The Chinese government is ramping up its suppression of the ethnic and cultural identity of the Uyghur population, a Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority ethnic group residing mainly in the western province of Xinjiang. Starting in 2017, under the leadership of local party secretary Chen Quanguo, a hardliner transferred from Tibet by President Xi Jinping to govern Xinjiang, the Chinese government detained perhaps 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities for an average of two years in more than 380 state-run detention centres.
Those detained in the camps were not accused of breaking any laws. Their “crime” was supposed “Islamic extremism”, which the government describes as “an infectious disease” that it is combating through a “People’s War on Terror”. Detainees were required to start each day singing hymns praising the Communist Party. Reports of conditions inside the detention centres detail beatings, strip searches and torture.
Initially, the Chinese government denied the existence of the detention centres. But when ample proof of their existence was published, it claimed that they were “re-education” centres where those detained could learn valuable job skills to find work in Xinjiang’s growing economy. This is a lie. The main purpose of the centres was to eliminate Uyghur autonomous culture and historic connection to the land.
Most of those detained are now out, but many have ended up in prison or been reassigned to work in factories where they have joined hundreds of thousands of rural Uyghurs forcibly drafted from within Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. They live in segregated dormitories and have to attend evening classes where they are exposed to Communist Party propaganda. Their movements are severely restricted outside working hours. The children of those interned in detention centres or enrolled in forced labour are sent to state-run boarding schools where they are indoctrinated and discouraged from speaking their own languages.
Xinjiang’s cities are under occupation. Police checkpoints and outposts line the streets every few hundred metres. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. The government is also attempting to wipe out the Uyghur characteristics of the region, destroying mosques and sites of pilgrimage, bulldozing traditional neighbourhoods and suppressing the Uyghur language. Outward signs of the Muslim faith, such as beards and hijabs, are banned.
Government-sponsored mass migration of Han Chinese has resulted in the Uyghur population becoming a minority. Uyghur women are being sterilised or forced to have abortions to suppress the population.
Accounts by Uyghur exiles of China’s abuses are backed by a range of respected researchers, including Gene Bunin and Sean Roberts, author most recently of The War on the Uyghurs. Australian left and liberal researchers and academics in the West who support their findings include Sydney University’s David Brophy and former SBS and ABC reporter Sophie McNeill. These are by no means mere bearers of Western propaganda. McNeill, for example, is recipient of a Walkley Award for her role exposing war crimes by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan and is a regular commentator on Australia’s terrible record on Indigenous and refugee rights.
Chinese government claims that it is fighting “terrorism” and “secession” are a smokescreen; the Communist Party’s objective is to wipe out opposition in Xinjiang and undermine an independent Uyghur claim to the territory. The province is rich in gas and oil and is one of the world’s largest cotton-producing areas. Xinjiang is also a crucial link in Beijing’s Belt and Road program linking eastern China with Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Iran. Xinjiang is far too valuable to the Beijing government to allow it political autonomy. There is a clear link between capitalist expansion and the oppression of indigenous communities, something any Australian will find immediately familiar.
The West has cynically used China’s oppression of the Uyghurs as one front in its intensifying cold war with its emerging imperialist rival. In June last year, the US passed the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act which nominally commits the US to protecting the Uyghurs. The Trump administration then blacklisted several Chinese officials and blocked some imports of cotton from Xinjiang.
The day before President Trump left office in January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo determined that China is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. His Democrat replacement, Antony Blinken, repeated the same charge of genocide, as have the Canadian and Dutch parliaments. In March, Britain and the European Union took joint action with the US and Canada to impose sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses, to which China responded by blacklisting European politicians, diplomats, academics and think tanks it accused of spreading lies about Xinjiang.
Congress is deliberating over further legislation to ban products made with forced labour in the region, and the Biden administration is considering boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics next February.
Let’s be clear. Western denunciations of China’s actions in Xinjiang are nothing but hypocritical grandstanding. Everything the Chinese government has done in Xinjiang in recent years has been openly justified using the US War on Terror tropes. How can the US legitimately complain about governments targeting and incarcerating Muslims when it has forged alliances with dictatorial regimes to facilitate interrogations of alleged terrorists using torture, run a massive surveillance program of its own citizens in search of “terrorists” and carried out extrajudicial killings of alleged terrorists via drone strikes?
Western governments turned a blind eye to repression in Xinjiang for years. In 2002, Washington claimed that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement—a small, previously unknown group in Afghanistan—was aligned with al-Qaeda and branded it a terrorist group. It then assisted China in having the UN place the organisation on the UN’s list of terrorist groups, as a quid pro quo for China’s acquiescence to the impending US invasion of Iraq. This gave the Communist Party cover to increase repression in Xinjiang.
More recently, in 2017 and again in 2019, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Trump congratulated Xi Jinping for putting Muslims in mass internment camps. And Western capitalists have a dirty little secret: much of the clothing and fashion industry, including Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger, uses cotton grown in Xinjiang that is picked and processed by forced labour.
