Demanding an End to Uyghur Oppression

Sean R. Roberts

We can oppose the saber-rattling and militarism of the US’s China hawks without downplaying the oppression of the Uyghur people.

Two Uyghur women enter a highly surveilled bazaar in Hotan, in China's northwest Xinjiang region, 2019. (Greg Baker / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Matthew Byrd

The Uyghurs — a predominantly Muslim people who inhabit China’s northwestern Xinjiang province and consider the region their homeland — have long had a tumultuous relationship with the various iterations of the Chinese state that have governed them since the mid-eighteenth century.

In 2017, that relationship entered a new and more terrifying phase as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — eyeing the region’s economic potential and drawing on Islamophobic, “War on Terror” rhetoric — began to construct a series of mass internment camps that, according to a 2018 study, are believed to hold over a million people in arbitrary detention.

The CCP has built a repressive apparatus that includes a panopticon of digital surveillance, family separation, forced birth control, and the physical destruction of Uyghur communities. As scholar David Brophy wrote in Jacobin in 2018, “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.”

Meanwhile, tensions have been steadily escalating between Washington and Beijing, with US hawks increasingly — and cynically — using the anti-Uyghur repression as just another means to saber-rattle. It is vitally important for the US left to understand the scale of the catastrophe being visited upon the Uyghurs — and doing what we can to stop it — while also refusing to play handmaiden to an ultra-hawkish turn in US foreign policy toward China.

Sean R. Roberts — a cultural anthropologist who has studied the Uyghur region for over three decades — has written a new book on the crisis, The War on the Uyghurs, which places its origins both in the Chinese state’s colonial relationship with the Uyghur people and the global War on Terror launched by the United States in 2001. Roberts talked to Jacobin contributor Matthew Byrd about those origins, why he considers the situation similar to the United States’ destruction of its indigenous populations, and what means might be used to end the crisis. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What’s Happening In Xianjing

Matthew Byrd

What is the current situation for Uyghurs living in China?

Sean R. Roberts

What has been happening generally since 2017 appears to be continuing apace. By 2017 the repression targeting Uyghurs had been getting worse since 2009. But most of the state securitization of the region and racial profiling of Uyghurs had been focused in Uyghur-majority and rural regions, especially in the south of Uyghur territory.

Then in late 2016 and early 2017 we saw a sudden escalation of repression that targeted not only Uyghurs but also other indigenous peoples in the region, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and others. This included the fortification of an already draconian system of electronic surveillance with ubiquitous police stations and checkpoints throughout urban spaces in the region. It also involved a campaign targeting Uyghur secular intellectuals, cultural figures, religious figures, and party officials, resulting mostly in the arrest of these people on the charges of “separatism,” “extremism,” and “terrorism.” This was followed by the disappearance of many less prominent civilians into extralegal internment camps which were framed as “reeducation” or “deradicalization” centers.

Internment was determined by a combination of evaluating one’s loyalty to the state — using a database that compiled surveillance on individuals, behaviors, connections, communications, and association with religious activities — as well as with quotas that came down from central authorities to local party organs. These two aspects have created an environment of fear.

The state is seeking to alter the Uyghur people by breaking their solidarity and severing their attachment with the territory of their homeland. This is being done by forced assimilation measures, forced language change, and the breaking up of social networks. At the same time, the state is transforming the terrain by demolishing or decommissioning mosques and religious pilgrimage sites, removing the Uyghur language from public spaces, and leveling entire Uyghur communities.

A critical part of this process involves thinning out the Uyghur population in the region to ensure they cannot voice concerns about this transformation. This is partly being accomplished by limiting births and promoting mixed-ethnic marriages. But perhaps a more prominent driver of these demographic changes has to do with the state’s large coerced labor program, sending Uyghurs to residential factories both inside and outside the region.

Some of those sent to factories are those who have been released from reeducation and mass internment camps. Others are merely rural Uyghur residents that the state wishes to move out of their villages to make way for development. While parents are placed in mass internment, prison, or residential labor programs, their children are being sent to residential boarding schools to be socialized in Chinese culture and language.

