Today’s headlines are now dominated by the fact that China is undertaking a program of mass incarceration of the Uyghur population of its far northwestern region of Xinjiang (which many Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan) in a system of “re-education” centers.
Up to 1.5 million Uyghurs (and other Turkic Muslim minorities) are now estimated to be caught up in the largest human rights crisis in the world. Analysis based on Chinese government procurement contracts for construction of these centers and Google Earth satellite imaging has revealed the existence of hundreds of large, prison-like facilities throughout Xinjiang. One of the largest detention centers, Dabancheng near the regional capital, Urumqi, alone is estimated to have a capacity to hold up to 130,000 people.
“How did a revolutionary state,” David Brophy has pointedly asked, “which came to power promising to end all forms of national discrimination, end up resorting to such horrific policies?”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In attempting to develop an answer to this question, the violence of July 5 to 7, 2009 (or 7/5 as the events are referred to in China) in Urumqi, looms large. While the region has had a long history of fractious interethnic and state-ethnic minority relations, the nature, intensity, and implications of the violence of July 2009 appear, in hindsight, to have set in motion a range of dynamics that have shaped both the practices and objectives of the “security state” manifest in today’s Xinjiang.
Yet 7/5 is also but one – albeit significant – moment of crisis in what has been the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) decades-long colonial project in Xinjiang. Indeed, as Patrick Wolfe argues, colonialism is not a singular event but rather a process that has both negative and positive dimensions: “it strives for the dissolution of native societies” and “erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base.” The true significance of 7/5 may lie in the fact it stimulated the CCP to embark on an explicit turn toward the dissolution of Uyghur identity and culture as a means of ensuring the security of the “new colonial society” it has erected in Xinjiang.
The CCP’s Colonial Project in Xinjiang
When Xinjiang was “peacefully liberated” by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in October 1949 after decades of autonomy since the collapse of the Qing empire in 1911, the CCP confronted the question of “how to run an empire without looking like colonialists.” Their answer — recognition of the region’s 12 non-Han minzu (nationality or ethnic groups) and implementation of a system of “national regional autonomy” — in theory, was meant to ensure that “beneath the supreme central CCP power” the various minzu were to stand as equals, their individual culture, language, and practice of religion respected and protected.
In practice, however, this was accompanied by tight political, social, and cultural control, encouragement of Han Chinese settlement, and state-led economic development, backed by the repression of overt manifestations of opposition and dissent by the security forces. This approach stimulated periodic and sometimes violent opposition from the Uyghur population (and other ethnic minorities), who bridled against its major consequences: demographic dilution, political and economic marginalization, and cycles of state interference in the practice of religion.
China’s concerns vis-à-vis the security of Xinjiang were not resolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather, the focus of these concerns shifted from state-based threats to largely nonstate ones driven by the convergence of the Islamic revival in neighboring Central Asia and Afghanistan and relative weakness of the post-Soviet states.
This was also compounded by the internal trajectory of Chinese governance in the region which, since the institution of “reform and opening” under Deng Xiaoping, had been based on the assumption that delivery of economic development and modernization would ultimately “buy,” if not the loyalty, then at least the acquiescence of the Uyghurs. Under Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, the question of Xinjiang’s economic development assumed national importance under the Great Western Development (GWD) campaign, formally launched in 2000.
Under the GWD, Xinjiang was envisaged as becoming an industrial and agricultural base and a trade and energy corridor for the national economy. Central to the state’s developmental agenda was a focus on a variety of “mega-projects” such as massive oil and natural gas pipelines and infrastructure developments linking Xinjiang with Central and South Asia and the various subregions of Xinjiang with each other and the interior of China.
While bringing economic development, such projects also created a variety of new socioeconomic pressures – encouragement of further Han settlement, rapid urbanization, and environmental degradation – that exacerbated interethnic tensions. Xinjiang’s GDP surpassed the national average from 2003 onward, but many Uyghurs felt they had not benefitted due to a variety of factors including: the concentration of Xinjiang’s urban centers and industry in the north of the province; targeting of state investment in large infrastructure projects in which companies have tended to employ Han Chinese; and widening rural-urban disparities.
In parallel to this state-led modernization strategy – and centrally connected to shifting perceptions of the causes of Uyghur discontent – the authorities also implemented yearly “Strike Hard” campaigns against those that it defined opportunistically after 9/11 as “terrorists and extremists.” While Uyghur religious expression had always been closely managed, post-9/11 it was “juridicized” through intense state regulation to not only monitor imams and religious institutions but also establish guidelines for the identification of potential “deviant” behavior among believers.
