Xinjiang and the Fear of the Other

The mass abuse of minorities in China’s Xinjiang region provides a disturbing contemporary example of the extremes to which a society will go when gripped by fear of the Other.

Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China. (Photo credit: Phil Entwistle)

Xinjiang (pron. ‘Shin jee-ang’), a landlocked region of north-west China, has become the setting for the systematic violation of human rights on an industrial scale. Home to stunning deserts, sacred mountains and pristine lakes, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is known throughout China for its melons, raisins, and traditional dancing. In recent years, however, it has shot to prominence in the global media for all the wrong reasons.

Chinese troops first conquered Xinjiang in the Han dynasty (c.206 BC to 220 AD), but rule was sporadic until the territory was incorporated into the Qing empire in the 18th century. Many of the ethnic groups inhabiting the region are closer in language, culture and religion to those of other Central Asian states than to the Han Chinese. These groups, which are predominantly Muslim, include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks. The largest is the Uyghur (pron. ‘Wee-gur’) minority, the members of which constitute 11 million of Xinjiang’s total population of 26 million.

Relations have long been strained between these minorities and the Han, who dominate the region politically, economically and, increasingly, demographically. These tensions have exploded into violence on numerous occasions in recent decades, most notably in 2009 when Uyghur protests in the regional capital Urumqi turned into riots, resulting in nearly 200 (mostly Han Chinese) deaths. The government has blamed a minority of separatists, terrorists and religious extremists; many outside commentators — academics, journalists and NGOs — attribute the root cause of the tensions to the discrimination and repression that Uyghurs have faced at the hands of both the Han and the Chinese Communist Party-run state.

In recent decades, various ethnic and religious groups, including Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and sects such as Falun Gong, have experienced periods of state restriction or even persecution. However, the crackdown in Xinjiang is notable for its scale and severity.

In 2017, news began to emerge of a network of government-run facilities in which between one and two million Muslims — Uyghurs and members of other minority groups — were being detained indefinitely without trial. After initially denying the existence of these sites, Chinese officials later claimed that they were ‘vocational education and training centres’, where dangerous criminals and terrorists were provided with food, accommodation and education in order to de-radicalise them and help them re-integrate into society.

The picture painted by investigative reports into the camps, as well as by detainees and their relatives, is somewhat less benign. Individuals could be incarcerated for a number of activities: promoting Uyghur language and culture, even as part of officially-sanctioned school textbooks; maintaining contacts with foreigners or relatives based abroad, especially in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey or Egypt; or displaying outward signs of religiosity such as growing a beard or praying too often.

Detainees are held in prison-like conditions. The ‘vocational education and training’ in question includes compulsory Mandarin lessons, memorisation of patriotic texts, the singing of patriotic songs, and sessions in which trainees are made to criticise their religion. Schedules are strictly enforced, right down to the timing of toilet breaks, and detainees subject to full surveillance. There have been allegations of forced labour, solitary confinement, beatings, torture and rape.

The detention facilities form part of a wider crackdown by the party-state on Uyghur culture. Uyghur schoolchildren are now taught Mandarin at earlier stages of their education, with bilingual education reportedly being phased out. Some have been offered boarding school places in Han-majority areas of China; children of detainees are placed in de facto orphanages.

Uyghur bookshops have shut and state-run bookshops stock few, if any, Uyghur language books. The party-state has conscripted Han Chinese to live in Uyghurs’ homes, schooling their ‘little brothers and sisters’ in patriotism and keeping notes on their progress. It is now extremely difficult for Uyghurs to obtain a passport to leave China; and those living abroad have faced deportation back to China. Uyghur women are alleged to have been subject to forced contraception, sterilisation and abortion, resulting in birth rates falling by 60% between 2015 and 2018 in some Uyghur areas.

