The religion, education, culture and language of China’s ethnic minorities are being forcibly constrained and changed
In the summer of 1985 I sat in Kashgar’s Id Kah mosque, in China’s Xinjiang region, and discussed with a Uyghur the clash of Saladin and Richard I, his culture and mine. Two years later, at Lhasa’s Norbulingka Palace, a Tibetan explained to me the meanings of the intricate wall paintings. In neither place did locals fear to speak to a foreigner. In neither place was there much evidence of surveillance, control or racial tension. Indeed, the only jarring note came from my new friend at the Norbulingka Palace. We were speaking in Mandarin and a young Chinese, also interested in the significance of the representations, tried to ask a question. “Sorry,” my friend said brusquely, “I don’t speak Mandarin.” And then he continued his explanation to me—in Mandarin.
The past is indeed another country. Now, to meet or to speak to locals, to witness a Tibetan insult a Han Chinese . . . this is unimaginable for Xinjiang or Tibet. Tibet is closed to individual travellers and Xinjiang languishes in never-ending lockdown. They bear the brunt, but the chill extends to Inner Mongolia and to other minorities such as the Hui, a 10 million strong group of mildly Muslim persuasion present in many provinces.
Religion, education, culture and language are being forcibly constrained and changed; a hi-tech surveillance panopticon, an inflated police presence and a refined system of street-level informing mean that ethnic minorities are effectively living in an open prison. For some, it is a closed prison. A government white paper and press conference revealed:
From 2014 to 2019, Xinjiang provided training sessions to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers . . .Vocational education and training centres are tailored for people influenced by religious extremism and involved in minor violations of the law . . . Gaining a thorough understanding of the true nature and perils of terrorism and religious extremism, the trainees get rid of thought control imposed by terrorism and extremism and lead a normal life.
Shorn of euphemism, nearly 1.3 million minority citizens, mostly Uyghurs, “lead a normal life” in concentration camps. Originally the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) denied the camps’ existence, but it was forced to turn to the Orwellian language of “training centres” by foreign analysis of its own documents and satellite photographs. The absurdity of claiming that over 11 per cent of Uyghurs are religious extremists, terrorists or lawbreakers is reinforced by the notion of many well-educated intellectuals, professionals or civil servants “requiring” low-level training.
Sadly, that is far from all. What is happening meets the criteria for crimes against humanity set out in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and for genocide under Article 2 of the UN Genocide Convention.
How did it come to this? Why the impatience with the old policy whereby economic development and slow intermingling would eventually and without force erode differences from the Han Chinese who make up over 90 per cent of China’s population? Will a new policy, which prioritises “stability” and accelerated integration, work, and if so, what does that portend? Might it even encourage the “Three Evils” of terrorism, “splittism” (separatism) and extremism, which it is designed to combat?
As ever, the roots of change predate Xi Jinping, but he has been an accelerator. Minorities have long been unhappy at Han migration and petty racism; at the meaninglessness of the title “Autonomous Region”; at the predations of mining and other companies displacing traditional herders; at the lack of employment opportunities. Ilham Tohti, a moderate Uyghur professor now serving a life sentence, pointed out that less than 15 per cent of Uyghur graduates found jobs, a consequence of discrimination resulting in public services staffed by Han, whose lack of the Uyghur language caused “tremendous inconvenience to Uyghur citizens in their daily lives”.
Despair spilled over into protest and violence. That did not start with the 2008 riots in Tibet and the 2009 violence in Urumqi, the regional capital. But their scale, and later killings by Uyghurs in Beijing, Kunming and Xinjiang itself, reinforced the Party’s determination that minorities and Han would be made to “embrace each other like pomegranate seeds”.
Yet squeezing until the pips squeak has a broader rationale than containing what the CCP labels terrorism (in Tibet “terrorism” took the form of self-immolation), but which others see as acts of individual anger unconnected with outside Islamic movements. Other reasons for stability in short order are the rich mineral and other resources of Tibet and Xinjiang, while the land routes of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) run through Xinjiang.
Moreover Xi’s vision of a new Zhonghua minzu (usually translated as “Chinese nation”, but “Chinese race” is closer) is central to his “China Dream” and ideology—and ideology is central to his mission. At the 2014 Central Ethnic Work Conference and two months ago at the 7th Tibet Work Forum, Xi declared that “cultural identity is the foundation and long-term basis for strengthening the great unity of the Chinese nation”. “Other” is anathema to Xi, who called for enhancing “the recognition of Chinese culture by the people of all ethnic groups, better inheriting Chinese cultural genes in the new era, nourishing Chinese cultural blood”. And “culture” is a highly political term, closely linked to “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. “Culture” requires you to align with the Party. Its importance to Xi can be seen from his addition of “cultural confidence” to the “4 Confidences”, a crucial part of the CCP canon. If all that seems abstruse in London or Liverpool, it isn’t in Lanzhou or Lhasa.
