Academics, journalists, and rights groups have recently documented the accelerating repression of its 11-million strong Uyghur population living in Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan), a spacious, strategic, and resource-rich northwestern borderland of China. The burgeoning security apparatus, ubiquitous surveillance, gathering of biometrics, the use of big data, and similar technological features of Chinese authoritarianism have invited comparisons of Xinjiang to an open-air prison or to the dystopian visions captured in Orwell’s 1984 or Zamaytin’s We.
The securitization of the Xinjiang policy under Xi Jinping reveals several “new circumstances”. A stable Xinjiang is essential for China’s vital energy security infrastructure and expansive foreign initiatives, such as Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In contrast to previous administrations, the Xi leadership has resolved to treat the “Xinjiang problem” as a primarily ethnic issue stemming from insufficient integration of the Uyghur community. On the national scale, the Xi leadership’s growing concerns with maintaining the power of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have triggered a massive consolidation of the party-state apparatus and attacks on potentially subversive constituencies such as ethnic minorities, religious groups, lawyers and rights activists, and journalists. The security push is also enabled by adopting new technologies, many of which are being tested in Xinjiang on Uyghurs and which the CPC expects to turn China into a 21st century cyber-power.
Xi Jinping’s “new era” (xin shidai) also brings enhancement to the CPC’s ideational governance. While at his first national propaganda conference in August 2013 Xi Jinping called in relatively mild terms for strengthening the “cohesiveness” of Chinese society, waging the “public opinion struggle”, and boosting the party’s “discursive power”, months into his second term in August 2018 he spoke in a more dictatorial tone of preserving “authoritative and centralized leadership”, maintaining “political and cultural security,” and “cultivating a new human capable of undertaking the immensity of national rejuvenation”. Since 2012, the CPC has launched ideological campaigns against constitutional democracy, universal human rights, criticism of China’s past and present, independent media and civil society, and other ideas threatening the CPC’s ideological grip on China’s public discourse.
In Xinjiang, the enhanced ideational governance under Xi synergized has been synergized through securitization, bringing about an alarming reintroduction of seemingly long-outdated techniques of Maoist-style mass indoctrination. Since early March 2017, possibly over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang allegedly prone to “religious extremism” have been imprisoned in political re-education camps. Ex-detainees have testified about deaths, torture, and appalling conditions in the facilities. The authorities have also detained several ethnic Kazakhs of Xinjiang origin who hold Kazakhstani citizenship. China’s officials repeatedly denied the existence of the camps, only to retroactively legalize them in early October 2018.
The indoctrination methods described by ex-detainees included attending the flag raising ceremony every morning followed by endless hours of singing red songs, lauding the party and Xi Jinping before their meals, and studying Chinese language, history, and laws. The prisoners are allowed to speak only Chinese – speaking in Uyghur is punished – and they are denied legal and medical assistance. The indoctrination also involves forced self-criticism and acknowledgement of alleged “crimes”, which are, however, not defines as criminal acts under state law. Uyghurs are being detained for merely claiming their religious and ethnic identity, which is protected by the constitution and other laws. In the camps, they have to reject Islam and promise to consume alcohol and tobacco. The descriptions of physical torture and mental manipulation of Uyghurs in today’s Xinjiang prisons read as if quoted from Bao Ruowang’s memoir of incarceration in China from 1957 to 1964, or from the sources for Ji Fengyuan’s and Daniel Leese’s seminal studies of totalitarian mind-control during high Maoism. Meanwhile, the detention of the massive numbers Uyghurs is causing anguish also to their families, and Uyghur intellectual elites are being decimated by a campaign against so-called “Two-Faced Persons”.
There are substantial differences between China under Xi Jinping and under Mao Zedong. The Cultural Revolution, to which the current re-engineering of Uyghur society is often compared, was launched by Mao against perceived competitors for power inside the CPC, while the everyday horrors of the “spiritual holocaust” (as it was termed by the Chinese writer Ba Jin) were unleashed, often chaotically, by actors outside of the party bureaucracy, mostly radical propagandists, fanatical youth, or loyal military units. In contrast, today’s repression is carried out in a highly organized manner by an unprecedentedly effective party-state apparatus, starting at the top with the CPC’s core leader and ending at the bottom with grassroots-level cadres posted to Uyghur homes.
Mao’s totalitarian excesses also took place in a China which was almost completely isolated from the outside world and was barely economically surviving. The China of today is the second largest economy in the world, where the CPC’s legitimation through securing the material needs of China’s citizens is preconditioned by economic openness and globalization. The fact that China is tightly embedded in global trends means that its authorities can justify the anti-religious and anti-ethnic Xinjiang policy by trumped up claims of Uyghur religious extremism. It also means that the global public is relatively more aware of what is happening both in Xinjiang.
But similarly to the Maoist era, Xi Jinping’s China considers Uyghur minds as its enemy and has resolved to forcefully indoctrinate them with official values and beliefs. The state has also resolved to normalize extrajudicial violence and psychological terror, to eliminate multiple Uyghur elites, and to take complete control over education, culture, media, public debate and other ideational realms. China watchers have previously assessed the Great Leap Backward which China is taking under Xi by stifling the ideological climate, the revamping of the political system, the rise in militant official nationalism, or the political divergence from the democratic world. Another symptom of the totalitarian regression is the immeasurable mental suffering systematically inflicted on the Uyghurs minds, hardly imaginable in the twenty-first century before the rise of Xi Jinping.
Originally published at Asia Dialogue.