In its repression of the Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang, China is creating a template of social control and repression that can be exported and deployed on a large scale throughout Beijing’s emerging commercial empire in Asia and Africa.
In Xinjiang, China is carrying out the most dramatic “re-education” program since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of the 10-11 million native Uighurs in the province, 800,000 to 2 million are believed to be interned in re-education camps. These are detention camps where inmates are subject to an intense program of indoctrination that erases all aspects of their identity related to Islam and/or their Turkic ethnicity and replaces them with an identity centered around the communist ideology of the state and loyalty to the Communist Party.
Outside of the camps, by all accounts, Beijing has instituted a full-on surveillance state in Xinjiang over the past five years aimed exclusively at the Uighur population. And many aspects of Uighur identity are simply criminalized: Uighur newborns may not be given names from a list of banned Muslim names, some Uighurs have been force-fed pork and alcohol to disabuse them of Islam, and of course, any act of celebration of their distinctive identity will draw a forceful response from the Communist authorities.
Officially, Xinjiang is an autonomous region within the People’s Republic, similar to Tibet. As in Tibet, this nominal constitutional distance from Beijing is a source of suspicion. Moreover, the Uighurs are a Muslim, ethnically Turkic people, closely related to the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks over the border. Their language, culture, religion, and outlook are more closely aligned with those of the Central Asian “-Stans” than to Han China. They also share more history with the Central Asian Silk Road route than the Chinese heartland.
Predictably, this has produced some secessionist tendencies. By any account, these tendencies have been less pronounced than in Tibet, especially since the Uighurs lack a government in exile and an internationally prestigious figurehead like the Dalai Lama. But that difference seems to have been lost on the Communist Party leadership. Uighur secessionist voices have already been brutally suppressed, and as the state works to eradicate the Uighurs’ distinct identity, it is actively encouraging Han Chinese from the east to settle in Xinjiang.
The intention seems to be to replicate the successful plan of Sinification implemented in Tibet: Overwhelm the local population with state repression,shift the local demographics until the dominant group in the region is the loyal Han Chinese,and then ease off the repression on an individual basis conditional on cultural integration with the new Han-majority population.
What is different in Xinjiang is the widespread use of technology to surveil individuals, to control their movements, and to overwhelm their informational environment. For example, just one leaked facial-recognition database showed that officials monitored the movements of more than 2.5 million Uighurs. Western commentators have spoken of China’s online “Social Credit” system of rewarding citizens according to their social “trustworthiness” as a potential precursor to Orwellian surveillance. In Xinjiang, that kind of surveillance state already exists, with the help of many technologies that China sources from the West.
A Darker Future
The most striking aspect of the Xinjiang situation is the revelation of the “scientific zeal” with which officials are carrying out the program. This is not a haphazard effort to contain a potentially rebellious borderland minority. It is a systematic use of cultural reprogramming based on an ostensibly scientific “theory of social stability,” in the words of some of the architects of the anti-Uighur program.
The parallels with Tibet are not incidental; many of the same people in charge of that program are leading the Xinjiang project. They are also looking to formalize this template of cultural domination as a technology of “social stability” that could be deployed in any number of other contexts – whether domestically or abroad.
It is reasonable to expect China to offer to export this “technology,” especially if doing so aligns with its geopolitical interests.
For example, China’s Belt and Road initiative includes the construction of a large commercial port in Sittwe, Myanmar, and the road and rail infrastructure to connect it to Yunnan province. Sittwe is adjacent to the lands of the Rohingya – the Muslim minority that the Myanmar Army has in the last 18 months almost entirely displaced to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
If talks of repatriating the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar ever produce concrete results, Myanmar already has several camps built to house the returnees. China could offer their “social stability technology” to Myanmar for use in those camps to “pacify” and “re-educate” the returnees, both for profit, and to help preempt instability near China’s infrastructure investments.
This outcome could be replicated elsewhere along the commercial routes and infrastructure projects Beijing is building westward. China will have this “technology” in its arsenal, and in many places will have every incentive to use it. And so will many of the questionable local regimes peppered along China’s new Silk Road.
This trend must be preempted before it becomes inexorable. The United States has voiced concerns over the situation in Xinjiang, but Washington must remain committed to censuring China on this issue and take actions that have real consequences for Beijing.
First, U.S. lawmakers should block all U.S. technology firms from providing surveillance technology to the Chinese government. Second, with Chinese authorities coercing governments to forcibly repatriate Uighur family members to China, the United States should grant special protected status and fast track asylum claims within the United States. Finally, in light of the scale of the challenge, Washington must establish the role of U.S. Special Coordinator for Xinjiang within the State Department to manage all efforts to respond to the situation.
Washington’s ability to influence Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang may be limited, but if the United States is seen as committed to imposing costs for these kinds of human rights violations, it will at least deter weaker regimes in Myanmar, Pakistan and elsewhere from deploying these Chinese techniques against their own peoples.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Director of the Displacement and Migration program at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). He is also the author of the well-received book “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.” The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.