Sean R. Roberts

The Roots of Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

The Roots of Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

China’s Imperial Past Hangs Over the Uyghurs

By Sean R. Roberts

People walk under Chinese flags in the old city of Kashgar, China, September 2018 

Thomas Peter / Reuters

On January 19, one day before leaving office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China’s actions against the Uyghur minority group constituted “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Antony Blinken, Pompeo’s successor, would later agree with this characterization in his confirmation hearing. The notion that a genocide is underway in the twenty-first century seems outlandish, especially in a country that produces the majority of consumer products in American homes. But whatever the merits of the term, the evidence of the atrocities that China has committed against Uyghurs is undeniable.

Over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang are in mass internment camps, prisons, and other penal institutions where they are subjected to psychological stress, torture, and, as recently reported by the BBC, systematic rape. Outside these penal institutions, the Chinese government has placed the indigenous people of the region under constant surveillance using cutting-edge technologies, involuntarily sterilizes women, strips children from their families and sends them to boarding schools, and has dispatched hundreds of thousands of people into forced residential labor programs in factories throughout China. All the while, the Chinese state is erasing the Uyghur characteristics of the region, destroying mosques and sites of pilgrimage, bulldozing traditional neighborhoods, and suppressing the Uyghur language.

The Uyghurs are the main indigenous group in Xinjiang. They are mostly Muslim, speak their own Turkic language, and have maintained a culture distinct from that of the majority Han population of China. According to Chinese government figures, there are 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang—a drop in the bucket when set against China’s overall population of 1.4 billion people. And yet this community has drawn the full force of the Chinese security apparatus, which seems bent on pummeling the minority group into submission.

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China’s brutal behavior in Xinjiang does not just reflect the country’s increasingly authoritarian turn under President Xi Jinping or the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Rather, the repression of the Uyghurs arises out of a fundamentally colonial relationship between Beijing and a territory that it conquered long ago but neither fully incorporated into modern China nor allowed real autonomy. In the 1980s, it seemed for a moment that Beijing might reach a more tolerant modus vivendi with the Uyghurs. But China eventually opted to try to quash Xinjiang’s distinct identity. In pleading with Beijing to change its policies in the region, outsiders are in effect asking China to be a very different nation-state than the one it has chosen to be.

COLONIALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

China’s actions against the Uyghur people over the last four years recall the cultural genocides carried out by other settler colonial powers in previous eras. Much like indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, Uyghurs have faced mass incarceration and internmentthe destruction of cultural sites and symbols, displacement, family separation, and forced assimilation. Beijing’s recent policies in Xinjiang represent the culmination of a long and gradual colonization of the Uyghur homeland.

Xinjiang, which Uyghurs view as their homeland and which means “new frontier” in Chinese, was conquered by the Qing dynasty in the mid-eighteenth century and absorbed into the empire as a province in the late nineteenth century. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, the new Republic of China inherited this region as a distant colonial appendage, ruling over it through Han leaders who maintained a tenuous connection to central state power. The CCP took over in 1949 and sought to exert greater control over the region. Mimicking a Soviet-style system of ethnofederalism, Beijing renamed the territory the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang are the culmination of a long colonization of the Uyghur homeland.

In the Soviet Union, the ruling Communist Party recognized the excesses of tsarist colonialism and gave formerly colonized peoples the opportunity to be at the forefront of Soviet culture and governance within national Soviet republics. These republics were even granted the right—however symbolic—to secede from the Soviet Union. But China never took the same steps in its imperially obtained territories in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, China’s ethnic “autonomous regions” were hardly autonomous: they did not have the theoretical right to secede, and very few indigenous party members attained positions of meaningful power in government. Furthermore, by 1959, the CCP espoused the view that Xinjiang was a historical part of China—a position it emphatically maintains to this day, denying the colonial character of the region’s entry into China.

By 1960, there was very little that was autonomous or Uyghur about the government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China had already rid the regional leadership of native cadres in the late 1950s and then began encouraging Han Chinese migration to the region, facilitating a marked demographic shift. In 1953, Han constituted only six percent of the population of Xinjiang. In 1982, they were 38 percent.

