By Eleanor Morley
In China’s north-western region of Xinjiang, a great crime is being committed against Uyghur communities. Since 2014, more than one and a half million people have been interned in “re-education camps”, children have been removed from their homes and sent to state administered boarding schools, and potentially millions are now enrolled in forced labour programs. The ethnically Turkic and Muslim majority Uyghur prisoners have been forced to remove any outward sign of their faith, such as beards or hijabs, and start each day singing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party. Other Muslim minorities have been swept up in the repression, including Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Hui.
Xinjiang’s cities are under occupation. Police outposts line the streets every few hundred metres. Surveillance cameras fitted with facial recognition software affixed to street poles, shops and apartment building entrances observe every corner of the cities. Public buildings, including schools and hospitals, have had concrete walls topped with barbed wire built around their perimeters. Even private homes cannot escape the eyes of the CCP; police conduct residential searches, and party officials travel the region in teams temporarily taking up residence inside Uyghur houses.
“[There are] police stations on every major intersection, checkpoints where Uyghur drivers line up on one side, while Chinese sail through the green lane next to them”, says David Brophy, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney. He witnessed the occupation of Xinjiang firsthand in 2017. “I’ve seen kids having their phones checked on the street for mandatory government spyware, elderly men and women being drilled in the streets with sticks and clubs for their role in a ‘people’s war on terror’. This is all justified in terms of a global discourse of deradicalisation and pre-emptive policing.”
The program of detention and indoctrination was first denied, then justified by president Xi Jinping as necessary to combat terrorism in the region. But much like Xi’s counterparts in the West, the government is using the smokescreen of Islamic extremism to conceal far more cynical motives. Beijing aims to wipe out opposition in Xinjiang and undermine an independent Uyghur claim to the territory to secure the geostrategically important area for future expansion.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic speaking, Muslim majority ethnic group from Central Asia, most of whom reside in Xinjiang, with communities also in the neighbouring countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Despite their autonomous culture and historic connection to the land, Uyghurs have been denied self-determination in Xinjiang, much like the Tibetan people in western China.
The Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China, first brought the region today known as Xinjiang under its control in the 1750s during a wave of imperial expansion. After more than 100 years of indirect rule periodically shaken by local rebellions, Xinjiang (which means “new frontier”) was finally established as a colonial province of the central Chinese authorities in 1884. From then on, the region was administered by Chinese bureaucrats, some of whom held on to power after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912.
The following decades opened an era of repeated attempts for Uyghur self-determination. Nestled in the border region between China and Russia, the Uyghurs and other local Muslim groups entered their own bid for nationhood. They looked to the USSR for support as new Soviet republics were constructed in Central Asia. But as Stalin consolidated the counter-revolution, Soviet nationalities policy flipped from aiding liberation to aiding the territorial and imperialist ambitions of the new ruling bureaucracy. The Uyghurs were sold out repeatedly as Stalin struck deals with the nationalist government of China.
A mass uprising in the early 1930s eventually established the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) in 1933. This was brought to a swift end in 1934 when warlord Sheng Shicai crushed the movement with the help of military battalions from the USSR, which feared the rebellion spreading to its Central Asian dominions and was reluctant to undermine close trading ties with the region. This alliance was maintained until 1942, when Sheng shifted support to the Kuomintang (Nationalists), in turn leading Stalin to encourage another rebellion centred on Kashgar in the west of the region, which established the Second East Turkestan Republic. Both ETRs are still a backdrop to the hopes and inspirations for self-determination in Xinjiang today.
In 1949, as Mao Zedong’s armies emerged victorious from the Chinese civil war, Xinjiang was annexed into the new People’s Republic of China. A Soviet plane carrying five leaders of the ETR to negotiations with the central government in Beijing crashed in suspicious circumstances, killing all passengers. Leaders who continued to argue for greater independence were purged from the party and the local administration.
While officially designated the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”, with some rights granted to the local population, Xinjiang remained under the grip of the CCP in Beijing. As in China’s other autonomous regions, local autonomy has in practice been subordinated to the political and economic ambitions of the central government.
