China's 'war on terror' in Xinjiang

March 7, 2022
Xinjiang Year Zero

Xinjiang Year Zero
Edited by Darren Byles, Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere
ANU Press, 2022

This collection of articles by 16 authors deals with the oppression of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

The plight of the Uyghurs has received considerable attention in Western media. Western governments have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang. But this is hypocritical. It is useful for Western politicians to express sympathy for the Uyghurs, as part of their propaganda campaign against China. They don't show a similar interest in other oppressed groups around the world, such as the Palestinians, the Kashmiris in India, or the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The authors of this book, by contrast, put the repression of the Uyghurs in a global context. They draw parallels between Islamophobia in China and in the West. Similarly, the use of the “war on terror” as a rationale for the repression of the Uyghurs has parallels in many other countries. The displacement of many Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other indigenous people by settlers belonging to China's Han majority has parallels in Australia, the United States, Israel and elsewhere.

It is only relatively recently that Xinjiang has been claimed as part of China. As Zenab Ahmed, one of the contributors to the book, explains: “Xinjiang literally means ‘New Border’ or ‘New Frontier’ and demarcates a territory that was conquered by the expanding Qing dynasty in the 1760s.” [p. 32]

There were periodic rebellions against the Chinese emperors and against subsequent Chinese governments. There was a short-lived Islamic republic of East Turkestan in the 1930s.

In 1931, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared its support for the right of self-determination of non-Han peoples. After 1937, this was replaced by the idea of “equal rights” within a “unified state”. [p. 26]

But in practice when the CCP came to power in 1949 relations were unequal, with Han Chinese being dominant.

The new government promoted the migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang. In the 1950s they mainly went to agricultural colonies.

Migration was stepped up in the 1990s. In the books introduction, the editors write: “China’s rise as the ‘factory of the world’ led to a massive influx of Han settlers to the region, attracted by opportunities in sectors as diverse as oil and natural gas, and, eventually, cotton and tomatoes.” However, “native peoples were largely excluded from the most lucrative opportunities — a situation that fostered dispossession and marginalisation, fuelling a resentment that was already lingering for a variety of historical reasons”. [p. 7]

According to Ahmed: “The campaign resulted in huge wage and labour gaps between Han Chinese and Uyghurs and other local minorities, especially in the professional and managerial class. Uneven access to state institutions and jobs created, and then reinforced, spatial divisions in cities, worsening ethnic apartheid and gaps in living standards”. [p. 33]

In 2009, there was rioting between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s biggest city. In 2013 and 2014 there was a series of terrorist attacks by Uyghurs in several Chinese cities. In response, the Chinese government launched what it called the “people's war on terror”. [p. 7]

The government blamed ethnic separatism and religious extremism for the violence. To counter these ideas, it launched a massive campaign of repression.

The editors summarise the results: “In the years since, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained in prisons and camps, while hundreds of thousands of their children have been placed in residential boarding schools where they receve ‘patriotic’ non-Muslim training. Many of the relatives of detainees have been assigned to work in factories far from their homes. The program is enforced through a comprehensive biometric surveillance and checkpoint system, as well as an army of police contractors.” [p.7-8]

The campaign of repression involved “a general criminalisation of religious and cultural practices”. [p. 7] Many shrines and mosques have been demolished. Those mosques that remain are subject to intense surveillance.

David Brophy argues that China’s repressive policies share “philosophical underpinnings” with the “war on terror” in the West. In both cases there is an “unwillingness to confront the political causes of terrorist violence”. [p. 52]

Brophy reports that: “Spokespeople for the Chinese government point to what they see as a worldwide consensus on the need to combat radicalisation through preemptive measures that identify, isolate and rehabilitate potential extremists. A recent propaganda film on Chinese state television cited de-radicalisation centres in France and Britain as precedents for China’s own efforts in Xinjiang.” [p. 51]

But China’s repressive policies are not solely due to misguided ideas about how to combat terrorism. There are also economic motives. The editors say Chinese authorities are “attempting to create a new cheap workforce ready for capitalist exploitation”. [p. 13]

Darren Byler expands on this point: “Since 2017, factories have flocked to Xinjiang to take advantage of the newly built industrial parks associated with the reeducation camp system and the cheap labour and subsidies that accompany them ... Since China sources more than 80 per cent of its cotton from Xinjiang, there was a special emphasis placed on Chinese textile and garment-related industries. In an effort motivated at least in part by rising labour costs among Han migrant workers on the east coast, the state plans to move more than one million textile and garment industry jobs to the Xinjiang region by 2023.” [p. 165–6]

Byler adds that: “The goal of the reeducation industrial parks is to turn Kazakhs and Uyghurs into a deeply controlled proletariat , a newly docile yet productive lumpen class — those without the social welfare afforded to the formally recognised rights-bearing working class.” [p. 171]

Even after detainees are released from the camps, they subject to intensive surveillance, with the ever-present threat of renewed detention.

The Xinjiang camps are part of the global capitalist system. Many of the products of detainee and ex-detainee labour are sold around the world by transnational corporations (though some have recently pulled out of Xinjiang as a result of publicity by Western unions and campaign groups).

According to the editors, the camps are “an extreme manifestation of worrying global technological, economic and political trends that have been unfolding for some time”. [p. 233]

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