Matthew Byrd

In The War on the Uyghurs, you characterize this as the culmination of a settler-colonial project whose origins go back to the initial conquest of the Uyghur homeland by the Qing Dynasty in the mid-eighteenth century. Can you sketch out that history?

Sean R. Roberts

China initially conquered the Uyghur homeland in the mid-eighteenth century and ruled it as a dependency for a century, before being pushed out by local revolts in the 1860s.

You only see the type of colonialism usually associated with European states in the late nineteenth century. The Qing Dynasty conquered the region again in the 1880s and began a “civilizing mission” which included Han settlement. By most accounts it was a failure and the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, followed by a fragile Republican government that inherited the Qing Territory. Throughout this period, the region was loosely controlled by Han governors who had tenuous relationships with the central authorities and ran it as their own little feudal empire.

After the Chinese Revolution in 1949, it was unclear what was going to happen to the region. It could have ended up like the Mongolian People’s Republic, an independent Soviet satellite state. But eventually it was folded into the People’s Republic of China [PRC].

Since 1949 there has always been a drive by the PRC to integrate this region, but there hasn’t always been the capacity to do so. Initially, it tried the Soviet model of coopting local elites and governing through them. That ended in failure by the late 1950s, and then you had a series of chaotic mass social campaigns under Mao that didn’t allow the state to focus on this region in particular.

It was only in the early 1980s that the state really started thinking, “How do we incorporate this region into China?” and, “How do we define our nation? Is it a multicultural nation? A nation-state?”

There were a lot of very progressive ideas in the Chinese Communist Party generally and a lot of this affected the Uyghur region positively, including discussions about whether the region should have more substantive autonomy, more of a role for local peoples in governing and so on. But that began to end with the Tiananmen Square Massacre and, in particular, the fall of the Soviet Union.

From that time onward, the CCP began to look at what happened to the Soviet Union and determine how to prevent that from happening to China. They wrongly identified “ethnic self-determination” as one of the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union and started targeting any signs of a desire for self-determination — which throughout the 1990s, they referred to as “separatism.”

So the settler colonial process only really begins in the ’90s, which makes it much less drawn out than it seems if you’re first talking about this region becoming a part of modern China in the mid-eighteenth century.

Matthew Byrd

Media outlets have often labelled the forced labor camps as “the largest internment of an ethnic group since the Second World War.” The historical parallel you draw in the book, however, is not with the Holocaust but with the destruction of indigenous communities in the United States, Canada, and Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sean R. Roberts

The comparison that is most relevant to what is happening in China is the US expansion to the West, and probably Canada as well. It begins with the desire to expand American economic growth, and to do that in the nineteenth century meant the United States had to control more land, develop it, and settle it. In that process, indigenous peoples were viewed as at best superfluous and at worst an obstacle that had to be removed.

Starting in the 1820s you had the policy of Indian removal, which became increasingly draconian throughout the rest of the nineteenth century — to the point where you saw the United States trying to break the solidarity of Native American nations, employing all kinds of forced assimilation measures, and eventually quarantining them onto reservations.

When I was writing my book and looking at what was happening to the Uyghurs, I saw so many parallels, even in tactics. The attempt to break solidarity and identity seemed to be central to what the Chinese government was doing. There was also embedded in a lot of these policies a desire to remove people from their homeland and thin out their demographic footprint.

The residential boarding schools and the residential labor programs are very similar to policies imposed on Native Americans in nineteenth-century America. There’s a famous quote from the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Matthew Byrd

And now it’s, “Kill the Uyghur, save the human.”

Sean R. Roberts

Exactly, and while we don’t see the rapid, wholesale killing of people like we did in the Holocaust, what we do see is an attempt to separate families, separate communities, forcibly assimilate people to the dominant culture, remove them from their land, sever their connection to that land, break their social capital and solidarity, and destroy their culture.

This is essentially a technique of pacifying a people, ensuring that they cannot pose any threat or resistance to whatever the state wants to do with their homeland. I use the term cultural genocide because of its associations with the removal of indigenous peoples. And I think that what we see right now in the Uyghur region is a lot like the process of cultural genocide elsewhere in the world from a century ago, but benefitting from high-tech forms of repression that are available now in the twenty-first century.

