Since 2016 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been engaged in the mass repression of Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The most headline-grabbing element of this has been the arbitrary detention of at least 1 million Turkic Muslims (primarily those of Uyghur ethnicity) in “re-education” facilities of various categories.
But this has also proceeded hand-in-hand with the erection of a pervasive “security state” throughout the region characterized by the deployment of both technologically-enabled surveillance and more traditional human-centric, or “mass line,” forms of surveillance and the repression of Turkic Muslim cultural identities.
Some may see this as an undoubtedly heavy-handed but understandable response to episodes of terrorism in or connected to Xinjiang. A closer examination of how each major element of the system of repression in Xinjiang fits together, however, reveals that for the CCP security can only be achieved through the eradication of autonomous Turkic Muslim identities and their replacement with “domesticated” ethnic identities compatible with Han Chinese political and socioeconomic norms.
There is in fact a two-layered approach to the party-state’s efforts to transform Xinjiang that reflects near- and long-term imperatives of settler colonialism. First, the surveillance apparatus enables “social sorting” of the Uyghur population based on “signs” of “extremism,” thus identifying those to be interned in various forms of “re-education,” ensuring the near-term goal of “security.” And additionally, the party-state’s emphasis on accelerating socioeconomic development through state-led infrastructure investment and industrial development, coerced population transfers of Uyghurs, and rapid urbanization is geared to the long-term goal of demographically, economically, and physically transforming Xinjiang into a “normal” province.
Cutting Weeds: Securitization, Surveillance, and the “People’s War on Terrorism”
The most obvious manifestations of the party-state’s “developmentalist” turn have been the Great Western Development (GWD) plan, launched in 2000, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, which have both sought to re-make Xinjiang into an industrial and agricultural base and a trade and energy corridor for the national economy. While bringing economic development, these initiatives created a variety of new socioeconomic pressures – such as encouragement of further Han settlement, rapid urbanization, and environmental degradation – that exacerbated interethnic tensions. These tensions exploded in July 2009 with the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi sparked by the deaths of two migrant workers in Guangzhou.
This event was significant as it underlined for the party-state that economic development alone would not deliver its objective of transforming Xinjiang into a “normal” province. Rather, development would have to be coupled with a renewed focus on security. Thus in 2010 then-President Hu Jintao oversaw both the roll-out of a “Xinjiang support package,” including targeted central government investment and infrastructure spending, and the installation of thousands of high-definition surveillance cameras on buses, in schools, and in shopping centers, as well as on the streets of urban areas to increase police presence in key places, vital sectors, and public areas throughout the region.
After a terrorist bombing in Urumqi in April 2014, current President Xi Jinping called for the CCP to focus on “meticulous” religious work to make “religion adapt to a socialist society” and ensure that people of all ethnic groups identify themselves with “China, its culture and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Significantly, state media reports also noted that Xi voiced an assimilationist approach to “ethnic policy” by suggesting “that authorities should strengthen exchanges and communication between different ethnic groups, promote bilingual education, and strive for a more integrated social structure and community environment where people are not grouped solely based on their ethnicity.”
One of the main instruments, however, through which the party-state would “cut out weeds” was an increasing reliance on surveillance both of the high-tech and labor-intensive varieties. Although the rollout of high-tech surveillance methods had begun in 2010, it accelerated exponentially with the appointment of Chen Quanguo as the new party chairman of Xinjiang in 2016. During his prior position as party leader in Tibet (2011-2015), Chen had implemented a policing system of “grid style management” that segmented “urban communities into geometric zones” policed by “convenience” police stations connected to Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras and police databases enabling greater surveillance capabilities. In Xinjiang, Chen not only implemented this approach but also integrated it with the CCTV surveillance systems already established in Xinjiang, resulting in a multi-tiered policing system based on exponential recruitment of contract police officers to staff “convenience” police stations. Further measures – including the compulsory fitting of GPS trackers in motor vehicles, use of facial recognition scanners at checkpoints and major public amenities, and installation of apps that wipe smartphones of “subversive” material – were also implemented under Chen’s watch.
