-labor system with the latest high-tech surveillance and monitoring mechanisms.

Without facing any charge, detainees (mostly Uyghurs, but some Kazakhs) find themselves cut off indefinitely from the outside world. Suspicion falls easily on those who display signs of excessive religious piety or have contacts abroad, but the sweep is much wider than this. Even speaking Chinese poorly seems enough to get you detained.

The most unfortunate find themselves subject to daily beatings and interrogations; the lucky ones endure a routine of self-criticism sessions and the mind-numbing repetition of patriotic slogans. Drumming out loyalties to religious faith and national identity features prominently in this curriculum.

The camps are only the culmination of a series of repressive policy innovations introduced by party secretary Chen Quanguo since his arrival in Xinjiang in 2016. Many of these were already evident on a trip I made to Xinjiang last year: police stations at every major intersection, ubiquitous checkpoints where Chinese sail through as Uyghurs line up for humiliating inspections, elderly men and women trudging through the streets on anti-terror drills, television and radio broadcasts haranguing the Uyghurs to love the party and blame themselves for their second-class status.

I saw machine gun-toting police stop young Uyghur men on the street to check their phones for mandatory government spyware. Some have simply ditched their smartphones, lest an “extremist” video clip or text message land them in prison. On a weekday in the Uyghur center of Kashgar, I stood and watched as the city went into lockdown, making way for divisions of PLA soldiers to march by, chanting out their determination to maintain “stability.”

More than at any point since its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang today resembles occupied territory, and the party’s policies reveal an all-encompassing view of the Uyghurs as an internal enemy. The Uyghurs’ very presence in the land is an inconvenient reminder of Xinjiang’s alternative identity as the eastern fringe of the Islamic and Turkic-speaking world — one that Beijing would prefer to erase if it could. The party may not have any intention yet to physically remove the Uyghurs, but its efforts to marginalize the Uyghur language and rewrite the region’s history serve similar goals to a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Even for a region where actual ethnic relations have rarely lived up the harmonious scenes of party propaganda, this is a historic low point. How did a revolutionary state, which came to power promising to end all forms of national discrimination, end up resorting to such horrific policies? And what, if anything, can those of us outside China do to help turn things around?

An Imperial Frontier

The story of Beijing’s hold on Xinjiang begins in the 1750s, with a wave of imperial expansion during China’s last dynasty, the Qing. For more than a century, the empire’s Manchu and Mongol military caste exercised only a very indirect form of rule, one that was intermittently thrown off by local Muslim rebellions. Looking back, many Uyghur nationalists would point instead to the 1880s, when Xinjiang became a full-blown province of the empire, as the real starting point of Chinese colonialism. At this time, Chinese bureaucrats took up the reins of administration, and they clung on tight through the anti-Qing revolution of 1911–12.

Uyghurs made bids for self-rule during the Chinese Republic, from 1912 to 1949. In doing so they often sought some form of outside support. Unluckily for them, the only realistic source of such support was the Soviet Union.

In the 1920s, within the Comintern’s wider push for revolution in the Islamic world, the Bolsheviks flirted with the idea of turning Xinjiang into a Soviet Republic. But as the international revolutionary tide subsided, the Soviet Union’s own state interests in Asia came to dominate its approach to Xinjiang and prevented it from extending genuine solidarity to the Uyghurs.

In the 1930s, a large-scale revolt led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan in Kashgar, but Moscow preferred to side with Chinese rule and aided in crushing it. In the 1940s, Stalin gave the green light to an uprising in the west of the region, which created what is known as the Second East Turkistan Republic. This was a high point in the history of a secularist strand of Uyghur nationalism which had emerged in the Soviet Union, but Stalin’s only priority was to maintain economic and political dominance in the region. The republic was wound up when he cut a deal with Mao to allow the People’s Liberation Army to take control of Xinjiang in 1949.

By the time it reached Xinjiang in 1949, the CCP had set aside its commitment to national self-determination, offering only a diminished form of “national autonomy.” In selling this vision of a more centralized postrevolutionary China, the party had to purge those native Communists who were holding out for something more substantial like a Soviet Republic of Uyghuristan.

By the standards of the 1950s globally, the CCP’s nationality policies still had progressive aspects, among them a public renunciation of Han chauvinism, affirmative-action policies in education and employment, and the provision of native-language schooling through secondary level. Yet the party’s commitments to respecting national rights in Xinjiang often took a back seat to its development and security goals on what was still a sensitive geopolitical frontier. The Cultural Revolution helped to erode any good will toward the party that there might have been among the Uyghur population.

