Since 2016, China has placed approximately 2 million Uyghurs in detention centers for political reeducation, according to conservative estimates. The Uyghurs, who number around 10 million, are a Turkic minority living primarily in southwestern China. The official justification for their detention: fighting “Islamic extremism.”
The detention centers are driven, at their heart, by the political needs of the China’s ruling class. But they are framed within a set of counter-terrorism policies, known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), liberal Western governments and intergovernmental institutions have advocated since 9/11.
Though its precise contours vary by country and organization, CVE aims to prevent individuals from engaging in “terrorist” violence by addressing its purported ideological drivers. Like China’s detention centers, CVE is based on the notion that “extreme” beliefs, specifically Islamically inspired ones, are likely to lead to violence and threaten national security. Its goal is to counteract and ultimately eradicate those belief systems. CVE is, in essence, reeducation without the camps.
The Chinese detention centers show the alarming consequences of CVE’s approach of using ideology as a proxy for violent behavior. They are a reminder that, in practice, these initiatives mask or avoid the systemic political problems, like dictatorship or war, that drive political violence. Their existence also challenges CVE advocates who claim that, notwithstanding its many problems, CVE is a kinder, gentler version of counter-terrorism and is better than “doing nothing.”
Repressing the Uyghurs
China’s repression of the Uyghur population has been happening for decades, though its justifications changed after 9/11. Some segments of the Uyghur population have been committed to the cause of independence since 1949, when China occupied the region known to Uyghurs as East Turkmenistan. Threatened by the region’s separatist tendencies, China implemented policies to eradicate expressions of the indigenous population’s identity. This included curbing adherence to Islam, to which the vast majority of Uyghurs subscribe.
A series of violent attacks allegedly committed by members of the Uyghur community in 2013 and 2014 were the pretext for the latest crackdown and the emergence of the political reeducation camps. The Chinese government has used these centers before — they were a key feature of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. While they continue to be utilized, in more limited ways, for petty criminals, the size and scope of the Uyghur reeducation program has not been seen since the Cultural Revolution’s end.
As the New York Times has reported, the goal of these centers is to remove all attachments to Islam. Individuals are often sent to these camps for expressing any form of Islamic identity, no matter how mundane. According to former detainees and researchers, the detention centers feature interrogations about religious practices, require detainees to attend hours-long sessions about the “dangers” of Islam, and emphasize obeying Chinese law over Sharia.
The Chinese detention centers’ goal of ideological transformation is also central to CVE. CVE began in Britain in the early 2000s and has since spread to innumerable countries, including the United States, the UK, and various Muslim-majority states. It’s also been uncritically embraced by multilateral and intergovernmental institutions, like the UN.
CVE is based on a theory of “radicalization” that claims that in order to become ”terrorists,” individuals must first embrace a way of thinking inclining them toward violence; that this “radicalization” can be predicted, in part, by theological and cultural factors; and that identifying these factors can help governments prevent terrorism. According to this philosophy, there is no distinction between so-called extreme beliefs and violence — the former, even if nonviolent, leads, inexorably, to the latter.
Governments began adopting CVE as a counter-terrorism strategy in the early 2000s. It led to programs like the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities in the greater New York area, which the Associated Press exposed in 2011. The NYPD’s surveillance of over 250 mosques and countless restaurants, cafes, community organizations, and student associations was driven by the CVE-influenced argument that “radicalization” is associated with indicators like“[w]earing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard,” or “[j]oining or forming a group of like-minded individuals in a quest to strengthen one’s dedication to Salafi Islam.”
The federal government’s CVE program, which was launched in the early years of the Obama administration, did not openly link such cultural factors with violence. But in practice, it disproportionately focused on Muslim communities. To the extent the Trump administration has continued to pursue CVE, it has adopted an explicit and exclusive focus on Muslims.
The British version of CVE, known as Prevent, has also been explicit in describing terrorism as associated with nonviolent ideological and cultural markers derived from so-called radical Islam. The Prevent program requires health professionals, teachers, and other public servants to monitor and report on individuals, including school children, displaying those markers. In general, the European approach to CVE embraces this “early prevention” model, which, in contrast to the US version, allows for intervention at the very first signs of nonviolent, “radical” thought.
Nothing May Be Better
There is no clear agreement on the definition of radicalization, extremism, or violent extremism, or how they relate to one another. Nor — despite all the money and research poured into CVE — is there any consensus on what leads individuals to participate in terrorism. Similarly, there is no evidence that belief systems, whether Islamic or otherwise, necessarily cause people to engage in violence. What the data does suggest, however, is that those who commit violent acts do not inevitably possess “radical” beliefs at all.
As the last fifteen years have made clear, CVE is most useful as a way of criminalizing individual belief. At best, CVE programs co-opt communities to police ideologies states dislike. At worst, they lead to the Chinese model. Indeed, the only restrictions on CVE’s inevitably regressive consequences come from outside CVE itself, namely from preexisting civil and human rights laws. Even where meaningful civil rights and liberties do exist, CVE is inherently threatening to those protections. Where civil and human rights laws have been eroded, are meaningless, or nonexistent, CVE programs have served as tools of political repression, legitimizing restrictions on speech and political activism.
As state practice has shown, CVE is a convenient way of “explaining” terrorism without having to address government policies, from hawkish foreign policy to authoritarian domestic practices, that are often the real targets of “terrorist” actors. While couched in terms of liberal values and community safety, CVE provides governments with the ideological justification to pursue preexisting agendas, instead of grounding their policies in empirical data.
It is no wonder, then, that Chinese government officials have used the rhetoric of CVE to legitimate their detention centers, or that some have fallen for it. While rooted in domestic political conflicts and longstanding Chinese state practices, the reeducation camps represent the full expression of CVE, gloves off.
Of course, supporting marginalized young people through education and employment opportunities, as some CVE programs encourage, is critical for any society. Embedding these programs within CVE, however, instrumentalizes those efforts for the sake of a “war on terror” that has wreaked havoc on civil rights worldwide. Far from being a holistic, humane program effective at preventing terrorism, CVE is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that aims to culturally transform Muslim identities. As China’s practices toward the Uyghurs stir public condemnation, they should also raise serious questions about whether CVE is, indeed, better than doing nothing at all.