The Uyghurs and the US “War on Terror”

Matthew Byrd

A major theme in The War on the Uyghurs is the role that the US War on Terror played in creating the international environment where repression of the Uyghurs could rapidly escalate. How did this war launched in 2001 lead to Uyghurs being thrown in forced labor camps in 2017?

Sean R. Roberts

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of liberal thinkers had very optimistic ideas of a future where the principles of human rights and democracy would be maintained by American leadership. The global War on Terror destroyed that illusion, as we saw the United States perpetrate mass human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary internment, mass involuntary surveillance — a lot of the things now happening in the Uyghur region.

Simultaneously, the War on Terror  made the term a means of dehumanization, because if someone was labeled a “terrorist,” it suggested they were less than human, not worthy of any human rights. This opened a door where states could justify human rights abuses by saying such abuses were merely “combatting terrorism.”

It has also gradually fostered a generalized Islamophobia, where people are able to associate that same dehumanization of “terrorist” with any Muslim. We’ve seen this happen with the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, and the Uyghurs in China. It’s a very dangerous source of dehumanization which has replicated the nineteenth-century idea of “savages” about subjects of colonialism. It says, “these people are less than human and the only way to bring them into civilization is to transform them into humans,” which is also assumed to be something you can’t completely do.

With the Chinese government, there was a quick pivot right after 9/11 to redefine what it had been calling “separatism” in the 1990s into “terrorism,” and to try to link Uyghurs with groups such as al-Qaeda. The United States was complicit in this, in 2002 recognizing a small group of Uyghurs in Afghanistan as a terrorist group and endorsing its addition to the UN’s consolidated list of terrorist organizations. This did a lot of damage to Uyghurs, as it justified a higher level of persecution inside China that was immune from international criticism.

Matthew Byrd

There were even Uyghurs held in Guantanamo Bay, correct?

Sean R. Roberts

Yes. The United States was using bounty hunters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to round up alleged or suspected terrorists. There were a group of Uyghurs who — due to a variety of different circumstances — ended up in Afghanistan. They weren’t going there to join “global jihad.” They were finding different ways to get out of China and go somewhere that the Chinese government wouldn’t be able to catch them. A lot of them intended to get to Turkey, which was known as a kind of safe haven for Uyghurs. When the US bombing began, a lot of these people fled across the mountains into Pakistan, and a large group of them were sold to the US military by bounty hunters.

Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. (Wikimedia Commons)

The US military brought them to Guantanamo Bay and imprisoned them for years, with the last Uyghur detainee being released in 2013. They were repeatedly questioned, and the US even allowed Chinese interrogators to come and interview them as part of an agreement on joint counterterrorism operations.

I actually talked to one young Uyghur man who was repatriated to Albania after being released. He was eighteen when he was brought to Guantanamo. He was trying to get to the United States to study and went to Pakistan to get a US visa, and a friend of his convinced him to go see Afghanistan.

He showed up in the country on September 12, 2001 with no idea what had happened the day before. He ended up at a Uyghur encampment which he didn’t see as a terrorist training center or related to any kind of organization but was probably in some ways connected to Häsän Mäkhsum, a Uyghur who I talk about in the book as having this idea of creating an insurgency to liberate the Uyghur homeland from China and also ended up in Afghanistan.

It’s Kafkaesque to read the interviews the US military did with Uyghur detainees, because many reported never having even heard of Osama Bin Laden or al-Qaeda before.

Matthew Byrd

As you mentioned, the War on Terror kicked off a global wave of Islamophobia that has touched France, Denmark, Israel, India, Sri Lanka, and beyond. When did this wave arrive in China?

Sean R. Roberts

It didn’t arrive immediately after 9/11. For most Chinese citizens, they didn’t really know what to associate this new idea of “terrorism” with. You probably had people who, over time, watching the news about the War on Terror, were thinking, “Oh, maybe Muslims are a real threat.” But from 2002 to 2008, there were no reports of violence in the Uyghur region of China, which belied the question of whether there really was this “existential terrorist threat” that the Chinese government faced.

