To starry-eyed observers of China, so much about Xi Jinping screamed reformer. Did you know that he was fond of the underground work of the independent filmmaker Jia Zhangke? Or that his second wife, Peng Liyuan, was a singer? Or that his daughter was enrolled at Harvard? His sister lived in Canada! And his late father, a veteran of the Long March, wore a wrist watch gifted to him by the Dalai Lama.
All of this surely meant that Xi must secretly be a liberal with a deep disrelish for China’s habit of degrading minorities to gratify the ethnic chauvinism of the country’s Han majority. Some conjectured that he had a soft spot for Tibet. Others speculated that he would, as Reuters put it two months before Xi first assumed the Chinese presidency in 2012, “be more tolerant of Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang.”
Eight years on, how is Xinjiang doing? Formally an autonomous region of China, it is today practically the largest internment camp in the world. Its worsening condition is the direct consequence of Xi’s decisions. In 2014, after undertaking a brief tour of Xinjiang, Xi instructed the cadres of the Communist Party of China to “show absolutely no mercy” to its Uighur Muslim population.
The regime that now decries any allusion to the genesis of the coronavirus as bigoted then proceeded to describe Islam as a “virus”. And its prescription for the eradication of this pathogen, according to a party document, was the swift “hospitalisation” of Muslims in indoctrination camps. In 2016, the CPC began building a gargantuan maze of prisons for this purpose. It called them vocational training centres. Over the past three years, it has herded more than a million people — from teenagers to the very elderly — into them.
But even that distressing fact conceals more than it reveals. Beijing isn’t simply detaining people to scare them into submission: it is torturing them in order to break them from within. Its objective is not only to obtain political subjugation. It is also to achieve psychological debilitation — to efface from the mental makeup of the Turkic people of Xinjiang their sense of themselves.
The horrors to which they are subjected are, in keeping with Xi’s directive, unsparing. According to the testimony of a former detainee, up to 20 prisoners are packed into every cell. Heads shaved, hands and feet bound at all times, they are permanently watched by cameras. Their day begins at 6am and ends after midnight. Their meals consist of gruel — except on Friday, the holiest day of the week for Muslims, when they are served pork, forbidden by Islam — and they are granted two minutes a day to relieve themselves in a communal bucket. The remaining hours are devoted to the performance of rituals intended to purge them of their religious and ethnic identity. They must master Mandarin, the language of their overlords; soak themselves in party propaganda; atone for who they are by confessing to their existence as a crime; and endlessly chant slogans pledging subservience to Han supremacy: I love China! Thank you, Communist Party! I love Xi Jinping!
The psychodynamic of the concentration camps is harrowing merely to contemplate. The CPC recruits men from the interior and dispatches them, as imperial China once did, on colonial adventures to Xinjiang. The possession of absolute authority over the natives fosters restraint and forbearance in only a minority of the Han officials. In most, it breeds sadism and cruelty. Inmates are made to sit on chairs embedded with metal spikes, starved, and suspended from ceilings and flogged with electric truncheons; their fingernails are prised with pliers, their skin is pierced with needles, and their bodies are pumped with mysterious medicine. “Good” behaviour cannot bring relief from this ordeal because it is impossible for the captives to know what defines “good” behaviour. Nor is there a standard for what constitutes a lapse. All that stands between the inmates and the torture chamber is the mood of the prison guards.
Beyond the camps, Xinjiang — the size of Britain, France, and Spain combined — is in a state of persistent siege. There are checkpoints every 200 metres — including outside banks, schools, petrol stations, mosques — and they are at all times recording particulars of the Muslims passing through them. (Han settlers are waved through.) The checkpoints are outfitted with the technology to collect and log the digital information stored inside the mobile phones of the passersby. CCTV capable of facial recognition captures everything and sifts the minorities.
