Fear and Loathing in Xinjiang: Ethnic Cleansing in the 21st Century
What we are witnessing in Xinjiang is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available in the 21st century.
Over the last two years, there has been a flurry of news coverage of the mass human rights abuses targeting Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Initially, reports documented the growing use of cutting-edge technology to monitor the inhabitants of the region, but such stories were quickly eclipsed by the evidence that the state had constructed scores of mass internment camps throughout the region, which held hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and members of other local ethnic groups arbitrarily and indefinitely.
While Chinese authorities initially denied the existence of these mass internment camps, they have since acknowledged their existence and characterize them as benign and voluntary “vocational training” centers meant to combat Islamic extremism in the region.
Many scholars and journalists, who have been tracking information about these internment camps for over a year, have presented plenty of evidence that the camps are anything but voluntary. People are arbitrarily detained and placed in camps against their will, frequently without any notification being given to their families. When husbands and wives are both interned, their children are sent to special boarding schools, becoming essentially wards of the state. There is no standard time period for internment, and it appears that very few of those who have spent time in these camps have been released.
While the camps are allegedly meant to deter extremism in the region, the diverse reasons for being interned and the varied population in these facilities belies a much broader agenda. The list of criteria for internment is vast and includes both present and past behavior, alleged religiosity or nationalist tendencies, travel abroad, contacts with foreigners, family associations, the content of one’s electronic devices, the use of a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) to circumvent censorship while browsing the internet and any accusation that one has suspect loyalty to the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party. Those interned include farmers and urban workers, businessmen and businesswomen, intellectuals and cultural figures, and many members of the Communist Party with long histories of loyal service to the state. In short, almost anybody can be interned for virtually any reason.
Survivors and former workers of the camps have also suggested that what transpires inside them is anything but benign, recounting terrifying experiences that include torture, the use of mind-altering drugs on detainees and persistent humiliation. Beyond the most egregious abuses that occur in the camps, the banal existence inside them is a source of incredible psychological stress. All spaces in the camps are under constant surveillance by closed-circuit TV cameras that are under the constant gaze of guards in a CCTV central control room. The living quarters inside the camps are reportedly overcrowded, and inmates are poorly fed and limited in their ability to interact.
While the atrocities that these camps represent and the most egregious abuses inside them have been well documented, there has been less analysis of what this situation means for the Uighur people as a whole inside the XUAR, whether they are inside or outside the internment camps. The full scale of what is happening in this western region of China became clear to me when I recently met an Uighur who had only left the region at the end of this summer. This person’s account of life in the region, both inside and outside the camps, suggested that the Uighur people and other local ethnic groups are facing a systematic effort to change their identities and perhaps even their consciousness. To fully understand the impact of this effort on the indigenous population of this region, one must examine how life in the camps intersects with that outside of them. The person I met gave me insight into this dynamic.
In an effort to protect this person’s identity, I will avoid reveling his/her gender, place of residency both inside and outside China, and profession. Instead, I will refer to this person as “informant,” alternatively using the initial “A.” I should note that the informant with whom I met had not been interned in a camp, but A did have a close acquaintance who taught in one camp and had recounted that experience to A in detail. Furthermore, the informant is not an activist or involved in any way with political groups either inside or outside of China. In fact, the informant had mentioned that the information being provided to me had only been shared with a few close friends for fear that it would have ramifications for A’s family back in China.
The intensity of this experience suggests an environment far worse than most prisons in the world. The detainees are given almost no opportunity to communicate with each other, and with the exception of morning exercise sessions, they are forced to be completely still for the majority of the day.
That said, once the informant began talking, it was difficult to stop A. It was as if it was a cathartic moment that allowed A to let out feelings that had been bottled up for months in the terrifying context of what it must be like to live as a Uighur inside the XUAR today. Obviously, the informant’s accounts provide a sample of one and should not be considered as demonstrative of the experience of all Uighurs in the region.
