A Brave New World in Xinjiang

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A Brave New World in Xinjiang? In September of 2018 while teaching in Shanghai, I heard a story from a friend that worked in a government position in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. The friend, as well as his colleagues, were required to live with total strangers for four days a week.

The family he lived with were Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in the region. I had a lot of questions.

  • Who were the Uyghurs?
  • Why would the government force Han Chinese to live with Uyghurs?
  • What was the purpose of this forced cohabitation, and what good could come from it?

An article published by Asia Times titled, “Party Members Told to Live with Uighurs for ‘Social Cohesion’” on November 8th, 2018 explains that the coliving situation was meant to promote unity between ethnicities.

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According to the article, “1.1 million civil servants in Xinjiang, most of whom were of the predominant Han race, had paired up with some 1.7 million Uyghur.” That so many people could be compelled to live together was a wonder to me. But it still didn’t answer all of my questions, so I continued searching, and found more staggering numbers reported by Western media. For example, The New York Times reported in August of 2018 that “China had detained a million or more ethnic Uighur . . . and forced as many as two million to submit to re-education and indoctrination.” The article also reported these people were held with no legal justification, and that camps lead to abuse and torture.

China has denied these claims, and has presented its own narrative and justification for exercising authority over Uighur populations.

  • So, who exactly are the Uighurs?
  • Are the claims of human rights abuse true or distorted?
  • And if the claims are true, to what extent can the abuse be addressed, given China’s powerful influence in the current international order?
  • Uyghurs Who are the Uyghurs?

Rian Thum, in his article “The Uyghurs in Modern China,” explains that no “Uyghur” existed in China at the beginning of the 20th century and that it is only a recently appropriated identity between majority groups of Muslims that shared Turkic dialects and culture. Thum explains that Muslim politicians and writers in the region were looking to understand how they fit into the world and that eventually, they would take on the Uyghur identity as part of that search. Ironically, Thum points out, the formalizing of the Uyghur ethnicity is “one of the few historical assumptions shared by both the Chinese state and those Uyghur nationalists who advocate for independence from the People’s Republic of China.” Thum’s history of the Uyghur spans decades of upheaval, reform, assimilation, and shifting regimes. Some notable events include the following: The Uyghur identity became more formally recognized in the 1930s and 1940s, and some Uyghur held important bureaucratic positions in government.

During Mao-era politics Uyghurs were especially pressured to adapt to new changes with the removal of mosques, religious texts, and outlawed shrine celebrations. A mass migration into Xinjiang of Han Chinese occured between 1953 and 1964, causing Uyghurs to lose their majority status in the region. Following Mao’s death, Uyghurs had breathing room to return to old ways of living: new mosques were built, the Latin alphabet for the Uyghur language was abandoned in favor of an Arabic one, and the 1980s saw increased publication of Uyghur literary texts that celebrated the life of Uyghurs before PRC rule.

Uyghur political action became more bold in the 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union raised questions about Uyghur independence, thus potentially threatening Chinese Communist Party rule. The 1990s saw more restriction in the freedom of Uyghurs, and after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Chinese government adopted the “war on terror” and “terrorism” rhetoric when addressing Uyghur violence. A 2009 Uyghur peaceful protest turned to random violence, killing both Han and Uyghurs. In response, the internet was shut down in Xinjiang, travel restrictions were put in place for Uyghurs, and the region saw increased police presence. A 2014 Kunming (an area outside of Xinjiang) saw a train station attack that killed thirty-one civilians and four Uyghur attackers. Under President Xi Jinping, travel restrictions continued, including the confiscation of passports, the addition of GPS tracking to vehicles, the confiscation of electronic devices to be outfitted with government spyware, and the implementation of face recognition technology. In 2017 non-Han Xinjiang inhabitants were taken to re-education camps. This re-education affected all professions and stratas of society.

Thum paints a picture of Uyghurs that are increasingly pressured to assimilate into a predominantly Han Chinese society, despite their efforts to preserve and cultivate a Uyghur ethnic identity. Furthermore, Thum illustrates how the Chinese security apparatus came to touch all aspects of life in Xinjiang before and after 9/11, but especially so after the “war on terror” campaign began. These security measures were made with increased focus on containment after the Kunming train attack attack, since the violence was external to Xinjiang, and perceived as having the potential to pervade into the Chinese society at large. Jails or Vocational Schools? Until recently China officially denied the existence of detention facilities in Xinjiang. On August 21st 2018, The Financial Times published an article by Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming titled “Harmony in Xinjiang is Based on Three Principles.” Xiaoming accused the Financial Times and British media of “misleading reports on Xinjiang,” and went on to extol the region’s diversity, ethnic harmony, and fast economic growth. He claimed that three guiding principles enabled the region’s success: equality between ethnic groups, freedom of religious belief, and a strong measures against religious extremism and terrorism. He mentioned the 24,400 mosques in Xinjiang, and that China was using education and training to stop extremist ideas from spreading and to help extremists make better lives for themselves. Xiaoming compared China’s efforts with the UK’s, implying that the British government also focused on “early intervention in the cases of people under the influence of extremist views.”