Western powers protest that China can deflect UN criticism because it has used its financial clout to win the votes of many African, Asian and Latin American governments and because it has a veto on the Security Council. But this is no different from the longstanding practices of the US.
Western governments complain that they cannot bring a case against Chinese officials before the International Criminal Court because the court has no jurisdiction over China. But the United States is no different. It has sanctioned the ICC and threatened to use military force to free any American brought before the court to answer charges of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Everything the Western powers attack China for they turn a blind eye to when Israel does similar things to the Palestinians. Breaking up families. Indefinite detention without trial. Cultural suppression. Denial of political rights. Assassination of political opponents. Collective punishment against the families of those accused of resisting occupation. Settlement of the dominant population in the land of the occupied. Limits on religious expression.
If the Communist Party is plumbing the depths of depravity in its oppression of Uyghurs, perhaps it has learnt a thing or two from the US and its allies. The US government’s condemnations are less about the plight of Uyghurs and more about shoring up support for its side in a contest with China that, whatever the outcome, will only hurt working people and the poor in both countries.
The West’s cynical adoption of the Uyghur cause should not be used as an excuse to denounce Uyghur demands for an end to their oppression as a Western plot, as some fake leftists have done. Whether driven by loyalty to Beijing or by the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, these fake leftists (known as “tankies”, after the Communists who defended the Soviet Union’s military interventions, such as into Hungary in 1956) disgracefully parrot the Communist Party’s lies about Xinjiang.
As an example, MR Online, a socialist website in the US, has run articles downplaying or denying altogether the extent of Beijing’s human rights abuses. Authors quibble about the definition of “genocide” or “concentration camps” as if, whatever the words used, the Chinese government is not carrying out a historic crime of dispossession. Writers at TheGrayzone.com attempt to discredit the accounts of exiled Uyghur lobby groups by pointing to their links with the most obnoxious right-wing elements of the Republican Party.
There is a rotten moral equivalence between the Western governments and the tankies. Both look at the situation in Xinjiang only through the lens of imperialist competition: how the Uyghurs can be used to help one side in that contest. Neither shrinks from deploying Islamophobic rhetoric to advance their case.
Even if we were to put aside the blatant cynicism of the tankies, their arguments fail to hold up. We cannot renounce support for the Uyghurs simply because some of their champions in the West are right-wing ideologues, nor because some exiled Uyghur groups receive US funding, nor because some of the leaders of diaspora Uyghur bodies have made common cause with US Republicans.
All those things were true of Eastern European and Russian dissidents in the Cold War. Many appealed to right-wing figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to save them from Stalinist repression. This should not be surprising. With much of the Western left backing Stalinism at the time, it appeared that the people most committed to fighting for basic democratic rights belonged to the political right.
Western propagandists did the bidding of the CIA—but that didn’t automatically make what they wrote about the Stalinist bloc fake news. No independent political organisation or trade union was tolerated in the old Soviet Union. Workers were banned from striking. Ethnic minorities were oppressed. The secret police did spy on tens of millions of people. People were prevented from moving freely. Intellectuals and worker leaders were arrested and jailed or sent into exile. Anti-Semitism was rife.
Not that these human rights abuses galvanised the US to help people in Eastern Europe when they did rise in revolt. The last thing the US wanted was “turmoil” in the Eastern bloc because it knew that demonstrations against oppression could very easily spill over into popular demands for change inside its own empire.
What of the fact that Uyghur exile groups receive US funding? The money involved is piddling—an annual subsidy by the National Endowment for Democracy of just $550,000 a year over the past two decades. This is chicken feed. It demonstrates that the US is not interested in underwriting a real struggle for freedom—Washington values the exile groups only to the extent that they are prepared to lobby Congress for harsh measures against the Chinese government, which is the US’s real interest in all of this.
Today’s tankies trumpet their “anti-imperialism”, but they are hostile only to US imperialism. They often cheer-lead for another imperialism, whether Chinese or Russian, or for hideous regimes that fall out with the US—such as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad or Libya’s former leader Colonel Gaddafi.
Reluctance to back the Uyghur cause in left and liberal circles is not restricted to outright tankies. Some may be sceptical because they are aware of the way in which Western governments and media constantly lie to generate support for war—such as with Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”. And it can seem to some progressives, particularly in the US, that anything that restrains US imperialism, even a repressive China, is a good thing.
But making that calculation the basis of our judgements would mean losing our ability to make independent assessments and result in us always falling into line behind one imperialist power or another. Resolute criticism of every imperialist power, both our own and others, should be a starting point for a genuine politics of the left.
Socialists need to do two things at once. First, demonstrate our solidarity with the Uyghur cause and oppose Chinese state repression. Second, denounce our own governments for their hypocrisy over Xinjiang.
As conflict between the US and China grows, the pressure to line up behind one of the two great powers also grows. But both are overseen by an exploitative and oppressive ruling class elite committed to suppressing human freedom in the pursuit of profit and power. We should choose the side of the working class and oppressed of all nations instead.