Since the CCP came to power, there have been steady programs of Han Chinese – the majority ethnic group – migration to Xinjiang. In 1949 Uyghurs made up about three-quarters of the local population; today, they are just 42 percent, according to official statistics. With the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao waged war against his CCP opponents and called on the Communist Red Guards to destroy the “four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. In Xinjiang, mosques were destroyed, religious texts and Uyghur-language books were burned, and respected local authorities and figureheads were persecuted in the name of cultural assimilation. Despite the severe cultural and political repression, the independent Uyghur culture and language survived.
Hopes that the economic reforms and comparatively more tolerant cultural policies of Deng Xiaoping would allow greater regional autonomy in Xinjiang were eventually dashed after a sharp crackdown followed a series of public demonstrations in the late 1980s and an uprising in 1990. Determined to avoid the same fate as the USSR, the CCP began safeguarding against similar dynamics developing within its own borders. The Tiananmen Square massacre was one such attempt, as were new efforts to gain even more coercive control of the autonomous regions. Xinjiang was of concern due to its proximity to the newly independent Central Asian branch of the former USSR.
The repression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been raised to terrifying new proportions under the reign of Xi Jinping. Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the Chinese regime refashioned its ideological justification of the repression, arguing it fit neatly into the global war on terror. This has been the main argument used by Xi: the existential threat of a growing Islamic terrorist movement in Xinjiang.
While it is true that a small number of Uyghurs forged links with Islamists in Syria and Iraq, they by no means represent a mass movement in Xinjiang, much as a handful of Islamists in Western countries do not represent the political perspective of other Muslims. But the CCP has borrowed a page from the playbook of its Western counterparts – using isolated incidents of terrorist attacks to condemn a whole community to intense state repression.
Last year, the New York Times published 403 leaked papers from the CCP’s Xinjiang file, revealing an unprecedented insider view of the development and execution of the most comprehensive internment program since the rule of Mao. The documents reveal that the groundwork for the crackdown was laid by a series of internal party speeches given by Xi following a trip to Xinjiang in April 2014, a few weeks after a stabbing attack at a train station which left 31 mostly Han Chinese dead. In the speeches, Xi calls on the party to use the “organs of dictatorship” to “show no mercy” against the Uyghur community. Directives were given to CCP officials in Xinjiang to begin surveilling and imprisoning citizens, and to militarise the region under a new “strike hard against violent terrorism” campaign.
In August 2016, party hardliner Chen Quanguo was installed as governor of Xinjiang after proving his appetite for repression as party secretary in Tibet. The internment camps were extended in 2017 as hundreds of thousands were rounded up in arbitrary and often violent arrests. Uyghurs are frequently referred to as a “virus” infected with the disease of Islam; anyone displaying “symptoms” from a list of 75 signs of religious extremism – such as praying regularly, refusing to smoke or drink, or owning religious texts – faces the threat of internment. A second tranche of leaked documents released in 2020 includes Excel spreadsheets listing the transgressions of Xinjiang’s residents. These include travelling abroad, having too many children and being married to a detainee. Reports have since filtered out from the Uyghur diaspora about life in the camps. They make for grim reading.
Abdusalam Muhemet, a 41-year-old man who spent two months in a sprawling camp outside Hotan, told the New York Times he was arrested for reciting from the Koran at a funeral. He reported that inside the camp inmates started the day by jogging around the yard and were slapped or pushed if they fell behind. Next came the recitation of patriotic hymns; those who hadn’t yet memorised the words were denied breakfast. Most of the day was filled with long lectures by officials denouncing Islam, praising the CCP and warning against the dangers of Uyghur separatism. “In the end, all the officials had one key point”, Muhemet told the Times, “the greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture”.
Early fears of a Nazi-style extermination have not eventuated in Xinjiang, although there are reports of deaths in the camps. But release from internment has not brought freedom for detainees. Expansive new industrial zones have been built in Kashgar and Hotan, employing ex-detainees in programs accused of forced labour. Covert footage acquired by the Times from inside one of the factories reveals walls pasted in CCP propaganda, cramped dormitories and claims by workers that their movements are severely restricted outside work hours.
