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Xinjiang: a region of suspicion and subjugation

The Chinese authorities have long treated the region – and its people – with suspicion. The abuses there can no longer be ignored.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 16 February 2022 and has been updated in light of recent events. On 31 August, the United Nations’ human rights office released a long-delayed report on China’s detention of Uyghurs, accusing the country of human rights violations that may constitute “crimes against humanity”. The report was released just minutes before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, was scheduled to leave her role. 

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4 February ended with a scene that was at once jarring and banal. Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a young Uyghur cross-country skier from Xinjiang, stood in the stadium alongside Zhao Jiawen, a member of the country’s Han ethnic majority. Smiling and waving in their red and white Team China uniforms, they lifted a single gleaming torch between them and lit the Olympic flame. It was a simple, powerful gesture that was clearly designed to send the message: what genocide?

Over the past five years, the Chinese authorities have imprisoned at least one million Uyghurs and people from other ethnic minorities in the north-western region of Xinjiang. The network of internment camps and detention centres there is so vast, researchers have been able to map it on satellite images from space. Some of those who escaped have described systematic torture, forced sterilisation and sexual abuse. It is the largest detention of a religious or ethnic group since the Second World War’s concentration camps.

We don’t know what Yilamujiang thinks about what is happening in Xinjiang because she wasn’t asked. Chinese state media outlets carried a few cursory comments from the athlete about how proud she was to be part of the ceremony. But after finishing her race near the back of the pack the next morning, she failed to appear in the media zone, where international journalists would have had the chance to ask her questions.

[See also: Historic Uyghur culture is under existential threat]

Elise Anderson of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a US-based non-profit organisation, denounced the ceremony as a “political stunt meant to deflect international criticism, as though parading a Uyghur athlete around somehow disproves the party state’s well-documented atrocity crimes”. The historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom told me it reminded him of the dystopia in The Hunger Games, “in which powerful people in a glittering capital… use competitors from harshly repressed places for political [gain]”.

The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic minority who trace their history and their ancestral homeland in the region back more than 1,000 years. For much of that time they lived autonomously, until the territory was brought under the control of the Qing empire, and later the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In terms of culture and language, as Rhian Thum and Musapir (a Uyghur scholar writing under a pen name) explain, the Uyghurs are closer to Central Asia than they are to the Han majority in China.

That the Qing called the territory Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) – a name rejected by many Uyghurs – after it was incorporated as a province in 1884 tells you something about the space it occupied in the imaginations of the imperial rulers then, and now by the current leadership in Beijing. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xinjiang is a frontier region that must be kept under strong central control lest it become a channel for outside influences to threaten the modern Chinese state, or worse, slips from its grasp altogether.

In part, this attitude is shaped by geopolitics. Xinjiang sits more than 2,000 miles west of Beijing and borders eight countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Together with Tibet, the region directly to the south (both technically Autonomous Regions within China, although without real autonomy), the two territories comprise almost a third of China’s land mass. Xinjiang’s narrow stretch of border with Afghanistan, which includes the Wakhan Corridor, is of particular concern. While Chinese officials publicly gloated over the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Beijing fears the dangers a failed state on its border might bring.

Fighters from the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, whose stated goal is to establish an independent Uyghur state in Xinjiang, are known to operate in Afghanistan, where they have links with other extremist groups. As John Simpson writes, as many as 5,000 Uyghurs are thought to have joined Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, making them one of the largest groups of foreign fighters there. When IS-Khorasan carried out a suicide bombing at a mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz last October, the group claimed the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack targeted the Taliban’s growing ties with Beijing. There have also been attacks by Uyghur groups in China itself. In October 2013 a Uyghur family drove a car into a crowd of tourists in Tiananmen Square, killing two and injuring 38 more. Black-clad militants armed with knives and machetes murdered 29 people at a train station in Kunming, southern China, in March 2014, in an attack that state media called “China’s 9/11”. Two months later, at least 31 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a market in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital.

Chinese officials were quick to adopt the language of the global war on terror to frame their approach to Xinjiang. In October 2001, one month after the 11 September attacks on the US, Beijing rebranded its concerns about Uyghur separatists as an “international ‘terrorist threat’ linked to al-Qaeda”, writes the scholar Sean Roberts in The War on the Uyghurs (2020). The government doubled down on a campaign to eradicate what it called the “three evils” of separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism, which rendered calls for Uyghur self-determination synonymous with the threat from Islamist extremists. It was a convenient – and more politically palatable – way of talking about the other factor driving the CCP’s policies in the region: lingering suspicion of its inhabitants.

