News of state repression against China’s Uyghur people have become prominent in recent months. Reports at the UN estimate up to a million are held in internment camps.
China denies the mass detention and points to constitutional guarantees of equality and religious freedom, but the mounting evidence is discrediting such pretences.
The Uyghur people are a Turkic, majority-Sunni Muslim, ethnic group making up around 46% of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Despite the Communist Party’s claims of equality, many ethnic minorities have long been disadvantaged and marginalised. Subject to employment discrimination in the big cities, Uyghurs have been left out of China’s rapid urbanisation in recent decades: over 80% remain farmers.
In recent decades, Xinjiang has seen agitation for independence, and sporadic terrorist attacks linked to both separatism and Islamism. In 2009, racial tensions erupted into deadly riots in the city of Urumqi.
Xinjiang is a crucial fossil fuel producer and a vital artery for China’s reach into central Asian and Middle Eastern markets — key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This is the effort to tie large swathes of the world together into a China-led economic sphere, as China seeks to compete as an imperial superpower.
With unrest and separatism in Xinjiang posing a threat to Beijing’s interests, violent Islamism (while real) has been used to excuse a population-wide crackdown. This has brutally intensified since the arrival in 2016 of new provincial Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, fresh from repressing dissent in Tibet.
Chen has transformed Xinjiang into an intensely surveilled police state. Police recruitment and security spending have skyrocketed. Communities are divided into grid squares of about 500 people, each monitored by its own police station and extensive CCTV. Uyghurs are held up at multiple checkpoints per day. Passports have been confiscated en masse. Religious expression, from long beards to giving children names like Muhammad, is increasingly suppressed.
Officials go house-to-house compiling dossiers, noting “extremist” and “undesirable” activity such as political dissent, owning a Qur’an or fasting during Ramadan. Citizens are scored for “trustworthiness”: simply being Uyghur or practicing Islam lowers your score. Some officials are even installed living in Uyghur family homes. Citizens are required to install government spyware on their mobiles and biometric data is collected during health checks.
These immense datasets are fed into a machine-learning AI program that seeks out patterns and generates lists of suspects for detention. Human rights analysts now estimate that 500,000 to a million Uyghurs have been extra-judicially imprisoned for, eyewitnesses claim, physical torture and political brainwashing. Even the government’s own documents use terms like “psychological counselling”, “behavioural correction” and “thought education”.
Burned by the Free Tibet movement, the Chinese state is apparently attempting to disrupt the development of a politically-active diaspora. Officials have contacted Uyghurs living abroad with demands that they surrender personal data or return home, threatening their family members in China if they refused.
Trump is now considering sanctions in response. Perhaps these would yield some limited relief, despite the gross hypocrisy of a government itself engaged in rampant anti-Muslim racism and mainly interested in imperial competition. The socialist and labour movements must seek ways to build our own solidarity with those subject to exploitation and repression by the Chinese ruling class.