Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.17: Understanding what is Happening in Xinjiang: An Interview with Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts recently spoke with CAS web editor Jessica Chandras to provide an update on the situation for Uyghurs in Xinjiang since publication of his 2018 Critical Asian Studies article, “The Biopolitics of China’s ‘War on Terror’ and The Exclusion of the Uyghurs.”  

Q: Your article addressed the PRC’s policy and practice of treating Uyghurs as a whole as potential terrorists. Have there been changes or updates to what you have outlined in the article?

A: When the article was going to press, we were just starting to get a full view of what was happening, which is continuing to happen and appears to be only intensifying. There’s essentially a network of mass internment camps that are serving to, in the words of the People’s Republic of China, “reeducate” Uyghurs. According to the Chinese government, the justification is to de-radicalize Uyghurs; however, they target the entire population. In fact, it appears as if local administrators are faced with quotas for people that have to be put into these mass internment camps. As a result, they’re drawing up criteria that are arbitrary in order to meet these quotas. Generally we’re seeing that not only religious Uyghurs, but all Uyghurs are subject to internment and the alleged processes of “de-radicalization.” Some of the things for which one can be placed in a camp include having traveled abroad, having relatives who are abroad, or having religious materials on your cell phone.  In addition, many Communist Party members, who are technically atheists, have been put in the camps under suspicion of being disloyal to the party. As a result, it is somewhat arbitrary who ends up in the camps. There’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence of people being given some sort of medication in the camps which seems to be psychologically debilitating, and recently it was reported that women who have taken these narcotics have been found to be infertile afterwards. The regimen in the camps includes at least psychological torture, if not also at times physical torture, and the detainees are under constant and complete surveillance throughout the day.

Outside of the camps, most Uyghurs now live in constant fear that they will also be interned, forcing people to break ties with family members, and close friend as well as to constantly demonstrate their loyalty to the party. As a result, Uyghurs even fear speaking their native language publicly, and, when they do,  they avoid the use of certain words associated with Islam, such as Assalaam alaikum, which is a standard greeting for Uyghurs but is from Arabic, thus raising suspicion of being an extremist.

Meanwhile, there’s a wholesale removal of the Uyghur language in public places, and there have been reports of the destruction of Uyghur mosques and Uyghur cemeteries.  Thus, the efforts to transform Uyghur identity are accompanied by measures to erase Uyghur culture from the landscape as well/  

In general I’ve referred to the situation at present as a new kind of ethnic cleansing. During the Yugoslav civil war, this term referred to the removal of an ethnic group from their territory; in the case of the Uyghurs, it appears more like an attempt to cleanse an ethnic group of their identity and cultural practices. There seems to be no sign of the situation moderating itself substantially. In fact, we’re increasingly seeing an attempt by the Chinese government to counter criticisms of the policies as reported by journalists and academics. The Chinese government has been sponsoring tours of some internment camps, portraying them as vocation training schools where people are learning an industrial skill like working on assembly lines or with textiles. Another narrative that the Chinese government is promoting is to suggest that the camps are completely benign and any discussion of them trying to destroy Uyghur culture is a plot of the CIA in the United States to discredit the PRC. While this sounds like a far-fetched conspiracy, it is appealing to some audiences internationally who are fed-up with American hegemony.  While recent reports suggest that the security environment in the region has lightened up some, I doubt this will lead to any reversal of the overall conditions in the region.  We could see some softening of the present system of control, but that is likely to be minor and probably temporary.

Q: And future prospects?

A: In terms of future prospects, normally with an extreme policy like this, the Chinese central government can blame excesses on local authorities. But in this instance, the central government has come out very aggressively in favor of their approach and denies that there are any excesses related to it – which in some ways I think is backing the Chinese government into a corner. In fact, I don’t see the situation getting any better until Xi Jinping is removed from power because he has already defended these policies and implicated himself in their creation.  I also do not see international pressure doing much to change the situation. There’s certainly been a lot of criticism about the policies towards Uyghurs from the U.S. and from European Union countries, but, given the changing geopolitical atmosphere, I don’t think this criticism has much leverage with China. In fact in some ways what we are seeing in the case of the mass human rights violations suffered by Uyghurs is a litmus test of the changing geopolitical power configurations. While the United States is pushing Muslim majority countries and other developing countries to speak out about this, the Chinese government is pushing them not to. In this soft power battle, the Chinese government is definitely winning.

It is also not clear how the PRC can easily extract itself from the situation.  If it was to suddenly close these internment camps and set people free, I think you would have a much angrier population of Uyghurs than had been the case prior to the camps’ establishment.  The policies’ blatant targeting of particular ethnic groups is bound to create lasting animosity. In this sense, the situation is very different from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], when people were able to recover from very intense and repressive conditions because everyone in the country had experienced them. Thus, while these camps and the associated surveillance measures outside of them have temporarily stopped all forms of Uyghur violent resistance to Chinese rule, in the long run, I expect them to fuel such violence.