Xinjiang’s cotton industry has been under fire for exploiting forced labour at each stage of the supply chain: from picking cotton in the fields to processing and spinning yarn and manufacturing textiles and garments. China is a major cotton supplier, and 85 percent of the country’s crops are produced in Xinjiang. Many of the world’s top clothing brands, including Adidas, Uniqlo and Tommy Hilfiger, are complicit in purchasing products made by Uyghur forced labour.
Running parallel to the internment camps is a growing network of boarding schools filled with up to half a million Uyghur children. Government planning documents indicate the schools intend to start the indoctrination program among Uyghur youth, many of whom have parents interned in camps or enrolled in labour programs. Children are taught an assimilationist curriculum of patriotism and party loyalty, and are discouraged from speaking their own languages. The high security facilities have now extended to preschools, and according to government reports they now house 40 percent of the region’s children.
Even those who have stayed out of Xinjiang’s institutions have had their daily lives and freedoms upended. The entire region has been wired with a comprehensive surveillance system. Extensive records of biometric data and DNA samples have been gathered, and Uyghurs living in Xinjiang and the diaspora have had malware embedded in their smartphones. These methods are a coercive way to force a whole community to self-police and make the construction of a Uyghur resistance movement difficult.
Xinjiang is an important economic and geostrategic region, with large oil, gas and coal reserves and an extensive agricultural industry. Economic development of the region has been earmarked by Xi as a priority in his Go West strategy, and Xinjiang’s resources are helping fuel an export market to neighbouring Central Asia. As tensions between China and the US escalate, the political capital fostered through tight economic ties to Central Asia become more important. Xinjiang is also a crucial link in Xi’s trademark Belt and Road Initiative. The region has become a key transport node linking the economic heart of eastern China with the Gwadar port in Pakistan and several other economic corridors.
Herein lies the motivation behind mass repression in Xinjiang, described by Brophy as “to end ethnic conflict by eradicating all space to make claims in the name of a Uyghur nation”. In the eyes of the CCP, the enduring independent identity and latent national ambitions of the Uyghurs pose a threat to Beijing’s expansionist program. While there has been nothing even remotely representing a mass movement for independence for many decades, the prospect of one developing in the future is too much for China’s rulers. Better to terrorise and dismantle Uyghur communities today, while the threat of organised resistance is low.
In recent months, Western leaders increasingly have levelled criticisms about the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. US president Trump has now imposed sanctions against top officials associated with the crackdown, including Chen Quanguo. This has nothing to do with genuine concern for the Uyghurs: Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton detailed in a tell-all memoir the president’s private support for the construction of the camps in Xinjiang. The US has for years turned a blind eye to repression in the area; when the PRC linked a Uyghur separatist organisation to al-Qaeda in 2002, the Bush administration dropped any criticism of state violence in the region and locked up 22 Uyghur men in Guantánamo Bay at the behest of China.
Nor will increased hostility from the West free the Uyghurs. As Brophy argues in Jacobin, “linking the injustices there [in Xinjiang] 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 re-education camps could very quickly turn into internment camps for the entire Uyghur population”.
Sections of the international left have also denied the extent of repression against the Uyghurs. Dressed up in an anti-imperialist cloak, the argument goes that the stories of internment camps and forced labour are the product of Western propaganda designed to discredit the CCP. Instead, they argue, China is investing heavily in the region to raise social conditions. These arguments are reminiscent of support for Soviet crimes against Russian workers and nations oppressed within the USSR, and are a callous rejection of solidarity with millions of people facing potentially the worst human rights abuses of the modern era.
As conflict between the US and China reaches ever greater heights, the pressure to line up behind one of the two great powers grows. But both are overseen by an exploitative and oppressive ruling class elite committed to suppressing human freedoms in the pursuit of profit and power.
The fate of the 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang is not yet clear. There have been no signs of organised resistance to the internment and repression, and realistically the conditions do not bode well for such a movement developing anytime soon. Xi Jinping’s China is one of heightened repression, greater centralisation and unparalleled surveillance. But if or when resistance does manage to break out in the most populous country in the world, conditions in Xinjiang are ripe to explode.
Courtesy Red Flag