Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

by Marshall Plane

Authoritarian regimes have always gone to great lengths to suppress belief systems that don’t serve their agenda. But even under the most zealous totalitarians, the private thoughts of everyday people have always been the last refuge of dissent, frustrating many a dictator and often eventually spelling their doom. Today, the Chinese Communist Party is looking to break this barrier and purge an entire religion and culture from a people’s minds through an intense campaign of mass surveillance, imprisonment, and indoctrination. And the ten million Muslims of the Xinjiang province are serving as the guinea pigs in this dystopian experiment.

For most of its history, Xinjiang was not part of China, but rather belonged to the vast Eurasian steppe. Despite being conquered by the Qing dynasty in the 18th century, the province was never really culturally or economically integrated into China proper, being very remote, sparsely populated, and mostly covered in inhospitable terrain–sort of like the Alaska of China. Most of Xinjiang’s people are Uighurs, a formerly nomadic people who around 1000 AD settled down, adopted agriculture, developed a language and alphabet, and converted to Islam. Xinjiang also has a sizable minority of Kazakhs, who like the Uighurs are distinct from the Chinese in appearance, language, dress, religion, and food. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always struggled with the daunting task of maintaining the allegiance of its 1.3 billion constituents, a task traditionally made even harder by the incompatibility of its Marxist ideology with the myriad traditions of China’s various ethnic groups. Even though the CCP is now capitalist in all but name, it remains just as committed as Mao was to implanting loyalty into the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. The CCP’s elite has always viewed religion with deep suspicion as a potential competitor for this loyalty. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, symbols of religion, be they of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Chinese folk traditions, were attacked and demolished by zealous Red Gaurds (1). Although this blatant aggression was later toned down, attending religious services remained a good way to get on a government watchlist in China.

Starting in the 1950s, millions of Han Chinese have moved into Xinjiang, becoming the majority in some cities. The fear of being replaced, as well as the blatant preference the Han settlers received for government jobs, sparked widespread resentment among Uighurs, which boiled over in 2009 in a series of riots that resulted in over a hundred deaths (2). The CCP used this as an excuse to commence a brutal crackdown on Uighur nationalism, which it intelligently marketed as an “antiterrorist campaign.” Xinjiang’s police force was expanded dramatically, surveillance cameras were installed everywhere, and the state kept close tabs on who went to mosque frequently and abstained from drinking (3). Starting in 2016, the individuals deemed most suspicious were rounded up into euphemistically named “anti-extremism training facilities”, which today contain more than a million people. These Uighurs and Kazakhs are often separated from their families without so much as a chance to say goodbye. Children of detainees are abruptly sent to boarding schools, unsure if they’ll ever see their parents again (4).

What goes on in these prisons? It’s very difficult to know, as the CCP keeps tight grips on who can enter and leave the province. China has offered media tours for international journalists, but these feature a very selective image of facility life–inmates reportedly talked of how re-education had “saved” them from religion and sang “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” in English (5). The CCP claims inmates are being taught valuable skills that will allow them to get good-paying jobs once they’re free, particularly learning to speak Mandarin. However, those who have managed to escape these facilities say there’s much more to the story. Many report being forced to shave their beards, eat pork, drink alcohol, and renounce the prophet Muhammad–all part of a concerted effort to wipe Islam from their brains (6). The love for Allah was to be replaced by a love for the Chinese government, reinforced by endless study and recitation of CCP propaganda and the writing of essays praising president Xi Xinping. Resistance, the former detainees say, usually meant a brutal beating (6).

China’s government also has a practical use for these one million prisoners: cheap labor. When they aren’t being indoctrinated, the inmates are busy working in the fields and factories. Their main work is in clothing and textiles, as Xinjiang is one of the world’s main cotton-growing regions–one in five cotton garments in the world are made with Xinjiang cotton. Almost all of the biggest Western fashion chains are profiting off this virtual slavery, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Amazon, Calvin Klein, Gap, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nike, Patagonia, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara (7). There’s a pretty high chance that the clothes you’re wearing right now were made with the blood, sweat, and tears of imprisoned Uighurs and Kazakhs. Many automobile companies, including Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and General Motors, also profit off of factories in Xinjiang (7).

When criticized on this by the West, the CCP is quick to point out that prisoners in the US are also forced into unpaid labor on an even larger scale. This is absolutely correct. The US, Canada, and Australia also have histories of sending indigenous children to boarding schools eerily similar to those in Xinjiang today (8). But it doesn’t matter. The suffering of a beaten and malnourished Uighur is in no way alleviated by the fact that people experience the same thing in the US. Are these poor people going to be abandoned by the world, left to rot in the CCP’s grip? Unfortunately, it seems like no other nation has the courage, the power, nor the moral authority to stand up to China. War is out of the question, as it should be. Breaking economic ties with the world’s largest manufacturer is extremely difficult, both for an individual and for a nation. But the least we can do as ordinary people is to not shut up about it, and to let the CCP know that its image will forever be tainted by the cultural genocide it is perpetuating.