Despite this demographic transformation, the Uyghur homeland remained on the fringes of Chinese communist rule into the 1970s. Most Han migrants settled in the north of the region and lived apart from the Uyghur population centers in the south, such as Kashgar and Khotan. Mao Zedong’s various social-engineering campaigns, deployed in this region as they were everywhere in China, had limited impact in transforming Uyghurs into loyal Maoists. Into the 1980s, Xinjiang was still very different culturally, linguistically, and in physical appearance from the rest of China, especially in the region’s southern oases, which remained populated overwhelmingly by Uyghurs.

DECOLONIZATION DEFERRED

The period of reform under Deng Xiaoping that gained steam following the death of Mao in 1976 held a good deal of promise for the Uyghurs. Beijing tentatively adopted a strategy of partial decolonization in Xinjiang. Deng’s close associate Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the CCP from 1982 to 1987, spearheaded liberalizing reforms in the region as he did elsewhere in China. He called for many of the Han migrants in Xinjiang to return to their hometowns and advocated for unprecedented cultural, religious, and political reform. The government allowed previously shuttered mosques to reopen and new mosques to be built. Uyghur-language publishing and artistic expression exploded. And Hu even suggested making the region more autonomous within the Chinese system of governance, mandating that the leaders of the region come from the indigenous ethnic groups and be allowed to cultivate their own culture and language in local state institutions. This aspiration for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities fit well with Hu’s overall vision for democratization and liberalization.

But Hu’s hope for a more autonomous Uyghur region and for a more democratic China was never realized. Conservatives in the party purged Hu in 1987, blaming his more liberal policies for stoking student agitation throughout the country. The crackdown on the mass student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989—which sprang up partially in response to Hu’s ouster—signaled an end to the era of political reform. The event that truly sealed the fate of the Uyghur region, however, was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. China inaccurately viewed campaigns for ethnic self-determination as the driving force behind the dissolution of the Soviet Union and acted to ensure that China did not suffer a similar fate.

Throughout the 1990s, the CCP deployed numerous so-called antiseparatism campaigns aimed at snuffing out signs of agitation. The state saw Muslim piety as akin to a call for self-determination and targeted religious individuals. It also arrested numerous secular artists and writers. These aggressive campaigns involved significant state violence—mass arrests, torture, and executions. Occasionally, they also sparked violent retaliation from Uyghurs. Despite that sporadic bloody conflict, there was no organized Uyghur militant movement in the region, no genuine threat of secession, and no reason to believe that Xinjiang merited such heavy-handed treatment.

THE MIRAGE OF TERRORISM

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and Washington’s subsequent declaration of a global “war on terror” presented Beijing with an opportunity to reframe its suppression of the Uyghurs. China claimed that its actions were merely a response to a grave terrorist threat. In a bid to fend off international criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, it claimed that Uyghur militants were linked to al Qaeda. The United States took the bait. In the summer of 2002, Washington claimed that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a small, previously unknown Uyghur group in Afghanistan, was aligned with al Qaeda. The United States branded the group a terrorist organization, citing Chinese claims that U.S. officials had denied only months earlier.

The U.S. government finally removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in November 2020, acknowledging that it had not existed for over a decade. But the original designation did lasting damage, emboldening China’s repression in Xinjiang. Under the guise of counterterrorism, China ramped up its suppression of dissent and repression of religion in the Uyghur homeland. It simultaneously furthered its goals of colonization by investing billions in building new infrastructure and industry in Xinjiang, in the process attracting more Han migrants to the region.

For a time, Chinese officials continued to court Uyghur elites to support the government’s policies while focusing repression only on pious Uyghurs. But Beijing has taken a tougher line since 2017, in effect suspecting the region’s entire indigenous population of complicity with terrorism or separatist militancy. A number of factors precipitated this hardening of Chinese policy: China’s increasingly autocratic turn under Xi; the need to develop Xinjiang as an important land port in the vast infrastructure and development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative; Uyghur resistance to state policies; and China’s growing confidence in itself as a global power unconcerned with international criticism. It was also abetted by the acceptance, in many quarters, of the logic of counterterrorism that can easily be used to demonize Muslim populations as an existential threat.