Party-state surveillance in Xinjiang has been ramped up — both analogue, in the form of the recruitment of large numbers of additional police officers, and digital, in the form of the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which uses artificial intelligence to analyse data collected via CCTV, spyware and police checkpoints to pre-emptively flag up those who may be prone to engaging in subversive behaviour.

Taken as a whole, these findings paint a picture of an ethnic minority people living in fear, denuded of their culture and religion, and in some cases, their relatives, ruled over by an ethnic majority-dominated party-state so sensitised to the threats of terrorism and separatism that it is prepared to engage in what has been labelled ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II.’ Some commentators have even gone so far as to describe the detention facilities as ‘gulags’ or ‘concentration camps.’

Echoes of some of the grimmer episodes of the twentieth century were reinforced in July 2020 when drone footage, originally shot in Xinjiang in 2019 went viral; it showed rows of (allegedly Uyghur) prisoners, shaven, blindfolded and handcuffed, being loaded onto trains by police. Chinese state-owned media queried the interpretation that western journalists had given to the video, though tellingly, they did not deny its veracity; the Chinese ambassador to the UK was left floundering trying to explain the footage to Andrew Marr.

How did things come to this? The Xinjiang issue is such a sensitive one in China, because it touches upon three interlocking themes, all of which strike to the core of China’s history as a modern nation state: religion, ethnicity and territorial sovereignty.


The first factor is the Chinese state’s historically uneasy relationship with religion. Francis Fukuyama has argued that China developed a rational bureaucratic ‘modern’ state at a relatively early period in history. In Europe and India, powerful religious organisations — the Catholic Church and the Brahmin caste — emerged prior to the development of a modern state, and therefore enjoyed enough power and respect to constitute a moral authority independent of that of the state’s secular rulers. Conversely, ‘the Chinese state has never recognized a source of religious authority higher than itself and has easily controlled whatever priesthoods existed.’

Whilst successive dynasties in China have permitted religious activity, the claims to moral loyalty made by religious groups were often viewed as potentially subversive; indeed, rebellions such as the White Lotus and the Taiping in the nineteenth century had often coalesced around a religious cause.

The Chinese Communist Party, despite the atheistic nature of its foundational ideology has since the early 1980s allowed a degree of religious freedom, believing that religion would gradually fade as socialism developed. Strict limits are imposed upon proselytisation, political involvement, the licensing of clergy, and foreign links.

Religions such as Christianity and Islam, whose adherents belong to a global community of believers and owe their ultimate allegiance to a power beyond the control of the Chinese party-state come under particular suspicion. In the case of Islam, this has been exacerbated with the rise to prominence of transnational jihadist movements that followed 9/11 and America’s ‘War on Terror’, and for whom a number of Uyghurs were found to be fighting.

However, it is notable that the Hui, another Muslim ethnic minority who speak Mandarin, live in more easterly provinces of China, and practice a much more Sinicised form of Islam, have generally enjoyed much smoother (though not perfect) relations with the party-state and the Han, and have not suffered the same fate as the Uyghurs — although there are reports that this may have recently begun to change. This suggests that it is Islam in combination with other factors that give the Xinjiang issue its potency.


The rulers of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, were Manchus who had invaded and conquered China in 1644; in the centuries that followed they would expand their empire into central Asia, including Xinjiang (which in Chinese literally means ‘New Territory’).

By the early twentieth century, some Chinese revolutionaries, such as Sun Yat-sen, were anti-Manchu ethno-nationalists who regarded the Qing as foreign rulers and desired to found a republic on the basis of Chinese ethnicity. However, this would have excluded large swathes of the former Qing empire, including Tibet, Manchuria and Xinjiang from inclusion in the new state.

When the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911, the new Republic of China was therefore conceived of as a multi-ethnic state; a wider definition of ‘Chinese’ was adopted that encompassed all of the ethnic groups on former Qing territory. The people of China proper were designated as Han Chinese to distinguish them from these other groups.