Q: What implications do the more recent developments have globally?

A: Part of what is happening outside of the camps is that the CCP has established a high-tech surveillance state in this region. Some of the things they've done in Xinjiang they’ve rolled out elsewhere in China and also some of the surveillance technology they’re using is being sold to other countries. In this sense, Xinjiang has become something of a state-supported human laboratory for Chinese technology companies to test their products’ potential for population control.  Some of that technology includes the massive use of closed-circuit television cameras with facial recognition. But in addition to that, the state is requiring people to use applications on their smart phones that allow security organs to track individuals by their phone’s GPS software and to monitor their communications. There’s also been an attempt to gather the DNA of the population in the region and all of these data points are put together with additional files and profiles from employers into a single database which the government is suggesting they use for “preventative policing,” tracking what people are thinking, what they're saying, and deciding if they're dangerous. All of this technology is exportable. As somebody who has been studying Uyghur communities for almost thirty years, I’m very concerned about the fate of this specific ethnic group and their culture, but it should be concerning to everybody in the world that we may see this type of state-sponsored tracking of individuals exported around the world, particularly to more authoritarian states that would be able to use it to control any domestic dissent or anybody they see as dangerous to the state. It really is potentially an incubator for a high technology biopolitics that could be exported throughout the world in the coming decades.

Q: One of the things that I wrote down prior to us speaking is about how the use of the term “concentration camps” in China parallels the usage of “detention centers” on the U.S. southern border now.

A: Indeed, one can draw parallels between China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and what is happening elsewhere in the world as states move towards more autocratic means for controlling their populations.  Furthermore, this global turn towards nationalistic and autocratic populism is imbued with a certain racism that targets those viewed as “others” in society, whether that be immigrants or ethnic minorities. Certainly, we’ve seen this in the United States but it appears to be a global trend that includes parts of the European Union, such as in Hungary, and Brazil among numerous other countries. This global autocratic and nationalist turn in politics is also part of the reason why there isn’t much international outrage about what is happening in a remote region in the northwest of China. Of course, there are more specific parallels to be drawn between what’s happening on the borders of the U.S. and what’s happening in the western borderlands of China. It’s certainly an international trend that we’re seeing less and less respect for the voice of peoples within states and I think it is a very concerning trend.

Q: Is there any other information you would like to add or anything you would like to update from your CAS article?

A: One other thing worth mentioning is that a major point in my article is how the “global war on terror” has facilitated this situation. The “global war on terror” has facilitated this situation in two different ways. First, it has given international cover to the Chinese government to repress Uyghur dissent in the name of counter-terrorism. Even to this day we hear responses from different governments regarding the crisis of human rights in Xinjiang where they suggest confidently that this an appropriate policy response to a terrorist and extremist threat inside China. The second, and perhaps more important, way that the “war on terror” has facilitated the PRC’s campaign against Uyghurs has been through international example. The excesses of the war on terror globally have set a precedent for dehumanizing those suspected of terrorism and completely suspending their human rights. Just using the discourse of terrorism tends to dehumanize the people it’s used against. Once those people are dehumanized, it is possible to use any means necessary to repress their voices with virtual impunity from international criticism. This dehumanization is facilitated by the fact that we have come to think of the threat of terrorism as motivated by irrational ideology emerging from an extreme version of Islam rather than from legitimate grievances. Once you have branded a population as “terrorists,” you essentially strip them of any of their grievances and any of the history behind their struggles with the state, and I think that is what we’re seeing with the Uyghurs now.

In some ways, even since this article was written, the war on terror has increasingly receded into the background of international affairs. Unfortunately, the narrative of the war on terror continues to be used as a way to delegitimize any kind of self-determination movements among Muslim groups or even any kind of domestic grievances among Muslim marginalized groups. It is worth noting that part of the reason that this narrative is so toxic is that despite the fact that we’ve been engaged in the global war on terror and terrorism for eighteen years, there still remains no internationally recognized definition of what a terrorist act or what a terrorist is. That allows for flexibility of states to use it [“war on terror”] as a means to de-legitimize any kind of group within or outside of its borders that it perceives as a threat.

Sean Roberts is director of the International Development Studies program and an associate professor of anthropology & international affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has a wide range of experience as an ethnographer and development practitioner in Central Asia, and is executive producer of the 1996 documentary, “Waiting for Uighurstan” (available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_TopFTrXMk ). He can be reached at seanrr@gwu.edu.

robert shepherdComment