A woman shouts at Chinese paramilitary police in Urumqi, China, July 2009 
A woman shouts at Chinese paramilitary police in Urumqi, China, July 2009 

David Gray / Reuters

In the last four years, Chinese authorities have incarcerated or placed in mass internment camps over a tenth of the local indigenous population. They have subjected the remainder of the population to unprecedented surveillance, tracking their behavior, associations, and communications for any sign of disloyalty that could lead to their incarceration. As a result, those outside penal institutions are forced to comply with state campaigns designed to transform the local population, including forced labor programs, mandatory Chinese-language training, involuntary sterilization, coerced miscegenation campaigns, and the destruction of local cultural monuments or their sanitization for tourist purposes (such as the stylized remodeling of Kashgar’s old city). One public government document reviewed by Agence France-Presse in 2018 made the CCP’s strategy abundantly clear. The overarching goal of these policies toward Uyghurs, it said, was to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”       

This strategy does not seek to counter a real or perceived terrorist threat. Beijing’s true aim is cultural genocide. It hopes to scrub this territory of its Uyghur character, to crush the ethnic solidarity of the Uyghur people, and to turn their homeland into a Chinese commercial hub, another spoke in the wheel of the Belt and Road Initiative. China wants Xinjiang to resemble just another Han-dominated province of the country. In realizing this goal, it views the Uyghurs and their cultural identity at best as superfluous and at worst as obstacles that must be removed.

THE DAMAGE DONE

China will not shift course easily. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration will most likely continue the previous U.S. administration’s vocal criticism of recent Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Congress has passed legislation that places sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in repressive actions in Xinjiang, and it is considering further legislation to ban products made with forced labor in the region. These measures are warranted given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, but they cannot exert the necessary pressure on Beijing as long as they appear to others as simply a plank of the great-power competition between China and the United States. As China has already demonstrated at the UN Human Rights Council—where 45 member states in 2020 signed on to a letter defending Chinese actions in Xinjiang—many countries are willing to take Beijing’s side in such a dispute. The push to change Beijing’s policies must have broad international support and apply sustained economic pressure. And, most important, external pressure can do only so much; real change will come only from within the CCP. Effective international pressure would aim to convince important decision-makers in China that the country’s treatment of the Uyghurs will have substantial economic and reputational consequences.

Even if the CCP were to have an unlikely change of heart, it will be difficult to repair the damage to the Uyghur people and restore trust between them and the state. High-ranking officials, including Xi, would need to accept responsibility for the atrocities committed, especially over the past four years. And there remains a much larger reckoning for China: the task of coming to terms with the ethnic diversity it inherited from the Qing dynasty. Beijing should take a page out of the books of other countries, including many in South America and Scandinavia, which have granted indigenous peoples at least limited sovereignty—as the CCP itself contemplated doing in the 1980s. But Chinese actions don’t suggest any return to a more inclusive vision of the country that accepts Uyghurs on their own terms. That would require fundamental changes in the very character of the modern Chinese state. Instead, China seems committed to pressing ahead to a bleak endgame, the decimation of the Uyghur people and their culture.

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The Guardian view on UK-US relations: rebuilding with Biden

The Guardian view on UK-US relations: rebuilding with Biden

America and Britain are each emerging from disruptive internal periods. The alliance between them must be rooted in realism about the present, not fantasy about the pastBoris Johnson watching Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president.Boris Johnson watching Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street 

In British politics, everyone now loves President Joe Biden. That the UK opposition parties are foundation members of the Biden appreciation club is not surprising. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all identify most naturally with the Democrats and thus with the new administration in Washington. But the changing of the guard at the White House this week has won strikingly broad support across the entire political spectrum too.