Uyghurs used to be exoticized as people who liked to sing and dance, and were maybe dangerous in the sense of criminality, similar to racist stereotypes of African Americans in the United States. For example, in 1990s Beijing, Uyghur enclaves were popularly seen as places where you could get illegal narcotics.  But that really changed in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics. A group of small, under-resourced Uyghurs in Pakistan — who posed no threat to China — began making videos threatening the games. This was the first time you had the idea of Uyghurs as an “existential threat” enter the imagination of regular Chinese citizens.

The Uyghurs shifted from this group that was seen as inferior, semi-criminal, and exotic to an existential threat. That ramped up the next summer in 2009, because you had riots in Ürümqi, the capital city of the Uyghur region, which involved both Uyghur-on-Han violence and Han-on-Uyghur violence. This erupted out of a peaceful demonstration by Uyghur youth — protesting the murder of two Uyghurs working in a toy factory in Shaoguan by their Han coworkers — that was violently put by down law enforcement.

This ethnic violence had nothing to do with terrorism or Islamic extremism, but it was the most violent event involving Uyghurs in China up to that point and led to significant demonization of Uyghurs. In the mind of many Han that I’ve spoken to, that event more than anything else defines their idea of Uyghur terrorism, even though it was essentially a civil disturbance that was an outcome of massive state-led development in the region and the pressures that created more than anything else.

Matthew Byrd

It’s not a central thread in the book, but you do mention that the CCP’s economic aspirations for Xinjiang province are a significant driver of the escalating repression. What are those aspirations, and why do they not include the Uyghurs?

Sean R. Roberts

In the 1990s, as the Chinese government started to focus on exporting consumer products abroad, the state began to understand that the Uyghur homeland was a significant region to develop because it had all of these overland routes to different markets. If you look at it on a map, most of its borders are outward facing, with routes going throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics on to Europe, going down to South Asia in Afghanistan, India, and through Pakistan down to the Persian Gulf. In some ways, the Belt and Road Initiative, at least the “Road” part of it, came out of this realization that the Chinese state was making about the importance of this region. It became an integral part of the strategy under Xi Jinping for promoting Chinese economic expansion globally.

At the same time, you had some of the same dynamics that you had in the United States in the nineteenth century. It’s ridiculous to call China anything but a capitalist country. And there’s been a realization that the development of the Uyghur homeland as an industrial base is something that will create economic growth. Some of these coerced residential labor programs seem to also be about making the Uyghur region a significant production hub. We’ve seen the proliferation of factories in the region — particularly in the apparel industry, as this region is the source of most of China’s cotton.

It again can be compared to the Native American example where, on the one hand, the indigenous population doesn’t necessarily want the area they see as their homeland developed by what they perceive as outsiders. And secondly there’s this dehumanization that has taken place, where Uyghurs are seen as inferior and incapable of participating in this new kind of development. Over the last several years, Uyghur intellectuals have been put in “reeducation centers” to be trained to work in apparel factories. So, they become a part of the economic machine, but at the very lowest rung.

What Can Be Done?

Matthew Byrd

The US government has started to employ more rhetorical opposition to China’s anti-Uyghur policies. However, the United States’ own history of cultural genocide means any US effort to lead a coalition of nations — many of whom have direct experience with the brutal consequences of US empire — would lack any moral credibility. How should ordinary people outside of China — particularly on the Left — address this situation?

Sean R. Roberts

I’m really hoping for more global grassroots advocacy on the issue, particularly focused around consumer advocacy.

Matthew Byrd

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar led several members of Congress in drafting letters to the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Google, Gap, and other companies demanding they stop using forced Uyghur labor in their supply chains.

Sean R. Roberts

Right, in this day in age, that kind of advocacy can be powerful.

As my colleague Darren Byler pointed out to me, when engaging on this issue, critics on the Left also have to understand that Uyghurs have a very small diaspora population and are less concerned with articulating a leftist critique of what is happening to them than with stopping it.

With that said, there are some left-leaning groups now emerging that have the type of strategy I mentioned. Groups like the Uyghur Solidarity Campaign, a leftist group in the UK. It is not necessarily an ethnic Uyghur group, but they have supporters from the Uyghur community and have done some campaigning targeting corporations that are complicit in the abuses against Uyghurs. There’s also the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition in the United States.