When a limited liberalization came in the 1980s, Uyghurs took advantage of the opportunity to test the boundaries of permissible discourse, with activists launching an embryonic student movement. By the end of the decade, though, advocates of moderation had lost the battle inside the party, and any narrow scope for organized Uyghur opposition was lost amid the nation-wide crackdown of 1989. Books were burned and prominent intellectuals jailed.

The retreat to hard-line policies was entrenched with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which some in the CCP leadership interpreted as a product of non-Russian nationalism on the Soviet periphery. Since that time, the only solution the party has had for Uyghur discontent has been to tighten its ideological control and engage in periodic “strike-hard” roundups.

In the wake of 9/11, China refashioned its hard-line campaign against separatism into a wing of the global “war on terror,” and in doing so reached something of an accommodation with Washington. There have been sporadic acts of terrorist violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, some of which, tragically, have cost the lives of ordinary Han Chinese. But Uyghur resistance in Xinjiang is much more disorganized and demilitarized than China would like us to believe. China’s war on terror has claimed as its victims even mildly dissenting party members such as economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was given a lifelong prison sentence four years ago for criticizing the marginalization of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

It is true that some desperate Uyghurs have found their way into the ranks of Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq, hoping to acquire the military training and international jihadist solidarity which they see as necessary for a fight in Xinjiang. But this dead-end strategy poses no threat to Beijing — and certainly not one that could justify today’s crackdown. China maintains a choke hold on Xinjiang’s entry and exit points; only the Chinese state benefits from the presence of Uyghur militants in this far-off battleground.

Many outsiders have drawn the conclusion that there is too little autonomy in the of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: the center holds a veto on any local legislation, and provisions for cultural and linguistic rights have long been a dead letter. Yet party thinkers tend to embrace the opposite view: that the system gives minorities too much autonomy. In 2011–12, debate arose on reforms to China’s official nationality system, with some floating the idea of abolishing autonomous regions, or even the nationality categories themselves. The proposals reflected what seems to be a widely held view in the CCP elite, that discontent is a function of the ideas in people’s heads, not policies on the ground. Change those ideas, therefore, and you change the situation.

The proposals were too iconoclastic for the party to endorse, but the approach in Xinjiang today reflects the same motivation: to end ethnic conflict by eradicating all space to make claims in the name of a Uyghur nation.

The Vicious Circle of Xinjiang Advocacy

The repression in Xinjiang is too intense to expect resistance to emerge to the new policies any time soon. Nor should we anticipate inner-party opposition to them in Beijing. Abroad, though, many ask what can be done to help the Uyghurs. The Uyghur diaspora has rallied around the world recently. Journalists and scholars have made admirable efforts to bring to light the disturbing realities.

And last month in Washington, Senator Marco Rubio brought the Uyghur question back into play in US China policy, by making a very public intervention surrounding the reeducation camps, pointing specifically to the detention of family members of Radio Free Asia journalists.

Some, possibly many Uyghurs, will welcome Rubio’s intervention. With good reason, they see themselves as victims of Communism, caught as they have been between two repressive mega-states that described themselves as Communist. Much of the international left long endorsed the idea that the Soviet Union and China were examples of living socialism, and therefore to be defended at all costs. Without any friends on the Left, Uyghurs in exile have naturally tended to gravitate towards the anticommunist right.

The tragedy is that this has made it all too easy for Beijing to portray Uyghur discontent as the product of a hostile Western conspiracy. This is opportunistic and cynical, but unfortunately, it is persuasive to some Chinese. There is a vicious circle here, one that only leads us away from a just solution in Xinjiang. And as the Xinjiang question comes to international prominence once again, it risks falling back into this familiar rut.

Foreign governments naturally shouldn’t hesitate to criticize China’s mistreatment of its minorities. But Rubio, predictably, went beyond this, in explicitly linking the plight of the Uyghurs to US objectives in Asia. Writing to the US ambassador in Beijing, he asked him to look into the issue because the “crackdown in the XUAR touches on a range of interests critical to US efforts to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Rubio is now spearheading an effort to ramp-up pressure on China across the board, a push that follows on the heels of Washington’s most hawkish foreign-policy statements on China since it officially recognized the People’s Republic in 1979.

In the wider debate surrounding China’s rise, some traditionally progressive voices now believe we have no choice but to set aside our “knee-jerk anti-Americanism” and embrace US global dominance. So objectionable is China’s authoritarian system, they argue, that as its weight increases in world affairs, we must unite to resist it.

But Western saber-rattling will not help anyone in Xinjiang. Linking the injustices there directly to Washington’s bid to shore up a declining hegemony in Asia will only strengthen the party’s resolve to clamp down, meaning that Xinjiang’s reeducation camps could very quickly turn into internment camps for the entire Uyghur population. It’s unthinkable what an actual war might bring.