Many Conservatives now take an enthusiastic view of Mr Biden as well. In some cases this is hard to believe – or forgive. Not long ago, many of the same Tory politicians who now enthuse about Mr Biden tried to bet the house on Donald Trump. Theresa May rushed to Washington to court him. Michael Gove conducted a gushing interview. Boris Johnson said he should get the Nobel peace prize. A US trade deal was obsessively talked up. Today, these same politicians are all friends of Joe and behave as if they barely knew Mr Trump.

Even so, the resetting of the dial with America is welcome. But if it is not to be merely opportunistic, it must be accompanied by more honesty, humility and clarity. Mr Trump was never the ally that the last two prime ministers imagined. He was never going to agree a good trade deal. He was always an embarrassment. And he was always a threat to the democratic and liberal values that Britain and the United States once stood for and which went absent without leave after 2016.

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Over decades, British leaders have often tended to exaggerate Britain’s importance to the US. Mr Johnson, an inveterate truth stretcher, is the same. The necessary modesty about what is realistically possible in the post-Trump era will not come naturally to him. The security relationship undoubtedly remains strong and important. But the new starting point should be the recognition that, in different ways, Britain and America are emerging from unprecedentedly difficult eras internally and in their international relations, for which they themselves bear responsibility.

In any event, there can and should be no instant return to some of the US-UK relationships of the recent past. The two countries are not cold war allies, because there is no cold war. They are not military interventionist allies either, because there is no appetite in either country for such projects after Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither Mr Biden nor Mr Johnson is proposing some new grand strategic project.

This ought to be a phase of rebuilding in US-UK relations. After the past four years, neither country is in a position to preach to others about democratic institutions and values. The US has just survived a potential coup, supported by a significant proportion of its citizens, to overthrow an election result. Britain has just backed down from a threat to get its way in relations with Europe by breaking international law. It has needlessly damaged relations with Ireland, our nearest neighbour, from which Mr Biden proudly traces his origins. It has now started a petulant row over the EU’s diplomatic status.

This is not the way to win friends and influence people. Britain needs allies in the wake of Brexit and amid the rise of Asia and the waning of American global hegemony. Values and interests such as democracy and the rule of law matter in those alliances. To that end, Britain must make more and better use of soft power assets like the BBC, its universities and the aid budget. Mr Biden’s arrival in office opens up new international possibilities on issues like Covid, climate and internet freedom. But we need to be realistic. Britain must treat partnership seriously, not pick fights we do not deserve to win or make claims we can never hope to fulfil without allies.

Tens of thousands protest across Russia in support of poisoned Putin critic Navalny

Tens of thousands protest across Russia in support of poisoned Putin critic Navalny

Good Morning AmericaPATRICK REEVELL

·6 min read  

Tens of thousands protest across Russia in support of poisoned Putin critic Navalny

Tens of thousands of people have joined protests across dozens of cities in Russia, demanding the release of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin critic who was jailed last week after he returned to the country for the first time since recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent.

PHOTO: Alexei Navalny speaking while waiting for a court hearing at a police station in Khimki, Russia, Jan. 18, 2021. (Navalny team Youtube page/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Alexei Navalny speaking while waiting for a court hearing at a police station in Khimki, Russia, Jan. 18, 2021. (Navalny team Youtube page/AFP via Getty Images)

The protests were one of the largest displays of popular opposition to the rule of president Vladimir Putin in years, taking place in almost every large city across Russia and attracting unusually big crowds. The protesters were met by a harsh response from authorities, with heavily armored riot police moving to disperse them, detaining hundreds.

By early evening, police had detained over 2,600 people, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests.

PHOTO: Young protesters hold banners as climnb atop a lamppost in Pushkin Square, Moscow,  Jan. 23, 2021. (Getty Images)
PHOTO: Young protesters hold banners as climnb atop a lamppost in Pushkin Square, Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. (Getty Images)

In Moscow, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalny, was detained at the protest, where lines of riot police later dispersed the crowd with batons. She was later released.

Navalny had called for the nationwide protests on Saturday after authorities sent him to prison, setting up a test of the strength of Navalny’s support in the country, following his poisoning and return to Russia.

