In China’s western province of Xinjiang, Beijing is carrying out the most dramatic program of “re-education” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are between 10 million and 11 million native Uighurs living in the province. Of those, between 800,000 and 2 million are believed to be interred in re-education camps.
Then there is the environment China is creating in Xinjiang outside of the camps. By all accounts, Beijing has instituted a full-on surveillance state in the province, exclusively targeting the Uighur population. Many aspects of Uighur identity have been criminalized; there is even a ban on giving Muslim names to Uighur newborns.
Officially, Xinjiang is an autonomous region within China, similar to Tibet. And as in Tibet, this nominal constitutional distance from Beijing is a source of suspicion. Moreover, the Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic people, closely related to the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks across the border. The language, culture, religion and outlook of this people is much more closely aligned to those of the Central Asian “-Stans” than to Han China. Their history, too, is more closely related to the Central Asian Silk Road trade rather than the Chinese heartland.
Predictably, this has produced some secessionist tendencies. By any account, these tendencies have been less pronounced than in Tibet, but this difference of degree seems to be lost on the Communist Party leadership in the capital. Secessionist voices have already been brutally suppressed and now the state is engaging in this full-scale project to eradicate the distinct identity of the Uighurs, even as they actively encourage Han Chinese people from the east to settle in the province.
The approach seems to be to replicate the successful plan of sinification that was 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 brought in from the east, and then ease off the repression on an individual basis conditional on cultural integration with the new Han majority population.
The difference between Xinjiang and Tibet, however, is the widespread use of technology in the former for surveillance of individuals outside the re-education camps to control their movements, and to overwhelm their informational environment. From one leaked facial-recognition database alone, for example, it is known that the movements of more than 2.5 million Uighurs were monitored.
Western commentators have been regarding China’s emerging online so-called “social credit” system, which rewards citizens according to their social “trustworthiness,” as a potentially frightening precursor to full-on “1984”-style surveillance. Yet in Xinjiang, that kind of surveillance state is already fully realized through the use of Internet technologies, many of which are still sourced from the West.
It is reasonable to expect that China will offer to export this surveillance technology elsewhere in the world when doing so aligns with its geopolitical interests.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The most striking aspect of the Xinjiang situation, however, is not merely the scale and ambition of the efforts to erase a minority culture. We were already familiar with this aspect of Communist Party governance from the experience in Tibet. Rather, the most striking aspect is the revelation of the “scientific zeal” with which those charged with the policy are pursuing their aims.
This is not a haphazard effort to put a potentially rebellious borderland minority in their place. What is on display there is a systematic technology 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 or insignificant, either. Many of the same people in charge of that program are leading the Xinjiang project, and are primarily the ones looking to formalize this template for cultural domination as a technology of “social stability” that could be deployed in any number of other circumstances — domestically in China, or abroad.
It is reasonable to expect that China will offer to export this “technology” elsewhere in the world when doing so aligns with its geopolitical interests. For example, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative includes the building of a large commercial port in Sittwe, Myanmar, as well as the road and rail infrastructure to connect it with Yunnan province. Sittwe is adjacent to the lands of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority that the Myanmar Army has in the past year and a half almost entirely displaced over the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
If talks of repatriating the Rohingya refugees ever produce concrete results, Myanmar already has built camps to house returnees. China could offer its “social stability technology” to Myanmar for use in those camps to “pacify” and “re-educate” the Rohingya, both for profit and to preempt instability close to Chinese infrastructure investments.
From the point of view of Beijing, this would be a win-win situation — and it is a scenario that could be replicated in many places along the commercial routes and infrastructure projects Beijing is building westward. Beijing will have this technology in its arsenal and, in many locations, will have every incentive to use it. So will many of the already questionable local regimes scattered along China’s new Silk Road.
This article originally appeared in Arab News on September 14, 2019.