Furthermore, the quite detailed description of the camp where his/her acquaintance worked should not be considered to characterize the operations of each of the at least 59 internment camps in the region. Nonetheless, as a means of providing both more eyewitness accounts of the daily life in the camps and offering an understanding of the psychological impact of these camps on those Uighurs who are not detained in them, I felt obliged to bring this person’s account to a broader audience. I believe this account should add to the mounting evidence of what the People’s Republic of China is actually doing today in the Xinjiang and serve as a rebuttal to the benign explanations of the Chinese state when it denies violating Uighurs’ human rights in the region.
When asked what word is presently used by Uighurs for the mass detention centers that are spread throughout the XUAR, my informant said “education centers” (terbiyilesh Merkezi), stressing that the word “vocational” is never used to describe them. If this term was favored by most Uighurs, the informant also noted that relatives tended to tell the children of those taken to the camps either that they had gone to “university” or to the “hospital.”
The description of the camp where A’s acquaintance taught painted a picture that was more like a highly fortified prison than a school or a hospital. Not only are the detainees forced to remain on the grounds, which are protected by watchtowers and barbed wire fences, but each floor of the building is self-contained to prevent interaction between those interned in different parts of the camp. In doing so, the camp’s administration also makes a conscious effort to ensure that relatives and acquaintances are on separate floors or in different buildings to further isolate individuals.
I explicitly did not ask my informant about reported physical torture in the camps because I was more concerned with the banal ways that these institutions have invaded the everyday life of all Uighurs in the region, both those inside and outside of the camps. While stories of physical torture and punishment illustrate more sensationally the camps’ gross violation of human rights, it is the terrorizing aspects of these camps’ impact on the banality of everyday life that tells us more about their broader impact on the Uighur people as a whole.
According to the teacher with whom my informant is acquainted, the daily routine of detainees is mostly composed of three main activities aside from meals. First, the detainees take part in organized physical exercise, then they are subjected to an extended class on the Chinese language that takes several hours, and finally they must endure several hours of intense propaganda instruction about Xi Jinping Thought, the duties of PRC citizens, the evils of extremism and religion more generally, and the identification of extremists. As a regular part of these propaganda lessons, the inmates are asked to participate in sessions of self-criticism where they admit their past mistakes and pledge to change their ways.
The language classes are particularly surreal in that they involve many students whose primary language is already Chinese (Minkaohan) as well as those who have almost no knowledge of the language. Frequently the instructors do not even know the language as well as many of the students. In this context, the classes cannot be very effective in actually teaching the Chinese language. Rather, the description of these classes provided by my informant sounded as if their goal was to symbolically convey the intent of the entire experience in the camps by force-feeding them a Chinese identity while stripping them of their own.
The brutal setting of the classroom cannot be conducive to learning and appears more like an elaborate form of torture. The students are forced to sit perfectly still in an upright position with their hands either crossed or on their knees for hours on end. The intense pressure of sitting upright for hours on end without movement has given most detainees one of a variety of physical ailments such as hemorrhoids and muscle disorders. All classrooms are watched by employees of the camps on CCTV cameras, and these hidden monitors quickly berate students in the Chinese language from loudspeakers in the classroom if they are observed moving, appearing to be falling asleep or fidgeting.
The teachers of these classes are also physically detached from the students and are behind a fence throughout the teaching period. If they enter the actual classroom, the same loudspeaker warns them to quickly get safely behind the fenced-in area. Thus, as has also been suggested by an ethnic Kazakh teacher in the camps who fled from the XUAR to Kazakhstan earlier this year, life as a teacher in these camps is quite traumatic itself, especially if the teacher is not ethnic Han, but from one of the local ethnic groups. For this reason, my informant noted that school directors have begun regularly using threats of being sent to the camps to teach as a means of motivating their teaching staff to be more obedient pedagogues in their present positions.
In their sleeping quarters, the detainees are placed deliberately with strangers and are prohibited from socializing or even speaking to each other. This is once again enforced by the omnipresent CCTV surveillance and loudspeakers, which will command detainees to refrain from communicating if discovered to be doing so, even with hand signals. In lieu of talking, the detainees must stay up in the evening and watch more propaganda via a television in their cell. A recent account of a former guard at a different camp notes that this constant observation by CCTV follows the inmates even into the bathrooms, which are also installed with cameras.