PHOTO: People gather to protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in St.Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021.  (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
PHOTO: People gather to protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in St.Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Protests were held in almost every large city, beginning first in Russia’s far east which is seven hours ahead of Moscow and then continuing throughout the day, spreading across Siberia until reaching cities on the border of Europe. Videos posted online showed crowds– ranging from several hundred to a few thousand– gathering in groups or marching in long processions, chanting slogans including, “Putin is a thief.”

In Moscow, part of the city center was flooded with thousands of people. It was difficult to judge the size of the crowd, which numbered at least many thousands and was one of the largest the city had seen in recent years. Reuters estimated it at 40,000. Moscow’s police, who commonly undercount crowd size, said it was just 4,000.

Russia extends Navalny’s detention as outcry over his arrest grows

PHOTO: Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

The protests, although not huge outside of Moscow, were still remarkable for their size and geographic spread, stretching into regions normally indifferent to Navalny.

Navalny has traditionally had little pull beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg and his previous calls for nationwide protests have usually only seen small crowds of a few hundred in most regional cities.

PHOTO: Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

In the far eastern city Vladivostok, a crowd marched estimated by local media to be over 3,000. Videos posted on social media showed police charging protesters with batons.

In some cities, demonstrators pelted helmeted riot police with snowballs and in some places tussled in knee-deep snow.

PHOTO: People attend a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: People attend a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

Ahead of the protests, authorities launched a wave of arrests, detaining activists at their homes, including several of Navalny’s top lieutenants. The prosecutor general’s office issued a warning that anyone attending the protests risked arrest, and opened a broad criminal case on charges relating to unauthorized public events. Navalny’s support is strong among students, so universities and schools warned against attending, threatening expulsion.

Navalny is Russia’s best-known opposition leader and is viewed as president Vladimir Putin’s most troublesome political opponent. He has built a grassroots movement, galvanized by his investigations into alleged acts of corruption among powerful officials and businessmen close to Putin.

This week, a day after Navalny was jailed, his team released a new film claiming to lift the lid of an extravagant secret palace built by Putin on the Black Sea coast close to the city of Sochi. The film, which Navalny said is based on leaked blueprints, describes the interior of the palace, alleging it contains a personal casino, amphitheater, vineyard and even an underground hockey rink for Putin.

PHOTO: People attend a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, Russia Jan. 23, 2021. (Reuters)
PHOTO: People attend a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, Russia Jan. 23, 2021. (Reuters)

Though Navalny has been jailed before over his activism, he has never been imprisoned for longer, something most observers believe is because the Kremlin has never wanted to risk the political fallout. But his poisoning suggests that calculus has changed, while his survival and decision to return has raised his stature both in Russia and internationally.

At the Moscow protest some demonstrators told ABC News they had come despite any misgiving they might have about Navalny himself, but for what he represents.

“You can trust Alexey Navalny or not. But the things that happened to him are absolutely awful,” said Ksenia, 30, who did want to give her second name for fear of reprisal. “And I really worry about the future for me, for my family. So that’s the main reason to be here.”

The U.S. State Department on Saturday issued a statement condemning the crackdown on the protesters and demanding the release of those detained as well as Navalny. It said the targeting of the protests and Navalny’s arrest were “troubling indications” of a wider curtailing of rights in the country and called on Russia to cooperate in the investigation of Navalny’s poisoning.

Navalny says Russian agent accidentally admitted to poisoning him

Navalny was detained at the airport almost immediately upon his arrival in Moscow last Sunday from Germany, where he had been recovering from the nerve agent poisoning that nearly killed him. He was then ordered to stay behind bars for at least 30 days by a makeshift court set up inside a police station, and could be sentenced to years in prison at a parole hearing later this month, on Jan. 29.

Police detained Navalny for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014, when he was found guilty of embezzlement in a trial that the European Court of Human Rights later ruled was unjust. Russia’s prison service has requested that his three and a half-year sentence be converted into real prison time.

