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29 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:14pm

How Orwell foretold the remaking of Xinjiang

The Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims has resonances with Nineteen Eighty-Four that go well beyond the intensive use of surveillance technology.    

By Phil Tinline

Since 2014, in the wake of sometimes fatal violence attributed to Uighur Muslim militants, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pursued a draconian security offensive in its officially autonomous northwest province. The crackdown is an attempt to force Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim population to embrace the language, culture and political loyalties of China’s Han majority. 

In the wake of recent reports of mass forced sterilisations, and drone footage of bounded prisoners being herded onto trains in Xinjiang, British politicians from across the ideological spectrum, including John McDonnell and Iain Duncan Smith, have denounced Beijing’s repression. Uighur exiles have submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court, requesting that Chinese officials be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have announced sanctions on four senior CCP officials for systemic human rights abuse. 

Joanne Smith Finley of Newcastle University is a Xinjiang specialist, and has visited the region repeatedly since 1995. On her most recent trip in July 2018, Smith Finley told me, “the region was unrecognisable; there was such a tangible sense of fear and trauma”. When she arrived back in the UK, Smith Finley felt compelled to re-read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. She is not alone in making this link: it has become a staple reference in headlines about Xinjiang. In October 2019, Pompeo declared that in China’s far west, “the pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are coming to life”. 

The resonances with Nineteen Eighty-Four go well beyond the intensive use of surveillance technology. Since 2017, organisations such as Human Rights Watch have been reporting that hundreds of thousands of the region’s Uighur Muslims are being detained by the CCP, with many dispatched to what the authorities refer to as “transformation-through-education training centres”. The Chinese government initially denied the reports, but now it insists that the centres are reasonable measures against Islamic extremism and political separatism. According to the state, they help “students” to be better citizens through studying Mandarin, state law, and job skills. But along with allegations of rape, torture and forced sterilisation, detention survivors have described being coerced into self-criticism and confessing to imaginary offences, as well as to rote-learn the ideological edicts of Xi Jinping’s regime.

Smith Finley remembered how Nineteen Eighty-Four’s torturer-confessor, O’Brien, tells Winston Smith towards the end of the novel: “We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” That, she said, “characterizes most of the recent developments in Xinjiang.” These parallels are more than happenstance. It may be the most over-invoked novel in the English language, but Orwell’s classic shares a point of origin with China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

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Orwell’s writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired partly by the Moscow show trials held between 1936 and 1938, at which Stalin had his former leadership rivals give forced confessions to outlandish conspiracies. “People who have been in prison for months or years,” Orwell wrote at the time, “are suddenly dragged forth to make incredible confessions, while their children publish articles in the newspapers saying ‘I repudiate my father as a Trotskyist serpent.’” How could people be compelled to do such things? 

As he breaks Winston Smith’s resolve, O’Brien explains that the Soviets used torture to get their victims to confess to “whatever was put into their mouths”. But Orwell imagines his totalitarian super state, Oceania, going further. O’Brien derides Soviet confessions as “obviously extorted and untrue,” whereas in Oceania, “all the confessions that are uttered here are true. We make them true.” Winston must be made not just to parrot whatever the party says, but to believe it.

Orwell cannot have known this while composing his modern classic, but by the time he was imagining the pitiless re-education of Winston Smith, communists in China had already developed methods that aimed to do this in real life.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949. Three weeks later the CCP’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong gave a speech called “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship”, in which he declared that once the Chinese “people’s state” was established, citizens will be able to “educate and remould themselves”, to “shake off the influence of domestic and foreign reactionaries” and “rid themselves of the bad habits and ideas acquired in the old society”. That October, as Orwell lay dying of tuberculosis in London, Mao proclaimed the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. As readers shuddered at Winston’s sufferings, China’s new dictatorship prepared to remould its new citizens – to squeeze them empty and fill them anew. 