Shaoguan: “A Single Spark”
“A single spark,” Mao Zedong remarked in 1930, “can light a prairie fire.” Mao was referring to inevitability of the coming “high tide of revolution against the imperialists, the warlords and the landlords” as Chinese society was “littered with dry faggots which will soon be aflame.” But Xinjiang too, by the first decade of the 21st century was also littered with readily combustible fuel as a consequence of the CCP’s decades-long colonial project.
The “single spark” that set this combustible material alight proved to be the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers on the night of June 25 to 26, 2009 at a toy factory far to the east in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. The two were beaten to death by Han Chinese on the basis of a rumor that some Uyghur migrant workers – recently transferred from Xinjiang to Shaoguan — had raped Han girls. Reports and images of this violence spread to Xinjiang via the internet, including the posting of a video of the incident on You Tube.
Subsequently, on July 5 a large demonstration in front of the CCP headquarters in Urumqi, mainly comprised of Uyghur student from Xinjiang University, took place demanding justice for the incident in Shaoguan. The demonstration deteriorated into a violent riot in which Uyghurs attacked Han Chinese businesses and individual Han Chinese on the streets, chanting “Kill the Han, smash the Hui, drive the Mongols out!” That evening People’s Armed Police (PAP) units entered the city and quelled the violence, with some witnesses reporting automatic gunfire.
Significant numbers of Urumqi’s Han population then took to the streets on July 6, many of them crudely armed. They vandalized Uyghur businesses and attacked and killed Uyghurs before the violence petered out early the following morning without significant intervention by the police or security forces. Officially, 194 people were killed during the violence of July 5 and 6. Then on July 7, according to witness testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch, the security forces:
… sealed off entire neighborhoods, searching for young Uyghur men. In some cases, they first separated the men from other residents, pushed them to their knees or flat on the ground, and, at least in some cases, beat the men while questioning them about their participation in the protests. Those who had wounds or bruises on their bodies, or had not been at their homes during the protests, were then taken away. In other cases, the security forces simply went after every young man they could catch and packed them into their trucks by the dozens.
Fear and paranoia then descended on Urumqi for the remainder of 2009. This was exemplified by the outbreak of rumors of alleged attacks on Han by Uyghurs armed with HIV-infected hypodermic syringes, which prompted a large demonstration by Han protesters that was only dispersed with tear gas by the police.
The 7/5 events represented a major crisis for the CCP’s project in Xinjiang for two major reasons.
First, the intensity of Uyghur resentment and anger demonstrated in graphic fashion that the CCP’s twin strategies of “national regional autonomy” and state-led economic development had exacerbated rather than assuaged long-standing sources of disgruntlement with the Chinese state. In a broader context, the 7/5 events also undermined and embarrassed the Hu Jintao administration given its focus both at home and abroad of a promoting a “harmonious China.”
Second, the Han vigilantism of July 6 and Han anger directed at the CCP itself, as Tom Cliff has persuasively argued, signaled a rupture in the “partnership for stability” in Xinjiang that had existed between the CCP and the Han Chinese population. Over a number of decades the Han population contributed to security “simply by occupying the border region and by accepting the Party as the best solution for a multi-ethnic, increasingly stratified China,” while in return they expected “protection and that what is being built in Xinjiang is being built in the first instance for them, regardless of the official policies that grant special privileges to minorities.”
Salvaging the “Partnership for Security”
The CCP’s initial response to this rupture was focused on replacement of senior party figures in Xinjiang — including Urumqi CCP secretary, Li Zhi, and long-serving Xinjiang CCP chairman, Wang Lequan – and a renewed focus on “stability maintenance.” In the longer term, however, the CCP response to 7/5 was shaped by a fundamental reappraisal of both the state’s objective in Xinjiang and the means by which to attain it.
Recognizing some of the inadequacies of the GWD model of development, the CCP implemented a more granular approach with the 2010 launch of the Partner Assistance Program (PAP) (also known as “19 Provinces and Municipalities” project). The PAP’s goal, through partnering key prefectures and municipalities in Xinjiang with “developed” counterparts in inner China, was “to match the needs of the local population directly and actually emerging from local communities” and “to invest in small-scale projects and differentiated fields at the grassroots level.”
This was also accompanied by a shift in how the CCP conceived of the relationship between development, identity, and security. Since “reform and opening,” the Party’s strategy in Xinjiang had rested on the bedrock assumption that economic development would gradually resolve the “minzu question” by breaking down the traditional cultural, religious, and social ties that underpinned Uyghur identity and thus securing the region. After 7/5, however, economic development per se was viewed as no longer sufficient to this end.