Muslims are compelled at the threat of detention to download an app called Jing Wang — “clean internet” — which sweeps their phones, scans every variety of file, chronicles all the activity, and sends a user-specific report to a government database. A government programme called Integrated Joint Operations Platform analyses all this material using artificial intelligence to profile Muslim individuals and communities, predict crime, and direct police to specific locations where it anticipates trouble. China’s Ministry of Public Security is right now perfecting a process known as DNA phenotyping that will enable it to sketch the faces of the Uighurs using the blood samples collected without the knowledge of the people it is profiling. As it is, every conceivable detail of almost every single Muslim — blood type, weight, height, travel history, family tree, electricity usage, and whether he or she used the front or back door to exit the house that day — is available to the police in Xinjiang at the touch of a screen. The doors of some Muslim homes are stamped with QR codes which, when scanned by the authorities, display all the details of the people inside.
Any hint of piety — abjuring alcohol, growing facial hair, reading the Koran — can land a Muslim in the camps. State employees caught speaking the Uighur language in public are classified as unpatriotic “two-faced persons”. There is no emancipation even in death from the humiliations of Han rule Xinjiang’s people are made to endure in life: the CPC, in addition to destroying and disfiguring Muslim places of worship, also razes their graves.
Xi, the most powerful leader of China since Mao, intensified these indignities, but he did not inaugurate them. The calvary of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang predates the existence of the People’s Republic of China by long centuries. The very name by which their homeland is identified — Xinjiang: new frontier — reveals its exotically alien status in China’s imagination. Sixty per cent of what we call “China” is peopled by minorities: beginning in Inner Mongolia in the northeast and culminating in Tibet in the southwest, it is a buffer zone that fortifies the Han core. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is not so much a constituent part of China as China’s colonial outpost. And China has been labouring for longer than a millennium to overpower this region on the Eurasian crossroads.
The Uighurs — the predominant Turkic community in Xinjiang today — stormed into history after the Tang dynasty, which reunited China in the 7th century, subdued what its predecessors used to call the Western Regions. Even though they accepted Tang suzerainty, the Uighur khans operated as equals: they took Han princesses for wives, claimed celestial mandate for their rule, and instituted their own version of the Chinese kowtow. The Tang Empire, in fact, became periodically dependant on Uighur assistance to defend itself from the Tibetan Empire, whose armies, accustomed to routing China in the west, invaded and captured the Chinese capital of Changan in the 8th century. China’s defeat at the hands of the Arabs at Talas (Taraz in today’s Kyrgyzstan) in 751, followed immediately by the internal upheavals provoked by the An Lushan Rebellion, prompted the Chinese to pare down in the west and concentrate their energies on preserving order at home.
For the next thousand years, the place denominated the “pacified west” by Tang annalists remained free of direct Chinese rule. What is remarkable even to this day is the sparsity of eastern influence on the Uighurs despite centuries of contact with, and sporadic submission to, China. It is as if the ancient trade routes that connected China to the world brought nothing but merchandise to the Turkic people who came to occupy such a crucial position in their path. The religions and theological doctrines that swayed and hypnotised them — Buddhism, Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity — emanated on the western side of the Silk Road, in India and Persia.
And here is history’s irony: after the Tang retreat, the forebears of the Uighurs who are today persecuted by Beijing for their adherence to Islam were harried by their contemporaries for refusing to surrender to Islam. Their defiant rejection of the Arab faith spawned enchanting communal folklore. In his outstanding book Wild West China (2003), which deserves a new readership, Christian Tyler recounts the legend of a local magician who made Xinjiang disappear when a party of flying imams from Mecca descended to convert the Uighurs.
Another fable valorises the people who disguised themselves as dogs and repelled a Muslim army sent to force them into religious submission. The religious rivalry between Buddhists and Muslims drew a tremendous amount of blood in the 12th century. It took another two centuries for the fierce blaze of Islam to melt away the resistance of the Uighurs, the most notorious Turkic holdouts against it. After their conversion, permeated by a zealous fervour, they took to desecrating and disavowing their pre-Islamic liturgical heritage.
