(By Sean R. Roberts - February 10, 2021 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)
SEAN R. ROBERTS is Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is the author of The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority.
On January 19, one day before leaving office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China’s actions against the Uyghur minority group constituted “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Antony Blinken, Pompeo’s successor, would later agree with this characterization in his confirmation hearing. The notion that a genocide is underway in the twenty-first century seems outlandish, especially in a country that produces the majority of consumer products in American homes. But whatever the merits of the term, the evidence of the atrocities that China has committed against Uyghurs is undeniable.
Over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang are in mass internment camps, prisons, and other penal institutions where they are subjected to psychological stress, torture, and, as recently reported by the BBC, systematic rape. Outside these penal institutions, the Chinese government has placed the indigenous people of the region under constant surveillance using cutting-edge technologies, involuntarily sterilizes women, strips children from their families and sends them to boarding schools, and has dispatched hundreds of thousands of people into forced residential labor programs in factories throughout China. All the while, the Chinese state is erasing the Uyghur characteristics of the region, destroying mosques and sites of pilgrimage, bulldozing traditional neighborhoods, and suppressing the Uyghur language.
The Uyghurs are the main indigenous group in Xinjiang. They are mostly Muslim, speak their own Turkic language, and have maintained a culture distinct from that of the majority Han population of China. According to Chinese government figures, there are 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang—a drop in the bucket when set against China’s overall population of 1.4 billion people. And yet this community has drawn the full force of the Chinese security apparatus, which seems bent on pummeling the minority group into submission.
China’s brutal behavior in Xinjiang does not just reflect the country’s increasingly authoritarian turn under President Xi Jinping or the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Rather, the repression of the Uyghurs arises out of a fundamentally colonial relationship between Beijing and a territory that it conquered long ago but neither fully incorporated into modern China nor allowed real autonomy. In the 1980s, it seemed for a moment that Beijing might reach a more tolerant modus vivendi with the Uyghurs. But China eventually opted to try to quash Xinjiang’s distinct identity. In pleading with Beijing to change its policies in the region, outsiders are in effect asking China to be a very different nation-state than the one it has chosen to be.
China’s actions against the Uyghur people over the last four years recall the cultural genocides carried out by other settler colonial powers in previous eras. Much like indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, Uyghurs have faced mass incarceration and internment, the destruction of cultural sites and symbols, displacement, family separation, and forced assimilation. Beijing’s recent policies in Xinjiang represent the culmination of a long and gradual colonization of the Uyghur homeland.
Xinjiang, which Uyghurs view as their homeland and which means “new frontier” in Chinese, was conquered by the Qing dynasty in the mid-eighteenth century and absorbed into the empire as a province in the late nineteenth century. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, the new Republic of China inherited this region as a distant colonial appendage, ruling over it through Han leaders who maintained a tenuous connection to central state power. The CCP took over in 1949 and sought to exert greater control over the region. Mimicking a Soviet-style system of ethnofederalism, Beijing renamed the territory the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
In the Soviet Union, the ruling Communist Party recognized the excesses of tsarist colonialism and gave formerly colonized peoples the opportunity to be at the forefront of Soviet culture and governance within national Soviet republics. These republics were even granted the right—however symbolic—to secede from the Soviet Union. But China never took the same steps in its imperially obtained territories in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, China’s ethnic “autonomous regions” were hardly autonomous: they did not have the theoretical right to secede, and very few indigenous party members attained positions of meaningful power in government. Furthermore, by 1959, the CCP espoused the view that Xinjiang was a historical part of China—a position it emphatically maintains to this day, denying the colonial character of the region’s entry into China.
By 1960, there was very little that was autonomous or Uyghur about the government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China had already rid the regional leadership of native cadres in the late 1950s and then began encouraging Han Chinese migration to the region, facilitating a marked demographic shift. In 1953, Han constituted only six percent of the population of Xinjiang. In 1982, they were 38 percent.
Despite this demographic transformation, the Uyghur homeland remained on the fringes of Chinese communist rule into the 1970s. Most Han migrants settled in the north of the region and lived apart from the Uyghur population centers in the south, such as Kashgar and Khotan. Mao Zedong’s various social-engineering campaigns, deployed in this region as they were everywhere in China, had limited impact in transforming Uyghurs into loyal Maoists. Into the 1980s, Xinjiang was still very different culturally, linguistically, and in physical appearance from the rest of China, especially in the region’s southern oases, which remained populated overwhelmingly by Uyghurs.
The period of reform under Deng Xiaoping that gained steam following the death of Mao in 1976 held a good deal of promise for the Uyghurs. Beijing tentatively adopted a strategy of partial decolonization in Xinjiang. Deng’s close associate Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the CCP from 1982 to 1987, spearheaded liberalizing reforms in the region as he did elsewhere in China. He called for many of the Han migrants in Xinjiang to return to their hometowns and advocated for unprecedented cultural, religious, and political reform. The government allowed previously shuttered mosques to reopen and new mosques to be built. Uyghur-language publishing and artistic expression exploded. And Hu even suggested making the region more autonomous within the Chinese system of governance, mandating that the leaders of the region come from the indigenous ethnic groups and be allowed to cultivate their own culture and language in local state institutions. This aspiration for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities fit well with Hu’s overall vision for democratization and liberalization.