Rather, the question now was what obstacles prevented development from achieving the goal of integration and what should the Party do about it. An answer emerged from the debates about a so-called “second generation” of minzu policy after 2009. Here, a number Party-affiliated scholars (Ma Rong, Hu Angang, and Han Lianhe) argued that the “first generation” of policy – based on minzu equality and “national regional autonomy” — had solidified ethnic boundaries, ethnic elites, and notions of “separateness.”
Their solution suggests that they believed that there was something intrinsic to ethnic minority identity that blocked the path to modernization, and hence, integration. Thus, the advocates of “second generation” policy asserted that minzu policy must discard the nominal pluralism and preferential policies of the past in favor of an approach that explicitly seeks the “mingling,” “fusing,” or “standardization” of ethnic groups with a supra-national conception of the Chinese “state-nation” (zhongguo minzu). The means through which this was to be achieved included political, economic, and cultural measures: “eliminating group-differentiated rights and obligations to ensure the equality of all citizens”; increasing “economic interaction and ties between ethnic minority regions and the rest of the country”; and “increasing ethnic mobility, co-residence, and intermarriage and promoting Putonghua, bilingual, and mixed-ethnic schooling.”
The final element in the CCP’s transformation of its approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghur after 7/5 was the implementation of a hi-tech surveillance apparatus that some observers have described as a “carceral state.” Many have now documented the technological architecture at the leading edge of this apparatus: installation of China’s “Skynet” electronic surveillance system in major urban areas; installation of GPS trackers in motor vehicles; use of facial recognition and iris scanners at checkpoints, train stations, and gas stations; collection of biometric data for passports; and mandatory apps to cleanse smartphones of potentially subversive material.
This “carceral state” has been animated by the concept of “social management,” an anodyne term that embodies an effort to optimize “interactions vertically (within the Party), horizontally (between agencies), and holistically, between the Party and society” in order “to improve governance capacity to shape, manage, and respond to social demands.” The ascendancy of “social management” is itself reflective of a deeper evolution of the CCP in which it has retained the Leninist drive for control over society with a technocratic drive “to cultivate responsible, trusting, and ‘high-quality’ citizens who inhabit an active, autonomous, and governable society” through borrowing and adapting neoliberal modes and techniques of governance. The result is an innovative set of “governmental technologies” that “cut right at the heart of the party-state itself, serving to support, centralize, modernize, and strengthen the Party’s Leninist leading role in Chinese society.”
This perhaps best reflected in the implementation of China’s “social credit” system, which relies on collecting and analyzing meta-data to shape and “score” the economic and social behavior of individual citizens. The effect fuels both passive participation through the state’s access to personal data linked to everyday conveniences (such as electronic payment systems) and active participation by coercing people into allowing the state to monitor and punish individuals for non-compliance.
However, as Darren Byler has recently reminded us “new technologies have been crucial” in all modern “systems of control deployed against subjugated populations.” In contemporary Xinjiang:
…that technological armament is now so vast that it has become difficult for observers to fully inventory. The web of surveillance in Xinjiang reaches from cameras on the wall, to the chips inside mobile devices, to Uyghurs’ very physiognomy. Face scanners and biometric checkpoints track their movements. Nanny apps record every bit that passes through their smartphones.
Dabancheng: A Symbol of Dissolution
The implementation of these new forms of social control in Xinjiang, as Sean Roberts has pointedly noted, is now framed by a racialized conception of threat whereby the Uyghur population is conceived of as a “virtual biological threat to the body of society.” Indeed, from government officials describing Uyghur “extremism and terrorism” as a “tumor” to equating religious observance as an “illness,” the CCP’s discourse frames key elements of Uyghur identity as pathologies to be “cured.” Such a framing of the Uyghur also suggests certain pathways for the state to resolve its “Uyghur problem.” Most evidently, promulgation of new legal restrictions on religious practice, use of “transformation through re-education” centers to coerce Uyghurs displaying “deviant” behaviors, and detention or imprisonment of the Uyghur intelligentsia have become predominant features.
The implementation of the CCP’s new technologies of power (i.e. “social management” and “re-education”) in Xinjiang is arguably framed by a clearly colonial objective: the dissolution of Uyghur identity and its reconstitution as a “domesticated” vestige of its former self. Or, in President Xi Jinping’s words, to ensure that Uyghur identity adheres to “the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the CCP and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” For those that do not do so, the gates of Dabancheng clearly beckon.
Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, ANU. He is editor of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions (Hurst/Oxford University Press 2018) and author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia: A History (Routledge 2011). Follow him on Twitter: @meclarke114.