In an article titled “Xinjiang Political ‘Re-Education Camps’ Treat Uyghurs ‘Infected by Religious Extremism’: CCP Youth League” published August 8th, 2018, an official Chinese Communist Party broadcast explained the reasons for the re-education camps in Xinjiang. The broadcast argued that only people who have “ideological illness” are sent to the camps, and that religious extremism is a kind of virus that needs to be cured. The broadcast likened the camps to hospitals for sick patients, and that failure to contain the sickness would cause it to spread “all over like an incurable malignant tumor.” The communication insisted that the detained people would not be harmed: “If the trainees fail to achieve the desired results, they will continue classes free of charge until they are qualified and fit to leave.” On October 16th, 2018, Xinhua News Agency published an interview with Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

In the interview, Zakir argued for the effectiveness of China’s recent security measures. He explained the historical motive for these changes, and how the 1990s saw an increase of evil and violent acts by terrorists in Xinjiang and abroad. Zakir cited evidence that China’s efforts benefited the region: 21 months of no terrorist attacks, a decrease in criminal cases, and growth in tourism and GDP. At the end of the interview, Zakir responded to a question about Xinjiang’s use of educational and training programs (sometimes called detention camps or re-education camps by Western news sources). He explained that each country has had to make its own efforts to address terrorism according to their own circumstances. The responses from Chinese officials follow the same patterns. First, they are quick to remind Western and Asian audiences of the post 9/11 world order. They conflate and generalize this violence with the Uyghur population. Then, they insist their programs are educational and humane in nature. The arguments also emphasize sovereignty in making decisions. An article published by China’s Global Times even goes so far as to say that the West is purposefully trying to destabilize Xinjiang’s peaceful efforts, and that “there is no room for destructive Western opinion.” Despite pushback, many countries have expressed concern about the problem in Xinjiang.

When confronted with the allegations at a recent U.N. meeting, China countered again that these facilities offered free “vocational training” to counteract extreme ideology. Mr. Le Yucheng, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, responded to criticisms by emphasizing the importance of a country’s agency, arguing that countries must consider their own circumstances when making decisions on how to both modernize and protect human rights. This line of reasoning resonates strongly with Zakir and Xiaoming, and the message is this: yes, human rights are important, but there are special circumstances that call for special measures–the ends justify the means, and although the means might not be ideal, they are necessary. The Chinese narrative stands in stark contrast to Western news outlets. In the Hoover Institute’s article “China’s Final Solution in Xinjiang,” published on October 19, 2018 Miles Maochun Yu makes a disturbing claim that re-education camps in Xinjiang signal “another genocide or holocaust in the making.” Yu explains that the Chinese government has expedited its campaign to control the region of Xinjiang.

  • The first reason is that China needs to solidify control of the region due to an alleged U.S.-led Cold War effort to “contain” China’s rising power.
  • The second reason is to secure Xi Jinping’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which starts in the Uyghur populated areas.

Yu also argues that the re-education camps in Xinjiang are motivated by a deeply rooted cultural prejudice, saying that those who do not look Han Chinese may be “refused a hotel, denied a train or plane ticket, or simply unable to live as a free person anywhere in the People’s Republic.” China will go unchallenged, Yu explains, because post 9/11, China strongly urged the U.S. into declaring some independence groups in the region as “terrorist” groups, and the U.S. obliged for “political expediency.” For the Uyghurs, Yu argues there is no authority in the Muslim world or Middle East to defend them. Nor has any Islamic government spoken out against the re-education camps. All of these factors, he says, leads to the 21st imitating the “pogroms of the 20th century.” Word on the ground Who are we to believe? China continues to control the narrative and give a humane and legal justification for detaining and surveilling the Xinjiang population. However, more and more stories are emerging this year about the situation in the region.

Gene A. Bunin’s article “‘We’re a people destroyed’: why Uighur Muslims across China are living in fear,” published by The Guardian on August 7th 2018, described the content and mood of his conversations with Uighur restaurant workers as he traveled and lived in China for over eighteen months. Bunin found and spoke with old friends that he had met the previous year while writing about ethnic cuisine. He discovered that the lives of the Uighurs were in stark contrast to their lives from just over a year ago.