But the tension between the idea of China as an ethnonationalist identity and China as a multinational state has never been fully resolved — neither in the Republic, nor in its successor state, the People’s Republic, founded by Mao Zedong in 1949. Chinese state policy has fluctuated between chauvinist assimilationism and varying degrees of tolerance for multi-ethnic expression. For their part, whilst many members of ethnic minorities are satisfied with China’s current political arrangements and supportive of the party-state, others have not always felt a sense of belonging in a nation state that is dominated politically and culturally by the Han, who comprise 92% of the population.

Territorial sovereignty

This lack of a sense of belonging to the People’s Republic of China is especially problematic when the minority in question inhabits a region bordered by some of the world’s most politically unstable areas and three nuclear powers. Whilst no government relishes the prospect of losing chunks of its territory, the threat to sovereignty posed by separatist movements hits a raw nerve amongst Chinese policymakers to an extent far greater than that to which, say, the idea of Scottish or Greenlandic independence troubles their British and Danish counterparts.

Here it is important to highlight the role played by the national narrative propagated by the CCP through the media and education system, its great creation myth. Central to this narrative is the concept of ‘the hundred years of national humiliation.’

Under the Qing, according to this version of history, China was the world’s greatest empire. However, in the 1840s, following their victory in the first Opium War, the British forced China to sign the Treaty of Nanjing, the first of a series of ‘unequal treaties’ forced on China at gunpoint by foreign powers. The Qing were compelled to open China to foreign trade, including imports of harmful opium; the foreign powers grabbed parts of Chinese territory including Hong Kong and a number of concessionary areas in coastal cities such as Shanghai; foreign citizens in China were granted ‘extraterritoriality’, or immunity to Chinese law. The nadir came in the 1930s with the invasion of China by the army of Japan, which slaughtered Chinese soldiers and civilians alike with sometimes unspeakable brutality.

The Communist Party portrays itself as having brought this dreadful era to an end upon its foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Seeking to bolster public support in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Party introduced compulsory ‘patriotic education’ classes into schools and universities with the aim of driving this narrative home to future generations. The key lesson: only the Chinese Communist Party can safeguard China’s territorial integrity and the wellbeing of its citizens from foreign attempts to undermine them.

Separatist sentiments in Xinjiang therefore represent a direct challenge to the narrative upon which the CCP has staked its own legitimacy. Firm control over Xinjiang is consequently seen as a necessary step in ensuring the CCP’s longevity and with it, China’s continued control over its own destiny; for that reason, public opinion amongst Han Chinese is generally supportive of official policies there.

China’s evolving policy

Concerns over these three elements — religion, ethnicity, and territorial sovereignty — had been present among Chinese policymakers for decades. So what explains the party-state’s shift towards the more drastic policies of the past five years?

In the 1980s, following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the reformist leader Deng Xiaoping oversaw a relaxation of many areas of policy, including towards religious groups and ethnic minorities. Sites of worship were re-opened; the promotion of minority languages and cultures in schools and through the media was encouraged; ethnic minorities were granted preferential university entrance policies and permitted to have more children than Han, who were restricted to one child per family.

Uyghur resentment festered, however. The fruits of Xinjiang’s economic development were perceived to have been enjoyed disproportionately by Han migrants; the newly independent former Soviet republics provided an inspiration to Uyghurs who sought autonomy from Beijing, whilst others formed links with emerging Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and Hizb-ut Tahrir. Tensions flared sporadically throughout the 1990s, and the party-state responded with several ‘strike hard’ campaigns.

The genesis of the current crackdown can be found in the riots of 2008 by Tibetans in Lhasa and in 2009 by Uyghurs in Urumqi, the combined effect of which was to lead academics and policymakers to undergo a thorough rethink of ethnic policy. A 2012 paper by Hu Lianhe and Hu Angang called for a more assimilationist approach and the creation of a ‘state race’ (guo zu). Following further terrorist attacks by Uyghurs in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming in 2014, the recently installed president Xi Jinping declared a ‘people’s war on terror’ against the ‘three evil forces of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism’.