When the Chinese encountered them properly again in the 18th century, they met a thoroughly Turkified people: Uighur mores, as an exiled Turkic scholar in Delhi took great pride in telling me, had more in common with Mughal India than Qing China. The Manchu founders of the Qing dynasty, of course, had their own similarities with the Mughals: they were outsiders, invaders who became masters. They saw themselves as a people apart, a “master race”, superior to their Han subjects. But, like the Mughals, they co-opted the people they vanquished and relentlessly expanded the frontiers of the territory gratefully inherited by their successor states . The Qing pacification of Xinjiang — the name they superimposed on the new borderland — was as savage as the Mughal pacification of India had been. Over a three-year period beginning in 1755, they massacred the Mongol Buddhist Dzungars out of existence.
But the Chinese rule that followed effectively collapsed under the weight of the Hui — ethnic Han Muslim — rebellions which erupted in 1862 and raged for 15 years. In this turbulent interlude, an Uzbek called Yakub Beg, formerly a dancing boy, succeeded not only in founding an empire of his own in Xinjiang but also in convincing the British in India that he was their great hope against Russia. The Times praised the “wise and just” man who claimed to admire Queen Victoria, and emissaries raced from Calcutta for an audience with him. Beg was a severe ruler—he enforced Sharia, set loose whip-bearing religious police on transgressors, and taxed his subjects pitilessly to pay for European weapons—and the severity of his reign made some local Turkis nostalgic for Chinese rule. The Chinese, for their part, were reluctant at first to undertake another costly mission to Xinjiang. But Zuo Zongtang, the storied Qing general, persuaded the emperor to authorise an expedition. Beg, deserted by his army even before Zuo reached Xinjiang, died in the summer of 1877.
This time, the Chinese set up Xinjiang as a province and appointed Urumqi as its capital. The locals were made to kneel before their conquerors and adopt Chinese customs, and officers were given the power to execute delinquents. Away from Xinjiang, however, the Qing Empire was imploding. The Han majority, more and more resentful of the growth of European influence and the spread of Christianity, did not identify with China’s Manchu rulers. And, after the demise of the Qing Empire in 1912, the country plunged into warlordism and fratricide. In 1933, a tiny group of Uighur reactionaries seized the town of Khotan, imposed Sharia, forced the Chinese to convert to Islam, and proclaimed the birth of the Turkic-Islamic Republic of East Turkestan. It was stamped out within a year by Hui Muslims. One of the founders was decapitated and his head put on display outside the main mosque in Kashgar, the doomed republic’s capital city. Over the next decade, Sheng Shicai, Xinjiang’s spectacularly mercenary Chinese warlord, presided over its conversion into a Soviet outpost.
Sheng was not motivated by ideology: self-enrichment and self-preservation were his only concerns. His opportunism, however, ripened the conditions for the successful emergence, in 1943, of the Soviet-sponsored East Turkestan Republic. Although its figurehead was a pious Uzbek, the intellect behind it was a Moscow-trained Uighur schoolteacher called Ahmadjan Kasimov. The ETR was conceived as a modern secular democratic state. It mobilised people around the promise of political freedoms — of speech, assembly, religion—and the right to elect rulers in a free vote. Then, just as the its troops began making gains against the Chinese, Stalin withdrew his support. The ETR’s cautious founders offered to discard their clamour for secession provided China — itself consumed by civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s communists — granted it autonomy. In August 1949 — two months before he triumphantly hoisted the red flag in Beijing — Mao invited the leaders of the ETR to the Chinese capital for discussions. The aircraft carrying them disappeared after takeoff.