One memorable restaurant owner had died since his last visit, allegedly from hard labor after being detained by authorities. Bunin also heard reports of many Uighurs being returned to their hometowns in Xinjiang for re-education. Bunin recounts the rhetorical nuance of his conversations: The phrase adem yoq (“everybody’s gone”) is the one I’ve heard the most this past year. It has been used to describe the absence of staff, clients and people in general. When referring to people who have been forced to return to their hometowns (for hometown arrest, camp or worse), it is typical to say that they “went back home”.

The concentration camps are not referred to as “concentration camps”, naturally. Instead, the people there are said to be occupied with “studying” (oqushta/öginishte) or “education” (terbiyileshte), or sometimes may be said to be “at school” (mektepte). Likewise, people do not use words like “oppression” when talking about the overall situation in Xinjiang. Rather, they tend to say “weziyet yaxshi emes” (“the situation isn’t good”), or describe Xinjiang as being very “ching” (“strict”, “tight”). The euphemisms show an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, and a desire from the Uighurs to avoid unwanted attention.

Conversely, Bunin also observed that some of his Uighur friends (who knew little Mandarin) used social media to draw attention to themselves, and to profess their obedience by posting pre-written statements that “pledged their loyalty to the Communist party and its leaders, and expressed, among other things, their determination in upholding “ethnic harmony” and standing opposed to terrorism.” In another story published by Radio Free Asia, a 41-year old Kazakh national Omurbek Eli tells how he was detained while on business in Xinjiang and taken to a re-education camp. Omurbek recounted how he was arrested without evidence and forced to sign a false confession. He was chained and shackled in a prison, and then taken to a camp.

During his seven month detention, he and others obeyed a strict routine of Chinese language training, marching, and sleeping hours. He was required to follow specific rules for bed making as well: “If one failed to do so, it was considered an ideological failure.” He and others lived under the threat of violence and armed guards, saying that “if you showed any signs of disobedience they would come immediately and give you a severe beating.” Those that became sick in the camp could receive medical attention, but only if they could afford it. Omurbek concludes in his interview that rather than pacifying or liberating minds, the Chinese approach he experienced was “planting the seeds of hatred” in the Uyghur and Kazakh people.

What’s next? In a June 4th, 2018 article published by ChinaFile, “How Should the World Respond to Intensifying Repression in Xinjiang?” six of the world’s leading China experts propose options for how to address, in their view, human rights abuses in the region. Rian Thum argues that Xinjiang is too often excluded from conversation about China, and that general awareness must be raised in order to effect change. He suggests some headway has been made, but it is difficult given that Uighurs are not broadly known, and that “Islamophobia has made it easy for the P.R.C. to camouflage its repression in the language of the War on Terror.”

Rachel Harris points out that China “has long used the UNESCO heritage lists to enhance its international prestige,” and argues that UNESCO should conduct an independent investigation of the region to see if its interests are being honored. James Leibold feels countries should “name and shame” the country openly and repeatedly, and that failure to do so degrades human rights everywhere. Jessica Batke proposes the most aggressive solution, which is to use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to punish Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

Using the Magnitsky act has devastating financial effects for its target, such as “revoking U.S. visas, or imposing property sanctions.” Kevin Carrico boldly suggests promoting a culture of no self-censorship, and encourages colleagues who communicate with the public to take the “Xinjiang Pledge,” a promise to publicly (and at any location) remind audiences of the ongoing detentions in the region.

Sean R. Roberts says that it’s time “the UN to finally play the role that was envisioned for” and to conduct an independent investigation of the alleged abuses in the region. He argues that the rules outlined in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are not excluded to killing, but also include abuses that have been reported in the region.


Given the opposing narratives about the region, as well as the tension surrounding the terminology of the Uyghur facilities, objective and independent parties are needed to directly make observations, notes, interviews, and recordings of what’s happening in Xinjiang. It is often the case that the logic to justify wide surveillance follows the rule that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear. Likewise, if the camps are indeed educational and vocational centers, then China should have no reluctance or fear to show what is happening in them day to day. If they are humane places that lift up the uneducated Uyghurs and promote healthier worldviews of cohesion and nonviolence, then it is imperative that the rest of the world sees how these places work so that they can be implemented throughout every country.

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A Brave New World in Xinjiang. (2021, Nov 24). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/a-brave-new-world-in-xinjiang/