The intensity of this experience suggests an environment far worse than most prisons in the world. The detainees are given almost no opportunity to communicate with each other, and with the exception of morning exercise sessions, they are forced to be completely still for the majority of the day. Furthermore, while there have been some accounts of detainees being given permission to meet with family members over the course of their incarceration, testimonies also suggest that this is tightly controlled. Family members who wish to meet with inmates must be approved by their local police station and, if approved, are given rare opportunities for face-to-face contact as well as the occasional ability to talk by phone, all of which is monitored closely by the camp.
This controlled atmosphere of surveillance and limited communication must create a feeling of complete isolation. Accompanied by a barrage of propaganda focused on building a “Chinese” identity for the detainees and breaking down their Uighur identity, this isolation must inflict untold psychological trauma. For this reason, and given the indefinite term of inmates’ detention, it is not surprising that my informant’s acquaintance told A that there were frequent suicide attempts in the camp. As a result, detainees are denied access to any objects that could be used to inflict self-harm and are forced to wear uniforms that are deemed “suicide safe.”
What we are witnessing in the XUAR is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available to states in the 21st century. It is a form of ethnic cleansing where the object of purging is not physical territory, but the human terrain of the ethnic group itself.
While it is virtually impossible to understand the full impact of this environment on any of those involved, whether it be the detainees, the teachers or those responsible for controlling the environment either via surveillance cameras and loudspeakers or through physical enforcement — it produces a distortion of reality in all cases. For the inmates, it must be incredibly disorienting and traumatic, creating an environment that may indeed facilitate a process of gradually cleansing them of their identity.
For many teachers, it likely creates a dilemma of conscience as they participate in parading brutal means of indoctrination and psychological torture as a form of pedagogy. And, among many security personnel, it may be creating a vicious and desensitized segment of the population for whom inflicting psychological torture and intimidation are becoming normalized as part of their banal work life.
Waiting for Detention
Although not comparable with the psychological damage done to the detainees inside the camps, these “education centers” are also inflicting psychological trauma on all Uighurs in the XUAR. My informant suggested that the presence of these detention centers constantly hangs over all Uighurs’ daily life in the region. In some ways, this has created a sense of a new normalcy that people must factor into virtually all of their daily choices of action, but it also instills in people a constant fear of arbitrary detention as well as intense distrust of each other.
Some of the ways in which the camps have invaded the everyday life of Uighurs are as mundane as finding code words for telling others where their missing friends and relatives are when they have disappeared into an education center. Others are more overt, but equally mundane. As my informant explained to me, now, when one enters a store to buy clothes, the salesperson will ask without emotion if they are buying regular clothes or clothes for the camps. These examples suggest that people have to a certain extent internalized the existence of these camps as a normal part of life.
If the presence of the camps has become normalized, their incorporation into daily life also reinforces a constant fear among virtually all Uighurs that they, too, may be sent to live in them. In work places, employees are made aware of the many criteria that makes one either an “extremist,” or in state places of work (including schools and universities), a “two-faced official,” criteria against which they are constantly evaluated. While not stated explicitly, people know that these regular evaluations are intended to determine whether they will be sent to an education center.
For some Uighurs, this experience is even more immediate, as those who evaluate their loyalty are sent by the state to periodically live with them in their homes. While my informant did not experience this extreme invasion of private space, A did mention that similar evaluations of the family were regularly done by a local state-run neighborhood committee (Makhalla Komiteti).
The UN reports that #China has detained more than one million #Uighurs in “re-education” camps. @AJ101East investigates how the government uses high-tech surveillance to effectively control this ethnic minority: https://t.co/Z3kixzEg1J pic.twitter.com/AslxZemWzp
— 101 East Al Jazeera (@AJ101East) November 20, 2018
On one hand, this process of constant evaluation offers Uighurs a road map of the things to avoid being perceived as doing as a means of navigating the new normal of Xinjiang. On the other hand, they serve as a means to force Uighurs outside the camps to forsake the markers of their identity, including their language, history and religion. Additionally, these regular evaluations provide an avenue for others to attack those with whom they may have disagreements. Thus, my informant said that there are frequent instances of people using accusations of “extremist tendencies” or “two-facedness” against others as a means to remove competitors in the workplace or neighbors with whom one has a disagreement.
