China Power

Assimilation: China’s Failed Strategy in Xinjiang

Recent Features

China Power | Society | East Asia

Assimilation: China’s Failed Strategy in Xinjiang

China’s approach to Xinjiang rests on forced assimilation, a difficult task in a society where even those who wish to assimilate struggle to do so.

Assimilation: China’s Failed Strategy in Xinjiang

Uyghurs who say they haven’t heard any news from their families and relatives in Xinjiang attend a protest near the Chinese embassy, in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

The story of the Xinjiang Police Files, which I wrote about in this space last month, deserves continued attention. The files were delivered to an international consortium of media, and then further authenticated, analyzed, and curated by Dr. Adrian Zenz, an expert on the internment campaign targeting Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Zenz said that the files are irrefutable evidence of what is “most likely the largest incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust… The new evidence really underlines the nature of this atrocity.”

The files were obtained from an anonymous source who hacked into police computers in two counties in Xinjiang, both of them mostly populated by Uyghurs and other minorities. As Zenz relates in a brief video on the website of the files,, the files offer for the first time “a first-hand account of police operations inside re-education camps.”

There are over 2,800 images of detainees, and over 23,000 detainee records. The databases that were leaked hold over 300,000 personal records.

Zenz remarked that the leaked speeches by senior Communist Party officials, including Chen Quanguo, who was Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang at the time that the speeches in the leaked files were made, portray a “paranoid threat perception” and “the internal justification for why one has to move against an entire population.”

The documents indicate that the camps and the prisons are over-crowded, and that Beijing will therefore fund more of each. This, said Zenz, “shows how closely and intimately the central government has been involved in this atrocity from the beginning.”

Beijing’s master plan, Zenz said, is “to break the back of entire ethnic groups” by interning them. Data show that the elderly and “key” people are detained in the camps, as both groups are the sources of “cultural and spiritual knowledge” from which younger generations learn.

“It’s a whole program of assimilation, of assimilating an entire ethnic group,” said Zenz.

One aspect of the re-education efforts that is emphasized throughout the speeches and documents in the files is the necessity of transforming the Uyghur population – now and for the future – into fully assimilated Chinese citizens, with belief in the Chinese Communist Party and its practices. In short, the “de-extremification” process is designed not just to change minds, but to replace them. All former belief systems must be wiped out and substituted with the CCP’s definition of a good Chinese citizen.

The irony of this approach and goal is that ordinary Chinese citizens abroad often decline to assimilate into other societies. From London to New York to Sydney to Singapore, one can find large groups of mainland Chinese who only associate with themselves. Contact with the citizens of their host nation is mostly limited to a bare minimum required to fulfill one’s tasks, whether it be work or studies. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are in the minority.

The Chinese government takes extreme offense at anyone who casts aspersions on ethnic Chinese abroad for keeping up the traditions and language of their home country. In the minds of CCP leaders, however, the Uyghurs are not deserving of the same sympathy for preserving their cultural and religious traditions in their own homeland.

That China’s government has developed a domestic security protocol to round up people seen as “extremists” solely based on their religious and cultural beliefs, and then force them into a program to remove and replace their identities for the purpose of neutralizing a perceived threat to the state, is already the stuff of bad dreams. But for that program to suggest that the re-educated person will then assimilate into the society of those who forced an alien identity upon the victim is high irony indeed. How can a society that itself does not easily assimilate successfully manipulate others to assimilate into it?

The answer is clearly that it can’t. Mainland Chinese society, mostly Han Chinese, for all that opening up to the outside world has done to allow its citizens exposure to other countries and cultures, is still very much insular and rigid. In keeping with its own customs, it is generally averse to the customs of others. Relationships with those outside of its construct are often awkward, and the Chinese side often attempts to dominate. How does such a society bring others into its fold?

In this case, by force. In June 2018, Chen was party secretary of Xinjiang, making him the most powerful person in what is supposed to be an autonomous region. His thoughts on which tactics and strategies are permissible for the state to use in order to defuse the threat of Islamic terrorism include explicit terms defining cultural genocide.

In praising the work that had already been done at that time to eradicate the “sources of extremism,” Chen said that “the ’Four Breaks’ [breaking lineages, breaking roots, breaking connections, breaking origins] have been done well.”  In other words, Chen implied, China has been successful in destroying the familial, cultural, religious, historical, and even geographic ties of the Uyghur and other Muslim minority people in Xinjiang. Yet Chen stressed that more must be done.

Today, however, Chen is no longer in Xinjiang’s leadership. He was replaced in early January 2022 by Ma Xingrui. Despite signals that Ma may be attempting to repair the severe reputational damage inflicted on China as a result of the camps – now proven by the Xinjiang Police Files to have been run not by vocational teachers but by a heavily armed police force with military-grade weaponry behind multiple layers of secure walls – hundreds of thousands if not more are suspected to still be in detention, or their whereabouts are not known at all.

At its heart, the tragedy in Xinjiang has been happening to individuals with names, faces, families, and the hopes and dreams of any normal life. The photos show people who are seen expressing neither defiance nor defeat, but dignity throughout.

The reasons for detainment and incarceration, as detailed by the Chinese records themselves, show the degree of Islamophobia and paranoia the Chinese leadership has reached.

Nursimangul Ehet was 24 years old when she was photographed by the police. She was interned for re-education. The reason for internment? Reading scriptures.

Nurnisagul Tohti, 20 years old in 2018, was detained in the New Internment Camp. The length of his sentence is unknown. He was interned for listening to and watching an illegal video of Abdureyim Aishan’s “Dream of Aishan” on his mobile phone in his own home in August 2012.

These are just two of hundreds of thousands of examples of arbitrary detention for the most specious of reasons that have now come to light. Now that they have, Zenz said, the world’s relationship with China “cannot be business as usual anymore.”