Chinese Whispers

What’s behind Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs?

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In this episode

Cindy Yu

'Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines', the Chinese Embassy in the US tweeted last week. The tweet, since deleted by Twitter, is particularly shocking for the reports of forced sterilisations that have come out of Xinjiang, the region of China that has seen a succession of re-education camps spring up since 2017.

The people who are interned - mainly Uyghur Muslims - are seen as needing re-education for their so-called 'extremist' opinions. But as the tweet alludes to above, this sort of extremist behaviour can be anything from growing a beard to having many children. Bizarrely, the state broadcaster CCTV's documentary about Xinjiang's camps reveals that not crying at funerals and not laughing at weddings is also seen as a sign of radicalisation, enough to earn you a ticket into re-education.

Lately it's difficult to have any discussion on China without the Uyghurs and their welfare mentioned, so shocking have the reports from the region been. But while much has been written about what is happening, less has been reported on why. In the latest episode of Chinese Whispers, I speak to Professor James Millward, a renowned historian of Xinjiang, about the Chinese Communist Party's aims in the region.

Unlike the pluralism with which the Qing dynasty governed the region from the 1700s onwards, Professor Millward tells me that Beijing under Xi is opting for homogenisation: ‘What we've seen in the last few years is an attempt to shift the way that the Chinese or the Chinese Communist Party conceptualise who the Chinese are… as Xi Jinping tries to build his China dream and to roll up all of the people who don't quite look Chinese enough into a more homogeneous looking Chinese population.’

The President would deny this. Taking the CCP at face value, it’s all about countering extremism. In 2014, four Uyghur-led terrorist attacks happened within as many months, with hundreds of Han Chinese dead. Though little reported in the West, the attacks shook China and visiting the country afterwards was never the same again – airport style security scanners are now found even in underground stations. ‘Most outside observers would agree [they] fit most definitions of terrorism’, Professor Millward said.

But it is baffling that the top brass at Zhongnanhai, the CCP’s seat of power in Beijing, believe that re-education camps could work. History is littered with examples where internment worsened sectarian strife, and China’s leaders are not stupid (one would hazard). How could this still be the policy? Professor Millward paints a complex picture where counter-terrorism may have been the initial motive, but the camps have since turned into an experiment for cutting edge technology, e.g. in surveillance (‘there is great affection for [technology] from this technophilic, technocratic political system’) – and this confluence of factors has turned Xinjiang into an industrial complex. It’s hard to see how this story ends, but tune into this episode of Chinese Whispers to find out how it started.