By Ondřej Klimeš.

Academics, journalists and rights groups have recently documented the accelerating repression of the 11-million strong Uighur population living in Xinjiang, a spacious, strategic and resource-rich northwestern borderland of China. The burgeoning security apparatus, ubiquitous surveillance, gathering of biometrics, the use of big data, and similar technological features of Chinese authoritarianism have invited comparisons of Xinjiang to an open-air prison or to the dystopian visions captured in Orwell’s “1984” or Zamyatin’s “We.”

Photo: ollis_picture/Pixabay.

The securitisation of the Xinjiang policy under Xi Jinping reveals several “new circumstances.” A stable Xinjiang is essential for China’s vital energy security infrastructure and expansive foreign initiatives, such as Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In contrast to previous administrations, the Xi leadership has resolved to treat the “Xinjiang problem” as a primarily ethnic issue stemming from the insufficient integration of the Uighur community.

On the national scale, the Xi leadership’s growing concerns with maintaining the power of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have triggered a massive consolidation of the party-state apparatus and attacks on potentially subversive constituencies such as ethnic minorities, religious groups, lawyers and rights activists, and journalists. The security push is also enabled by adopting new technologies, many of which are being tested in Xinjiang on Uighurs and which the CPC expects to turn China into a 21st-century cyber-power.

Xi Jinping’s “new era” (xin shidai) also brings enhancement to the CPC’s ideational governance. While at his first national propaganda conference in 2013, Xi Jinping called in relatively mild terms for strengthening the “cohesiveness” of Chinese society, waging the “public opinion struggle,” and boosting the party’s “discursive power.” Months into his second term in August, he spoke in a more dictatorial tone of preserving “authoritative and centralised leadership,” maintaining “political and cultural security,” and “cultivating a new human capable of undertaking the immensity of national rejuvenation.” Since 2012, the CPC has launched ideological campaigns against constitutional democracy, universal human rights, criticism of China’s past and present, independent media and civil society and other ideas threatening the CPC’s ideological grip on China’s public discourse.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

In Xinjiang, the enhanced ideational governance has been synergised through securitisation, bringing about an alarming reintroduction of seemingly long-outdated techniques of Maoist-style mass indoctrination. Since early March last year, possibly over one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims from Xinjiang allegedly prone to “religious extremism” have been imprisoned in political re-education camps. Ex-detainees have testified about deaths, torture and appalling conditions in the facilities. The authorities have also detained several ethnic Kazakhs of Xinjiang origin who hold Kazakhstani citizenship. China’s officials repeatedly denied the existence of the camps, only to retroactively legalise them in early October 2018.

The indoctrination methods described by ex-detainees include attending the flag-raising ceremony every morning followed by endless hours of singing red songs, lauding the party and Xi Jinping before their meals, and studying Chinese language, history and laws. The prisoners are allowed to speak only Chinese – speaking in Uighur is punished – and they are denied legal and medical assistance. The indoctrination also involves forced self-criticism and acknowledgement of alleged “crimes” which are, however, not defined as criminal acts under state law.

Uighurs are being detained for merely displaying their religious and ethnic identity, which is protected by the constitution and other laws. In the camps, they have to reject Islam and promise to consume alcohol and tobacco. The descriptions of physical torture and mental manipulation of Uighurs in today’s Xinjiang prisons read as if quoted from Bao Ruowang’s memoir of incarceration in China from 1957 to 1964, or from the sources for Ji Fengyuan’s and Daniel Leese’s seminal studies of totalitarian mind-control during high Maoism. Meanwhile, the detention of massive numbers of Uyghurs is also causing anguish to their families, and Uighur intellectual elites are being decimated by a campaign against so-called “Two-Faced Persons.”

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist serving a life sentence in China, on ‘separatism’-related charges. File photo: Screenshot.

There are substantial differences between China under Xi Jinping and under Mao Zedong. The Cultural Revolution, to which the current re-engineering of Uighur society is often compared, was launched by Mao against perceived competitors for power inside the CPC, while the everyday horrors of the “spiritual holocaust” (as it was termed by the Chinese writer Ba Jin) were unleashed, often chaotically, by actors outside of the party bureaucracy – mostly radical propagandists, fanatical youth or loyal military units. In contrast, today’s repression is carried out in a highly organised manner by an unprecedentedly effective party-state apparatus, starting at the top with the CPC’s core leader and ending at the bottom with grassroots-level cadres posted to Uighur homes.

Mao’s totalitarian excesses also took place in a China which was almost completely isolated from the outside world and was barely surviving economically. The China of today is the second largest economy in the world, where the CPC’s legitimisation through securing the material needs of China’s citizens is preconditioned by economic openness and globalisation. The fact that China is tightly embedded in global trends means that its authorities can justify the anti-religious and anti-ethnic Xinjiang policy by trumped-up claims of Uighur religious extremism. It also means that the global public is relatively more aware of what is happening in Xinjiang.

Uyghur Uighur Xinjiang detention centre reeducation camp
Photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

But similarly to the Maoist era, Xi Jinping’s China considers Uighur minds as its enemy and has resolved to forcefully indoctrinate them with its official values and beliefs. The state has also resolved to normalise extrajudicial violence and psychological terror, to eliminate multiple Uighur elites, and to take complete control over education, culture, media, public debate and other ideational realms. China watchers have previously assessed the Great Leap Backward which China is taking under Xi by stifling the ideological climate, the revamping of the political system, the rise in militant official nationalism, and the political divergence from the democratic world. Another symptom of the totalitarian regression is the immeasurable mental anguish systematically inflicted on the Uighurs, hardly imaginable in the twenty-first century before the rise of Xi Jinping.

Ondřej Klimeš is a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

The Asia Research Institute is an international network of policy experts based at the University of Nottingham in the UK. It provides a platform for commentary and analysis on current events in China and East Asia and aims to provide multiple perspectives from academics and practitioners across the globe. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CPI or University of Nottingham.