The process of coercive re-education was called “thought reform”, and its methods were first revealed in the 1950s by the pioneering research of Robert Jay Lifton, a young American psychiatrist. Lifton’s investigations showed how thought reform shared roots with the Soviet methods that inspired Orwell – and how it has since informed the techniques used against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Lifton was born into a liberal middle-class Jewish family in 1926, and grew up in Brooklyn among romantic left-wing New Yorkers. During his medical studies in the 1940s and early 1950s, he grew wary of “totalism”: the desire for absolute control exhibited both by the intellectual tendencies of psychoanalysis at the time, and by the politics of the period. From the 1970s, he went on to study Nazi doctors, Vietnam veterans, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult, who released sarin gas in the Japanese underground in 1995. The 94-year-old has recently published a book, Losing Reality, on the psychology of political and religious zealotry. Now that our age of upheaval has reawakened the ghosts of mid-century totalitarianism, Lifton’s work has renewed topicality – not least his study, begun almost 70 years ago, of Chinese thought reform.

In 1954, Lifton moved to Hong Kong, and spent a year interviewing survivors of Chinese thought reform: Westerners, such as missionaries and businessmen, who had stayed in China after the CCP takeover and who had endured the process in Chinese prisons. He also spoke with Chinese intellectuals such as Hu Wei-Han, a former student leader in the communist underground, who had experienced thought reform while at universities or revolutionary colleges during the early years of the PRC. This research formed the basis of Lifton’s ground-breaking work, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China (1961), which identified the key techniques used to remould minds. 

“Milieu Control”, for example, involved sealing the subject off from outside communication, and even from free communication with himself, through constant monitoring. This, Lifton wrote, was “uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” except that the monitoring was done not by telescreens, but by a group of fellow thought reform “students”. When I spoke to Lifton earlier this year, he told me that Beijing’s use of surveillance technology in Xinjiang “diminishes the difference” between the real world and Orwell’s invented one. 

Once reform “students” were sequestered, and under mutual surveillance, they were pressured to criticize themselves and each other, to confess privilege, outdated thinking and toxic foreign influence. Through what Lifton termed “loading the language”, subjects would use the same “thought-terminating clichés”, relentlessly repeated to reinforce the division between the virtuous “people” and evil “reactionaries”, “capitalists”, “imperialists” and “bourgeois”. The party’s Marxist-Leninist precepts became a “sacred science”; students would be made to understand that doctrine mattered more than any personal considerations. They were subjected to a relentless “demand for purity”, backed up with threats of social ostracism, public humiliation and punishment, in order to foment a competitive “cult of confession”. Under intense pressure to expose their inner life, students would invent offences for which to denounce themselves. It was a deeply traumatising experience.

For Lifton, the influence of Russian communism on Chinese thought reform was “immediately apparent in much of the content and many of the forms of the process” – not least “the stress upon criticism, self-criticism, and confession as features of ‘ideological struggle’”. Beneath these specific methods, there lay a Leninist insistence on “purity of belief” in the service of utopian goals. Here is the common root of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the modern suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.


In 1921, as the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war, Lenin lauded the party’s “iron discipline” that had been essential to victory. As John Kosa detailed in Two Generations of Soviet Man (1962), criticism, self-criticism and confession were ways to maintain party members’ ideological commitment. From the late 1920s, the Soviets invited Chinese communists to Moscow to learn how to run a revolutionary state. According to Zhang Guotao, a leading figure of the early Chinese communist movement who defected to Hong Kong in 1938, the CCP began to adopt Soviet thought-reform techniques before its ascent to power in 1949.

The Chinese communist representative Kang Sheng was in Moscow in the mid-1930s during Stalin’s show trials. Kang studied the ways in which false confession could become a means of control through terror. In 1937, the Soviets flew Kang to Yan’an, a town in a remote valley in northwest China. The communists had been holed up there since 1935 after their epic retreat into the hinterland during China’s Civil War. The impact of Kang’s flight to Yan’an is still manifest today.

When Mao decided that the party’s ranks needed ideologically purifying, he appointed Kang to direct the interrogations. Between 1942 and 1944, the “Yan’an Rectification Movement” turned thought reform into an intensive, widely applied system in which Kang used everything from high-pressure public meetings to torture to whip up a hysteria of ritualised confession. As Lifton discovered, cadres “studied” together in groups and were coerced into examining and confessing their incorrect ideas, scrambling to criticise themselves and each other, before emerging cured as repentant “new men”.