Xi’s approach to Xinjiang can be seen as part of his wider strategy to assert greater party-state control over society. Implying that the previous president Hu Jintao had been too lax in his management of Party, state and society, Xi has clamped down upon any groups that could possibly constitute an autonomous voice: Christian churches, internet celebrities, NGOs, academics, feminists and lawyers. The recent introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong — another increasingly restive region — also fits in here. With presidential term limits now removed, Xi is installed in power indefinitely; China is likely to head in an increasingly illiberal direction for the foreseeable future.

The response

A motif of the Black Lives Matter Movement has been that ‘no one is free until we are all free’ (variants of which have been attributed to Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Maya Angelou). For those of us who believe this, the case of the Uyghurs is deeply concerning. Given the distance and the non-democratic nature of China’s political system, what response is possible?

Firstly, perhaps the most effective step is to hit the wallet of companies complicit in the repression: calling on western businesses to disengage from Chinese suppliers who use forced labour from Xinjiang, and boycotting their products until they do so. Similarly, a number of foreign funds have held stocks in companies such as Hikvision and Dahua Technology, which manufacture surveillance equipment for use in Xinjiang; check before you invest.

Secondly, demand that our elected representatives hold China’s party-state to account for its actions in Xinjiang. In October 2019 the UK was one of 23 governments to condemn the Xinjiang crackdown in a joint statement at the UN.

However, foreign criticism of human rights can often be counterproductive, provoking a defensive reaction from Chinese party-state officials (often shared by the Chinese public at large) with claims that the Western media is biased against China; or that western politicians are using human rights discourse instrumentally to bash China. Indeed, given Donald Trump’s rhetoric around domestic protests such as those in Minneapolis and Portland, and his alleged initial support for the Xinjiang camps, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that his concern, and the concerns of figures within his government such as Mike Pompeo, for the human rights of the citizens of China is disingenuous.

It is easy, and indeed justifiable, to criticise abuses against Muslims in distant countries. But the uncomfortable truth is that events in China are but part of a global wave of Islamophobia that has swept countries including India, Myanmar, the USA, France, Germany and the UK.

The persecution of the Uyghurs in China did not begin with the camps. For years Uyghurs have been stigmatised in popular stereotype as terrorists, petty criminals, or generally backward; they have been infantilised, exoticised and eroticised by the state media, in which they are portrayed, in common with other minorities, as dancing women.

In the UK, as in other liberal democratic societies, individuals enjoy much stronger legal protections than they do in China. However, events of the past decade should caution us against complacency when it comes to the strength of our democratic and legal institutions and to the public’s commitment to the values that undergird them. The murder of George Floyd has once again highlighted the sad fact that the protections afforded by the rule of law are much weaker for ethnic minorities than they are for members of white majorities — not just in the USA, but in the UK as well.

So, thirdly, we need to reflect on what we are doing to combat prejudice against Muslims in our own societies — in our media, in politics, in public discourse and, yes, in our churches. Do we call out everyday forms of victimisation? Are we interested in defending the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in our own societies — both through our own personal behaviour, but also by working to demolish structural barriers to racial and religious equality? Indeed, as Nick Spencer has argued, it is a Christian imperative to extend our concern for religious freedom to those whose theological views may different from our own.

Xinjiang provides a disturbing contemporary example of the extremes to which a society will go when gripped by fear of the Other. Whilst the party-state’s urge to protect the population from terrorism is justifiable, the wholesale stigmatisation and abuse of the Uyghurs is not. Those of us concerned about the slide towards xenophobia and populist nationalism in our own societies will do well to look at Xinjiang to see where these trends lead.

[This article was originally published 29th July, 2020.]

Hunting heads in higher ed. Writing and tweeting on China, politics, HE. Speaking Mandarin with a Dudley accent.

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