China’s oppression of Muslim citizens has entered a new stage with news emerging about a system of reeducation and detention camps aimed at isolating people the state identifies as Muslims to “cure” them of religion. The main targets are Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang – what they prefer to call “East Turkestan” – with Chinese officials claiming to defend their country against Islamic extremism. The facts instead indicate systematic persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.
Since China announced its “Open Up the West” campaign in 1999, the mechanics of crony capitalism, as described in a 2016 essay “Lucrative Chaos” by Thomas Cliff in Ethnic Conflict & Protest in Tibet & Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, have combined with China’s geo-economic strategy, rising nationalism and authoritarianism to produce an increasingly unequal society in Xinjiang, one marred by ethnic discrimination and managed by a surveillance regime of unprecedented sophistication.
Chinese authorities justify high expenditures on public security by deploying the language of the War on Terror. One official recently made the hyperbolic claim that the crackdown is meant to prevent Xinjiang from becoming “China’s Syria.” Such rhetoric once earned China the tacit support of the United States and the United Nations, but international concern has increased following revelations of mass incarceration.
The People’s Republic of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang has sent up to one million people into the camps, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, and many more have been disappeared. While the majority of those detained or sentenced to reeducation are ordinary Uyghur men, some high-profile cases have emerged, including those of a prominent anthropologist and the “Uyghur Justin Bieber,” along with eyewitness testimony from former detainees and camp workers. Mounting evidence from official People’s Republic of China documents and satellite imagery of prison camps confirm the program’s existence and suggest its scope and extent – and has been presented to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the United Nations.
Chinese representatives deny the allegations, claiming instead that many Uyghurs have been sent to vocational training schools or arrested for minor crimes. Coincidentally, many of the so-called vocational schools feature guard towers and razor wire, while the alleged crime rate has increased sharply: 21% of all arrests in China in 2017 were made in Xinjiang, which accounts for 1.5% of the nation’s population.
Nevertheless, the international response remains muted with political factors in play: Uyghurs, unlike Tibetans, have relatively low name recognition and little serious support abroad. For complex historical reasons, the Uyghur cause has largely been championed by conservative politicians or far-right groups with little chance of implementing policy. Those politicians often deploy the Uyghur issue cynically from an anti-China rather than pro-Uyghur position. Moreover, widespread awareness of the United States’ own prison-industrial complex that profits from mass incarceration reduces the credibility of American criticism.
Economic factors also discourage international outcry. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would seem to be a natural ally to the Turkic-speaking, mostly Sunni Uyghurs and once referred to the situation in East Turkestan as “genocide.” Instead, Turkey has strengthened economic ties with China through the Belt and Road Initiative. Other Muslim countries have been largely silent for similar reasons, prompting frustration among diaspora Uyghurs. Some in the diplomatic community indicate that simply raising the issue of Muslim rights is enough to end productive discussion with Chinese counterparts and thus preclude negotiations on trade or security.
Nevertheless, countries around the world can expect to host more Uyghur and Kazakh refugees in the near future as those abroad become aware of the consequences of returning to China, where any foreign contact is cause for suspicion. Germany ended Uyghur deportations to China this year, and others may follow suit – although such support is more than offset by extraditions from countries closer to China such as Thailand and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstanis are increasingly aware of imprisonment of their own citizens in Xinjiang, and testimony from a camp instructor suggested that many Chinese Kazakhs have fallen victim. All of this may contribute to popular resentment among China’s regional allies, if not actual policy change.
A Han Chinese activist once warned that “Xinjiang is a snapshot of China’s future,” in that the oppression of Islam would lead to more religious persecution elsewhere. A conflict recently arose over a mosque in Ningxia, where the religious institutions of the Hui – Chinese-speaking Muslims – were long thought to be safe from interference and even supported by the state. Just as China once assumed the time was ripe to curtail minority languages and culture in Xinjiang, so it seems to assume citizens will accept a general assault on Islam.
China may be overplaying its hand and missing the point: In Xinjiang, “Project Beauty” punishes Uyghur men and women for sporting veils, beards and long skirts and propagandises dressing in a way the government considers harmlessly “ethnic” rather than “religious.” Similarly, officials in Ningxia have chosen to emphasise what is deemed “national” architecture over the community’s organic relationship to Islam. History has shown that being a Muslim and a loyal People’s Republic of China citizen are hardly incompatible, but the leadership periodically demands assimilation.
To understand why, one cannot discount the place of religion in Chinese theories of historical change. Many party officials and affiliated academics regard the elimination of religion as a necessary step in the accelerated integration of China’s minorities into a pan-Chinese identity and prosperous, modern state.
The People’s Republic of China’s ethnic policies in Xinjiang have long produced the opposite of their stated intended effects and will continue to do so. Official corruption and workplace discrimination have long denied Uyghurs the economic benefits of resource extraction and development. The regional government has attempted to alleviate the pain of development with inconsistent and ham-handed efforts at cultural assimilation – a near-textbook example of how to create popular discontent and even encourage the anti-state Islamism that China has claimed to combat all along.
In another sense, Xinjiang is an extreme form of China’s emerging surveillance state. Citizens in East China, particularly those who live and work in massive factories, already experience similar techniques of discipline and surveillance, such as the use of biometric data to track citizens. Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who first experimented with his “grid-style social management” system in Tibet, has demonstrated the continued efficacy of combining technological surveillance with forcing citizens to police one another. Such techniques could be deployed elsewhere, wherever the party-state desires control and the companies producing security technology seek profits.
In Xinjiang, the technological sophistication of the reeducation and surveillance system suggests to some observers that the party state may have finally created the secularised, Sinicised Uyghur population it has desired for decades. Some reports state that the reeducation program is slated to continue for 30 years, long enough to produce a generation steeped in Xi Jinping Thought. Reports that detainees’ children have been placed in orphanages recall the Soviet Union’s practice of placing well-trained wards of the state in leadership positions.
China will succeed if the international climate does not change quickly. The loss of credible US moral leadership and military power in Central Asia make it difficult for Uyghurs’ allies in the United States to intercede, although some may be speaking up precisely because they are not obliged to back up their words with actions. The prospects for change from within are dismal, and any domestic rebellion in Xinjiang would probably fail immediately. Meanwhile, as China adopts a superpower posture, its actions will create precedents, justified in terms of the People’s Republic of China’s interpretation of human rights and insistence on discretion in “internal matters.” The outlook is grim.
Eric Schluessel is Assistant Professor of Chinese History and Politics at the University of Montana and a current Mellon Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of several articles on Xinjiang’s past and present.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.