Lifton stressed to me that unlike the Soviets, “the Chinese gave much greater emphasis to ‘re-education’ – bringing about personal change through a systematic process.” In showing O’Brien forcing Winston not just to confess but to change his beliefs, Orwell had done something extraordinary. By following the logic of Moscow’s methods, and deepening their psychological penetration, he conjured a glimpse of Mao’s totalitarianism. Where the Soviets broke you, made you confess to invented charges, and then killed you, the Chinese wanted to remake its citizens.

For Lifton, the evidence for this emphasis on remaking, rather than breaking, “suggested that it came from the Chinese Confucian tradition.” Although Mao and his followers rejected Confucianism, according to Lifton they were nonetheless influenced by it. The point where ancient Confucian self-improvement and modern Leninist terror met was in the idea that humans are – as O’Brien tells Winston  “infinitely malleable”. 


Ever since the 1940s, thought reform has reappeared as a darkly prominent feature in China’s fraught history, particularly during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which Mao launched in 1966 to purge China of all remnants of capitalism and traditional Chinese heritages. Today, as the journalist Kai Strittmatter argues in We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (2019), Chinese TV continues to broadcast footage of prisoners delivering scripted confessions of their supposed crimes, reportedly after torture. But it is in Xinjiang where thought reform has had the most recent and devastating impact.

Abduweli Ayup, a 47-year-old Uyghur language teacher currently in exile in Norway, has read Nineteen Eighty-Four in three languages, and recognises Winston Smith’s ordeals. When I spoke to him, he told me that, starting in 2015, after being accused of militant separatism, he spent 15 months enduring detention and torture, and being pressured to confess to separatist extremism. He recalled that watching broadcast confessions while in detention in Urumqi had an extraordinary effect. “Some of my cellmates told the same story they heard on TV,” he says. “They made those stories become their own story.” 

In 2014, during a visit to Xinjiang, Xi Jinping made a speech to local officials in which he ordered the “educational remoulding and transformation of criminals”. Ideological re-education centres were also built. Just as Mao cast thought reform as a matter of eradicating foreign ideas, and just as O’Brien tells Winston that his incorrect notions must be obliterated, so the centres are presented as transforming their (Uighur) “students’” thoughts to rid them of ideological viruses. Documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists last year include instructions issued by Zhu Hailun, then the party’s second most senior official in the region, to staff running the centres. These mandate the promotion of “the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past behaviour”. Robert Jay Lifton says this is essentially the process he analysed 65 years ago.

The US historian James Millward argues that the CCP’s use of thought reform on an ethnic group is a new development. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the objective is to break Winston’s belief in objective truth and to integrate him into the Party. In Xinjiang, the aim appears to be not only to eradicate an allegedly extremist ideas, but to also suppress Uighur traditions. Indicators of this include the closing of mosques, forbidding young men to wear beards, and placing Han Chinese officials in Uighur homes to watch for signs of Islamic observance. 

Between 2015 and 2018, a young Uighur woman named Mihrigul Tursun was detained three times, under suspicion because she had previously lived in Egypt. From her exile in the US, she told me that Chinese interrogators had asked her why she prayed. “Because I believe in Islam,” she said, “so I will tell God, ‘Thanks for giving me this life,’ and then they started to torture so hard. They said, ‘‘No, tell your God, ‘Come here”, if he is stronger than me, to help you. Xi Jinping gave you this life, the Chinese Communist Party gave you this life.’” Tursun said some prisoners lied about not being Muslim, and declared their belief in the Communist Party and called Xi their God.

Millward said that testimonies of this kind from former Uighur residents of Xinjiang are not unusual. “There is a deliberate effort to get people to renounce culture and confess to being subject to extremist thoughts as a result of their beliefs.” However brutal, thought reform was once driven by ideological zeal. But today, with Beijing more focused on stability than revolution, Millward suggests that it has become a way to justify collective punishment. 

Beijing claims its training programmes are helping to make Xinjiang safer and happier, and that Western reports about coercive re-education are untrue. 

But if Millward is right, it would be a realisation of Orwell’s vision of totalitarian realpolitik. Between electrocutions, O’Brien tells Winston Smith: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” 

Whether this is about power per se, or a genuine attempt to transform Uighurs’ thinking, the echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in Xinjiang are no coincidence.

Phil Tinline’s BBC Radio 4 documentary series “Orwell in Five Words” is available on BBC Sounds

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