Meanwhile, some on the Left might be tempted to take the opposite approach: to go quiet on China’s domestic policies and focus instead on combatting our own militaristic tendencies. But to drop any criticism of China would be to shirk a moral responsibility to speak out against oppression and a political responsibility to find solutions to it. Progressive acquiesce to the right-wing monopoly on the discourse around Xinjiang is one of the reasons we got into this vicious circle in the first place; we need to look for a way out of it.

An Alternative Approach

Most people coming to the Xinjiang question would sit somewhere between these positions of nothing but support for the US and nothing but criticism of it. Sure, Rubio’s belligerence carries its risks, you might say, but at least he’s saying the right thing about the Uyghurs.

But it’s not enough to simply criticize right-wing politicians when they get things wrong and applaud them when they get things right. We need to actively decouple the Xinjiang issue from the pursuit of Western interests in Asia, and provide it with a different framing, one that speaks in universal terms of a rejection of racism and discrimination.

It’s not just that a drive toward war will only make things worse for the Uyghurs or that being morally consistent is a good thing to do. There are pressing practical reasons why such an approach is necessary.

There’s no point talking about holding China to international norms when those norms don’t exist. If anything, Islamophobic bigotry has become the norm around the world, and with it a variety of intrusive and punitive de-radicalization programs similar in conception, if not scale, to China’s. Reading Jim Wolfreys’s recent book on France, it’s not hard to see similarities with the measures being implemented in Xinjiang: bans on forms of veiling, citizens encouraged to look out for signs of radicalization as innocuous as someone changing their eating habits. In 2015, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls went so far as to consult on the constitutionality of creating detention centers for more than ten thousand people on a police watch list of suspected extremists.

This globalizing Islamophobia has dealt Uyghurs a double blow. Almost all Muslims themselves, they experience it when living in the West. It makes it more difficult for them to claim asylum and start a new, normal life outside China. But it also provides the ideal international environment for China to carry out its repression in Xinjiang.

Western leaders have no more qualms about treating Muslims as terrorists than Chinese officials in Xinjiang. This is the principle that informs Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, a policy he is still fighting for in the US courts. And it lies at the heart of Israel’s defense of its massacre in Gaza, an outrageous alibi that Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull have both endorsed on the world stage. People speaking up for the Uyghurs need to take a strong stand against the dehumanizing treatment of Muslims by the West and its allies.

This approach also gives us an opening with an important constituency on this question — ordinary Han Chinese citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Migration from the interior has brought Xinjiang’s Chinese population close to parity with that of its indigenous Uyghurs, meaning that any struggle — be it for independence, greater autonomy, or simply equal rights — must of necessity draw on Chinese support. And while it’s hard for us to talk to Chinese in Xinjiang, we can talk to those in the West.

Many of these PRC citizens have mixed feelings about an issue like Xinjiang: they recognize that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping might be heavy-handed but think he’s right about Western meddling in China’s affairs. And while acknowledging its flaws, they credit the growing strength of the party-state with reducing the amount of old-style Sinophobia they experience when they go abroad. To persuade these people to share our outrage towards the situation in Xinjiang, we have to make a convincing case to them that this outrage reflects a commitment to anti-racism and justice for all, not a campaign to undermine China.

Right now, our ability to do this is threatened by the West’s confrontational stance towards China, which borrows much from the PRC’s own paranoid view of ethnic minorities as inherently dangerous. The scare campaign surrounding Chinese interference in Western democracy has led security agencies to depict the entire Chinese immigrant community as an internal enemy of our own. Going down this path will close off the possibility of engaging with ordinary Chinese on a sensitive topic like Xinjiang.

It’s a huge ask to expect anyone from China to stand up against the racism and discrimination that exists in their community. If we’re going to ask Chinese to do that, we have to show them that we’re willing to do the same ourselves. As a US–China confrontation looms, those speaking up for the Uyghurs in China should be ready to do the same for Chinese being victimized in the West.

Obviously, turning this stance into a convincing, practical political alternative will require real work. It won’t be easy to build up a progressive alliance around the question of Xinjiang with enough weight to rival the resources and influence of the anti-China hawks. For the time being, some Uyghurs will be heartened by Washington’s tough talk against Beijing. But they also know, from bitter experience, that foreign governments who take up this issue can just as quickly drop it if their priorities shift elsewhere. That’s all the more reason to craft an approach that won’t be vulnerable to the political winds in Washington.

The defense of Chinese minorities’ rights must go hand in hand with a firm antiwar stance on Western foreign policy, a determination to end Islamophobia, and vigilance toward anti-Chinese prejudice in our own communities. Linking the question of Xinjiang to these causes is not a distraction; it’s an opportunity.