This constituted, according to two analysts at the Xinjiang Police University, Ding Wang and Dan Shan, the distinctive element of what they described as the “Xinjiang mode” of “counterterrorism.” The “Xinjiang mode,” they contended, combined the “war model” of counterinsurgency adopted by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan with China’s own “public security” model and “governance model.”
The party-state’s use of Maoist “mass line” mobilization in Xinjiang since 2014 as a means of obtaining such information and monitoring Uyghur society – such as the “Becoming Family” campaign – is consistent with the “public security model.” “Becoming Family” involved, as Joanne Smith Finley wrote in 2018, “10,000 teams of visiting officials” descending “on rural Xinjiang in 2017 to report on ‘extremist’ behavior such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan, sporting long beards, and possessing ‘undesirable’ items like Qurans” with individuals then “categorized as ‘trustworthy,’ ‘average’ or ‘untrustworthy’ depending on their age, ethnicity, employment status, and depth of religious knowledge and practice.”
Digging Out the Roots: Coercive Developmentalism and the Remaking of Xinjiang
Following the passage of China’s National Counter-Terrorism Law of December 27, 2015, which defined extremism as the “ideological basis for terrorism,” the XUAR government passed the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification” in March 2017. This regulation was significant for not only demonstrating the CCP’s objective to categorize and sanction those displaying signs of extremist behavior but also for its intention to undertake “educational transformation” of such individuals.
China’s August 2019 White Paper on “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” subsequently underlined the centrality of this objective to define and regulate Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties. Based on the principle of “striking the minority in isolation and uniting and educating the majority,” the document asserted that the state must not only deal with “terrorist crimes in accordance with the law” but also “educate and rescue personnel infected with religious extremism” in order to treat “both symptoms and the root causes” of religious extremism (author’s emphasis). Through education and training, the centers would promote development, increase the people’s overall income, and help Xinjiang “achieve social stability and enduring peace.”
The party-state’s framing of the family separations that have resulted from the forced labor components of “re-education” is particularly revealing here. The secretary of the Party Committee of the Education Bureau of Yutian County, for example, noted to state media in October 2018 that because “the parents of these children were poisoned by extreme ideologies” and were “unwilling to send their children to school,” the children “could not speak Mandarin and failed to develop a good life habits.” But, he said, after being enrolled in the elementary school of Yutian County Vocational and Technical Education Training Center, the children have developed “good daily habits” such as “learning to wash their faces, brush their teeth, and attend to personal hygiene.” The implication is clear: Only by removing these children from their Uyghur environments can they hope to reach basic levels of “civilized” behavior.
The implementation of these new forms of social control in Xinjiang, as Sean Roberts, an expert on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs has pointedly stated, are 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.”
The Party-state’s Settler Colonial Project Ascendant
In July 2022 Xi Jinping undertook what state media termed an “inspection tour” of Xinjiang. Throughout the official report of his remarks, the necessity for the ongoing transformation of the region’s non-Han ethnic groups was repeatedly stressed. After listening to a “work report” (i.e. a summation of local official’s achievements/progress and remaining challenges to policy implementation) by the local party committee, for example, Xi noted that the “most important thing for Xinjiang to maintain long-term stability lies in the people’s hearts” and as such “it is necessary to forge a solid sense of the Chinese national community and promote exchanges and integration among all ethnic groups.” That such “forging” amounts to a policy of assimilation was left in little doubt with Xi declaiming at the same meeting that “Chinese civilization is the root of the culture of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”
While the initial impetus for the erection of the security state in Xinjiang derived from fears of terrorism, it is now clear that the party-state believes that the policies of “re-education” and systematic surveillance that have followed in its wake provide the means through which to achieve a lasting transformation of Xinjiang and its Turkic Muslim population.
A longer version of this article was originally published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.