There are seven steps towards cultural genocide.
First: “To destroy a people, you must first destroy their history”—a quotation, from a 19th-century Chinese thinker, used by Xi in his first address to the new Politburo in 2013. He was talking about attacks on China by foreign forces, but it is a lesson he is applying himself within China, both to how minorities are allowed to think about their past and to how they physically see the past, as mosques, monuments, cemeteries, and traditional housing are torn down.
Second, the French novelist Alphonse Daudet wrote that, “When a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.” That key is increasingly being lost both in everyday and official life. This autumn there have been protests in Inner Mongolia, which has followed Tibet and Xinjiang in having “bilingual” education reduced to a rump.
Third, education is crucial. As Xi said at the recent Tibet Work Forum: “We must attach importance to strengthening ideological and political education in schools, put the spirit of patriotism throughout the entire process of school education at all levels and types, and bury the seeds of loving China in the depths of the hearts of every teenager.” This is not just a matter of ordaining the curriculum. In Xinjiang, with many parents in the camps or forced labour, hundreds of thousands of children are now put in state-run boarding schools and orphanages, where their language and cultural ties can be attenuated and broken.
Fourth, strangle indigenous culture by imprisoning intellectuals, historians, professors, poets, singers, artists and religious leaders. In addition to the extrajudicial camp system, in 2017 Xinjiang provided 21 per cent of China’s criminal arrests, despite having only 1.5 per cent of its population. Few, if any, of those incarcerated, often for long periods, have advocated anything remotely approaching the “Three Evils”. But they have advocated the maintenance of Uyghur culture, and that has become a political offence. (In Tibet, self-censorship and intimidation seem to make imprisonment less necessary.)
Fifth, prevent breeding. If that sounds brutal, it is. Forced sterilisation and compulsory abortions are common and documented, while the most effective form of contraception is to lock up in concentration camps those most likely to have children. According to official figures, in Uyghur-dominated Kashgar and Hotan, birth rates between 2015 and 2018 fell by over 60 per cent.
Sixth, devise and implement systems of social control. The camps and the threat of internment are the most prominent element, born out of the Party’s experience gained from the old system of “re-education through labour”, a form of extrajudicial detention in theory abolished in 2013. Urbanisation has made the “grid system” and “double-link system”, under which areas are divided into small parcels of families, effective means of informing, monitoring and clamping down. Twenty thousand party volunteers were sent into the villages of Tibet to assess and then intimidate. That number is dwarfed by the 200,000 in Xinjiang, part of a system of “family friends”, staying with Uyghurs, befriending, educating and above all monitoring them. Signs of religious or cultural devotion detected (for example, by asking children about their parents) lead to the camps. “Convenience” police stations, first introduced in Tibet, now stand every few hundred yards throughout Xinjiang towns.
Seventh, enlist technology. The Integrated Joint Operations Platform is a tool fed by all forms of surveillance, from CCTV to DNA and health records, from compulsory apps on phones which inform on sites visited to records of mosque attendance. This is the CCP’s new panopticon and Xinjiang is the laboratory.
The result is a massive intrusion into the lives of all minorities. For many it recalls the destructiveness of the Cultural Revolution, which of course is exactly what it is: a new, technological Cultural Revolution. It breeds resentment. But as the Party points out with alacrity, there have been no violent incidents in the last three years. While most Han outside Xinjiang and Tibet appear to approve of the clampdown, persuaded by propaganda of the dangers of terrorism, some Han who live in Xinjiang are leaving, because of the tension and increased costs of security.
Some argue that the human rights abuses will inevitably lead to terrorism and revolt, as ethnic minorities, facing the loss of their culture and way of life, become desperate. In particular an atheist CCP is unable to appreciate the depth of religious feeling, whose roots no amount of material prosperity or threat of harsh treatment can dig out. Yet these are uncharted waters in terms of technological surveillance, control and anticipation. Not only would it be difficult for extremists to enter Xinjiang or Tibet undetected, but the simple business of living would bring them to notice before they might perpetrate a terrorist act.
That at least is the CCP’s intention. It depends on a continued capacity to underwrite the extraordinary costs of the repression and a willingness to ride out the potential costs imposed by the reaction of the outside world. So far Muslim countries have been silent, while the democracies are only beginning to stir. But the BRI may falter and the lure of a 1.4 billion people China market may be eclipsed by recognition that the CCP is guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. Will foreigners then be keen to deal with companies such as Hikvision or Huawei which are building the systems of repression? Will governments besides America sanction the responsible officials? And will they sanction the supreme leader who is ultimately responsible for ethnic policy and approval of the methods for implementing it?