But Hu’s hope for a more autonomous Uyghur region and for a more democratic China was never realized. Conservatives in the party purged Hu in 1987, blaming his more liberal policies for stoking student agitation throughout the country. The crackdown on the mass student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989—which sprang up partially in response to Hu’s ouster—signaled an end to the era of political reform. The event that truly sealed the fate of the Uyghur region, however, was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. China inaccurately viewed campaigns for ethnic self-determination as the driving force behind the dissolution of the Soviet Union and acted to ensure that China did not suffer a similar fate.
Throughout the 1990s, the CCP deployed numerous so-called antiseparatism campaigns aimed at snuffing out signs of agitation. The state saw Muslim piety as akin to a call for self-determination and targeted religious individuals. It also arrested numerous secular artists and writers. These aggressive campaigns involved significant state violence—mass arrests, torture, and executions. Occasionally, they also sparked violent retaliation from Uyghurs. Despite that sporadic bloody conflict, there was no organized Uyghur militant movement in the region, no genuine threat of secession, and no reason to believe that Xinjiang merited such heavy-handed treatment.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and Washington’s subsequent declaration of a global “war on terror” presented Beijing with an opportunity to reframe its suppression of the Uyghurs. China claimed that its actions were merely a response to a grave terrorist threat. In a bid to fend off international criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, it claimed that Uyghur militants were linked to al Qaeda. The United States took the bait. In the summer of 2002, Washington claimed that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a small, previously unknown Uyghur group in Afghanistan, was aligned with al Qaeda. The United States branded the group a terrorist organization, citing Chinese claims that U.S. officials had denied only months earlier.
The U.S. government finally removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in November 2020, acknowledging that it had not existed for over a decade. But the original designation did lasting damage, emboldening China’s repression in Xinjiang. Under the guise of counterterrorism, China ramped up its suppression of dissent and repression of religion in the Uyghur homeland. It simultaneously furthered its goals of colonization by investing billions in building new infrastructure and industry in Xinjiang, in the process attracting more Han migrants to the region.
For a time, Chinese officials continued to court Uyghur elites to support the government’s policies while focusing repression only on pious Uyghurs. But Beijing has taken a tougher line since 2017, in effect suspecting the region’s entire indigenous population of complicity with terrorism or separatist militancy. A number of factors precipitated this hardening of Chinese policy: China’s increasingly autocratic turn under Xi; the need to develop Xinjiang as an important land port in the vast infrastructure and development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative; Uyghur resistance to state policies; and China’s growing confidence in itself as a global power unconcerned with international criticism. It was also abetted by the acceptance, in many quarters, of the logic of counterterrorism that can easily be used to demonize Muslim populations as an existential threat.
In the last four years, Chinese authorities have incarcerated or placed in mass internment camps over a tenth of the local indigenous population. They have subjected the remainder of the population to unprecedented surveillance, tracking their behavior, associations, and communications for any sign of disloyalty that could lead to their incarceration. As a result, those outside penal institutions are forced to comply with state campaigns designed to transform the local population, including forced labor programs, mandatory Chinese-language training, involuntary sterilization, coerced miscegenation campaigns, and the destruction of local cultural monuments or their sanitization for tourist purposes (such as the stylized remodeling of Kashgar’s old city). One public government document reviewed by Agence France-Presse in 2018 made the CCP’s strategy abundantly clear. The overarching goal of these policies toward Uyghurs, it said, was to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”
This strategy does not seek to counter a real or perceived terrorist threat. Beijing’s true aim is cultural genocide. It hopes to scrub this territory of its Uyghur character, to crush the ethnic solidarity of the Uyghur people, and to turn their homeland into a Chinese commercial hub, another spoke in the wheel of the Belt and Road Initiative. China wants Xinjiang to resemble just another Han-dominated province of the country. In realizing this goal, it views the Uyghurs and their cultural identity at best as superfluous and at worst as obstacles that must be removed.
China will not shift course easily. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration will most likely continue the previous U.S. administration’s vocal criticism of recent Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Congress has passed legislation that places sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in repressive actions in Xinjiang, and it is considering further legislation to ban products made with forced labor in the region. These measures are warranted given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, but they cannot exert the necessary pressure on Beijing as long as they appear to others as simply a plank of the great-power competition between China and the United States. As China has already demonstrated at the UN Human Rights Council—where 45 member states in 2020 signed on to a letter defending Chinese actions in Xinjiang—many countries are willing to take Beijing’s side in such a dispute. The push to change Beijing’s policies must have broad international support and apply sustained economic pressure. And, most important, external pressure can do only so much; real change will come only from within the CCP. Effective international pressure would aim to convince important decision-makers in China that the country’s treatment of the Uyghurs will have substantial economic and reputational consequences.
Even if the CCP were to have an unlikely change of heart, it will be difficult to repair the damage to the Uyghur people and restore trust between them and the state. High-ranking officials, including Xi, would need to accept responsibility for the atrocities committed, especially over the past four years. And there remains a much larger reckoning for China: the task of coming to terms with the ethnic diversity it inherited from the Qing dynasty. Beijing should take a page out of the books of other countries, including many in South America and Scandinavia, which have granted indigenous peoples at least limited sovereignty—as the CCP itself contemplated doing in the 1980s. But Chinese actions don’t suggest any return to a more inclusive vision of the country that accepts Uyghurs on their own terms. That would require fundamental changes in the very character of the modern Chinese state. Instead, China seems committed to pressing ahead to a bleak endgame, the decimation of the Uyghur people and their culture.