PHOTO: A law enforcement officer detains a woman during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
PHOTO: A law enforcement officer detains a woman during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Navalny’s murder attempt, but an investigation by the independent group Bellingcat in December claimed it had found evidence identifying an alleged hit squad from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service or FSB, that trailed Navalny for years and was present in Siberia when he fell sick in August. Navalny himself has published audio from a phone call with one of the alleged team members, in which the agent appears to unwittingly acknowledge the plot.

PHOTO: Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021.  (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Navalny on Friday released a statement from jail via his lawyers in which he said he was feeling well and if anything were to suddenly happen to him while in jail, it should be treated as foul play.

“Just in case, I declare: My plans don’t include hanging myself on a prison’s window bars, or open my veins or cut my throat with a sharpened spoon,” Navalny said in the statement posted on Instagram. “I’m being very careful walking downstairs. My blood pressure is measured every day, and it’s like a cosmonaut’s, so a heart attack is excluded.”

Tens of thousands protest across Russia in support of poisoned Putin critic Navalny originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

Sean R. Roberts on China’s War on the Uyghurs

Sean R. Roberts on China’s War on the Uyghurs

MAGAZINE

The Chinese Communist Party is “essentially waging a war against a portion of its own population (the Uyghur people), not as an ‘enemy,’ but as a ‘threat’ to society at large.”

Catherine Putz

By Catherine PutzSeptember 01, 2020

Sean R. Roberts on China’s War on the Uyghurs
In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, people line up at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center at the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

If one asks Beijing why more than a million Uyghurs have been forced into “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, the answer would likely call attention to the alleged “terrorist” threat posed by Uyghurs and the need to purge the community of extremism. As Sean R. Roberts, an associate professor of the practice of international affairs and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, explores in his new book, China’s leaders have seized upon the language of the Global War on Terror to frame their policies in Xinjiang.

But “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority” goes deeper, examining the history of settler colonialism in Xinjiang, the shaping of a “terrorism” narrative around the Uyghurs, and the devastating consequences, which amount to nothing short of cultural genocide. In an interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, Roberts explains the “war” on Uyghurs, how China has packaged and implement its policies, and what it would take for the global community to change China’s calculus on its Xinjiang policy.

Your book is titled “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority.” When did this “war” start, who are the opposing sides, and what’s its root cause?

First, this is not a war in the traditional sense with two opposing sides. The title of the book is a play on words evocative of the “war on terror,” itself a very non-traditional one-sided “war” which has helped facilitate the fate of the Uyghurs in China. However, one could say that what is happening to Uyghurs inside China today is akin to Michel Foucault’s articulation of a modern “biopolitical” war, where the state (the Chinese Communist Party) is essentially waging a war against a portion of its own population (the Uyghur people), not as an “enemy,” but as a “threat” to society at large. That war between the Chinese state and Uyghurs most visibly began in 2017 when the state began arbitrarily and extrajudicially interning large swaths of the Uyghur population under the pretense of combatting alleged “terrorism” and “extremism.”

While this mass internment appeared to happen suddenly, one of the arguments of my book is that it was the outcome of tension that had been building for some time between the state and the Uyghur people over the question of self-determination in a region that Uyghurs consider their homeland. This tension has long existed to different degrees between Uyghurs and modern Chinese states since at least the late 19th century when the region first became a province of the Qing Dynasty, but it has been particularly pronounced and has escalated since the 1990s when the PRC began earnestly trying to integrate the Uyghurs and their homeland more solidly into a consolidating and more powerful Chinese polity. These attempts at “integration” since the 1990s have involved progressively violent suppression of any indications of Uyghur disloyalty to the state, but it was only in 2017 that these efforts began targeting all Uyghurs as embodying a threat to the PRC, or at least to its colonial aims in the Uyghur homeland.

What is happening to the Uyghurs, therefore, has little to do with an alleged “terrorist threat” and is much more like other historical examples of indigenous people being decimated, marginalized, and displaced by a settler colonial power when they resist complete capitulation and assimilation. In this sense, the “war on the Uyghurs” is not really a war in the traditional sense, but a process of conquest, occupation, and ultimately displacement and ethnically profiled marginalization.