In this sense, the camps have cultivated an environment of distrust and viciousness that is quite similar to those in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and China’s Cultural Revolution during the 1960s, when colleagues and neighbors frequently turned each other in as “enemies of the people” or “counter-revolutionaries” to be sent to labor camps or killed on the basis of personal grievances.
The uncertainty and lack of trust in this situation makes one live in almost constant fear that one could get the “knock on the door” from authorities. My informant said that it is widely believed that people are taken to the camps from their homes late in the evening, leading to many sleepless nights. A, for example, would stay up most nights waiting anxiously to find out if the authorities would be coming. The lack of trust cultivated by this situation has led people to take all steps possible to avoid talking about the camps and the fear they evoke. If one is to discuss this with anybody, it must be a very trusted person and in complete privacy where nobody else can hear. Thus, one cannot compare notes about the fear each is encountering, and all of these feelings must be bottled up and self-absorbed.
This internalization of fear among Uighurs in the XUAR must be creating a contradictory environment. On the one hand, people have incentives to appear unquestioning of what is happening and to embrace it as normal. On the other hand, the consciousness that at any moment one might be arbitrarily detained indefinitely in a camp must make life anything but normal. They cannot demonstrate any attachments to the social life they once lived — the bonds of family, friends, neighbors and ethnic identity must all be forsaken. This, in effect, is breaking down the social fabric of Uighur society, which is at the center of their cultural identity.
A New Form of Ethnic Cleansing?
It is clear that the People’s Republic of China is seeking to radically transform the culture and identity of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in the region, but to what ends? In general, these efforts have focused on the elimination of Islam, the eradication of any political voice in society, the destruction of Uighur social capital, the repression of the Uighur language and the destruction of all substance in Uighur culture beyond song, dance and perhaps a version of “national dress” that is acceptable to the state.
While the state appears to be attempting to replace these aspects of Uighur identity with the hallmarks of Chinese identity, I would posit that the goal is not assimilation because the dominant Han culture will never fully accept Uighurs as equals; rather, it is to make this ethnic group into a cultural artifact, much like the state changed the living Uighur old city in Kashgar into a museum-styled caricature of its original form.
While this systematic campaign to change identity shares some commonalities with other state-led social engineering projects from the past, it also appears to be something completely new. While its aggressive attempt to alter identity is reminiscent of Pol Pot’s Year Zero campaign in Cambodia or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, both of these examples of mass social engineering targeted the entire citizenship of states and not merely select ethnic groups. In other ways, the mass internment of people on the basis of ethnicity and religion in Xinjiang evokes the history of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, but the fact that this has yet to result in the mass murder of Uighurs suggests it is too soon to call this genocide.
Finally, it is tempting to equate efforts to quarantine and control Uighurs in the XUAR with a process of “ethnic cleansing” like that which occurred during the Yugoslav civil war, but China’s efforts vis-à-vis Uighurs and other Muslim groups in this region have not yet sought to drive these populations from the region entirely as was the intent in former Yugoslavia.
In this context, what we are witnessing in the XUAR is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available to states in the 21st century. It is a form of ethnic cleansing where the object of purging is not physical territory, but the human terrain of the ethnic group itself. Whereas ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia sought to cleanse a territory of other ethnicities, in Xinjiang, the Chinese state appears to be trying to cleanse Uighurs of their “Uighurness.” A recent document on China’s state policy in the XUAR makes these intentions clear, noting that the goal with regards to the Uighurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”
The appearance of new technologies for ethnic cleansing should be of great concern to the international community, which had worked throughout the second half of the last century to prevent such mass atrocities from repeating themselves. How it deals with what is happening in Xinjiang today may be a litmus test for the future, and its response will help set a precedent for how much state-led violence against citizens — particularly against minority populations — will be tolerated in the 21st century.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.