Mao never had the disposition for accommodation. His revolution banalised murder. His “liberation” bureaucratised terror. “Your struggle over many years,” he had written in an ingratiating note to Kasimov, “is one component of the democratic revolutionary movement of the whole Chinese people”. The system he established in Xinjiang after Kasimov’s disappearance, far from according the Uighurs a status equal to the “whole Chinese people”, institutionalised their position as subjects of China’s Han people. This arrangement was in straightforward recognition of the fact — the CPC explained in 1949 after dissolving the East Turkestan Republic — that the “victory of China’s people’s democratic revolution” was the result mainly of “the industry of the Han people”.
The subsequent amplification of propaganda and escalation of force did nothing to diminish the locals’ distrust of the Han settlers in Xijiang. In 1962, 60,000 Kazakhs and Uighurs fled to the Soviet Union, no paradise for Muslims. Mao responded by blaming Soviet “revisionism”. He had to resort to jargon because plain language could not be deployed to obfuscate what was so blindingly obvious: that to China’s minorities in the west, the CPC was not a departure from their experience of old China; it was old China in new attire. Maoist communism was an extreme form of nationalism — an atavistic creed animated, as the late Liu Xiabo phrased it, by “xenophobic psychology, enemy mentality, and gun-worship”. It could be assertive and assimilationist. It was incapable of being participatory or pluralistic. In Xinjiang, it swallowed up two generations of Muslims.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s boosted the separatist impulse in Xinjiang. China’s response — called “Strike Hard” — was swift and stern. After 9/11, Beijing projected itself as a target of Islamic terrorism, categorised Uighur “splittists” as terrorists of the bin Laden genre, and staged dozens of executions and thousands of arrests. But, as the anti-Han riots of 2009 in Urumqi demonstrated, China’s “war on terror” did not succeed because it deliberately misdiagnosed the problem. There has been renewed violence over the past decade — which President Xi cited as a reason for the creation of the camps in Xinjiang — but what that violence evinces is not a universal yearning for an Islamic emirate among the Uighurs but a deepening revulsion against the ignominy of Han rule.
There was a time when it was possible to wonder what China gained materially from Xinjiang — a distant time when the pull of the place lay purely in the thrill of conquering it. Today, Xinjiang is a lucrative possession. It is home to the largest oil and gas reserve in China and produces more than a third of the country’s cotton. In the 1990s, Beijing invested heavily in Xinjiang. Its proceeds did not go to the locals. They went to the Han settlers who came seeking fortune and jouissance. The population of the region was 90 per cent Uighur in 1949. Today, Uighurs account for 45 per cent of the population. There is not even a hint of pretence any longer in the way China runs the place. The Han are the supreme race: they live in exclusive enclaves, speak the master language, occupy the top-tier jobs, and enjoy immunity from the law. An entire architecture of repression exists to lubricate their plunder.
Between 2017 and 2019, the CPC supplied at least 80,000 “graduates” of the concentration camps as labour to factories outside Xinjiang. The products they help make — from designer shoes to smart phones — course through the world’s markets. Cotton harvested in Xinjiang goes into the cheap garments sold by our retailers. To consume made-in-China products is, not to put too fine a point on it, to become implicated in the subsidisation of slavery.
The leaders of the so-called Muslim world have said nothing about the worst sustained atrocities against a Muslim population in the 21st century. Last year, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Pakistan — countries that 15 years ago erupted in rage and initiated a boycott of Danish goods because a privately owned newspaper in Denmark had published a cartoon — rushed to China’s defence after Western diplomats rebuked it for putting a million Muslims in concentration camps.
This year, the US Congress distinguished itself by passing important legislation to sanction Chinese leaders and companies complicit in what is happening in Xinjiang. This alone may not bring to an end the suffering of the Uighurs. But it shows that Beijing’s repression is gradually shattering the obscene lie, pervasive for two decades in the West, that CPC-run China was destined for political liberalisation. Xi has jolted the places mesmerised by the “China miracle” into parting from their illusions and seeing China with clarity. This is a reform nobody expected eight years ago.