As far back as the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mao Zedong sent a delegation to Moscow to discuss his concerns about Xinjiang with Joseph Stalin. The Soviet leader agreed with Mao that the territory, which had briefly functioned as a de facto independent state, should be occupied and brought under Beijing’s control in case rival powers attempted to “activate the Muslims” and sow dissent. Stalin noted the “large deposits of oil and cotton in Xinjiang” and advised sending Chinese settlers to develop “this huge and rich region” and strengthen China’s border protection.

Successive Chinese rulers have viewed the region in similar terms – as a strategic location that is vital to national security, yet whose inhabitants cannot be fully trusted. There have been periods of greater and lesser repression over the decades, but the rise to power of Xi Jinping in 2012 marked the start of a new and more aggressive chapter in the central government’s approach. After the attack on the train station in Kunming in 2014, Xi toured Xinjiang and called for the authorities to deliver a “crushing blow”. The stability of the whole country was at stake, he warned, calling for a “people’s war” to bring the region under control.

In the years since, the authorities have implemented a devastating system of collective punishment that targets the Muslim population of Xinjiang. Under Xi, attending a mosque or growing a beard is considered suspect. More than one million government workers have been sent to the region to identify “untrustworthy” Muslims, writes Darren Byler in In the Camps (2021). Hundreds of internment camps and a suffocating network of surveillance technology has been built. By some estimates, between 10 and 20 per cent of Xinjiang’s adult population has been detained.

In 2018, drone footage showed hundreds of men kneeling on the ground, waiting to be loaded on to trains. Their heads were shaved. They were shackled and blindfolded. Confronted with the footage in a television studio by Andrew Marr, China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, replied that “prisoner transfers” happened in every country. “Uyghur people enjoy a peaceful, harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups,” he said.

As the detentions gathered pace in 2019, local officials in the Xinjiang city of Turpan were issued with a script for responding to the most frequently asked questions from distraught relatives, such as: “Where are my family members?” The answer they were supposed to give, according to leaked documents, was that they were in a government “training school” and there was “nothing to worry about”. Tuition at the school was free, the script explained, “and so are food and living costs, and the standards are quite high”.

[See also: The Uyghurs’ plight shows the biggest threat to democracy is Western apathy]

But if the relative pressed further and asked why the person couldn’t just come home, the conversation would take a sinister, Orwellian tone. “It seems that you’re still misunderstanding how concentrated education is run,” the prescribed answer said. The person had been “infected by unhealthy thinking” and until they were cured of this “virus” and their thoughts “thoroughly transformed”, they couldn’t be allowed to leave and risk infecting others.

As Uyghur adults disappeared into the camps, human rights groups documented cases of children being sent to state orphanages even when there were relatives prepared to take them in. In these institutions they were taught in Mandarin and separated from their Uyghur roots. Under what is known as the “Becoming Family” campaign, Han officials stay overnight with Uyghur families, including in homes where the male relatives have been detained, leaving women and girls vulnerable to abuse. Strict birth control policies have also been implemented. There are reports of women being forcibly fitted with intrauterine devices, designed to be removable through surgery, and sterilised without their consent.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose mission is to do for others today what was not done for the Jews of Europe, said in November 2021 that it was “gravely concerned” and urged swift, coordinated action, warning that the “future of a people may depend on [it]”. The US State Department and the UK and Canadian parliaments have condemned the authorities’ “industrial-scale abuses” in Xinjiang, declaring it a genocide.

The appearance of a single Uyghur athlete at the Winter Olympics should reassure no one. At best, the torch-lighting ceremony showed the government cared enough about Western criticism to attempt to perpetuate the fiction that it believes in ethnic unity. At worst, it was a vision of the future China has designated for the Uyghurs: smiling, compliant and silent. That is why the voices in this issue of the New Statesman are so important. The Uyghurs are more than passive victims. These essays centre Uyghur culture, history and literature, culminating with three specially commissioned poems by the exiled Uyghur writer Fatimah Abdulghafar Seyyah. “Promise to come to me alive,” Seyyah writes, as she renders the experience of loss and longing for her family and her homeland in her own haunting and beautiful words. These are the stories of the Chinese government’s attempts to silence a people, and of those who refuse to be silenced.

This article appears in our series, The Silencing, on China and the Uyghurs

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War