China: Police state in Xinjiang under global spotlight

What is behind the new found indignation of the US and other governments over China’s repression of its Muslim minorities? 

After decades of silence, governments in Washington, Berlin, London, Ottawa and elsewhere have woken up to the brutal repression against China’s ten million Uighur Muslims in the far west region of Xinjiang. Wave after wave of Western diplomatic pressure has been applied to Beijing in recent months especially over reports – denied by the Chinese dictatorship – of up to two million Uighurs interned in prison camps as part of a “de-radicalisation” campaign by the Chinese authorities.  

Credible evidence that the camps exist on a truly mass scale has been provided by Human Rghts groups and exile Uighur organisations. Officials from the Trump Administration (which infamously tried to ban Muslims from seven countries from traveling to the US) have recently threatened targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and the freezing of bank assets, against Chinese officials associated with the prison camp programme. 

At the United Nations, China also faces greater hostility over the Xinjiang issue from other governments including Turkey and other Muslim countries. In early March, the US organised a special meeting on the side-lines of the UN Human Rights Council to step up the pressure over Xinjiang, which despite the Chinese regime’s protests was backed by Britain, Germany and Canada among others.

Geopolitical agenda 

US Vice President Mike Pence, who has emerged as the Trump administration’s foremost China-basher, has accused the Chinese regime of trying to “strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith” alongside other issues such as economic “cheating” and using “debt trap diplomacy” through its huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The latter items reveal more clearly US capitalism’s real agenda which is not about improving the conditions of the Uighurs or other oppressed peoples but to push back in every possible way against China’s growing economic and geopolitical muscle. 

This pressure is clearly having an effect in Beijing against the background of Trump’s trade war and a parallel tech war aimed at excluding Chinese telecom giant Huawei from Western markets. At the recent twin sessions of China’s rubber stamp parliament, the NPC and its advisory body, the CPPCC, a senior Xinjiang official announced that the camps, described in Orwellian terms as “vocational schools”, would be phased out once they have outlived their usefulness. Few people believe this statement, which is just an attempt to throw dust in the eyes of media and foreign diplomats.  

In another attempt to blunt the US-led Xinjiang offensive, China invited representatives of European governments based in Beijing to join an inspection tour of Xinjiang. US officials immediately blasted this offer and warned the tour would be “highly choreographed and chaperoned”.  

Socialists condemn the Chinese regime’s large-scale repression in Xinjiang and support full democratic rights for the Uighurs and other nationalities in respect of language, culture, religion and political freedoms. This, in our opinion, can only be won through mass struggle that links up with the working class throughout China and beyond its borders, aiming to overthrow capitalism and authoritarianism with a socialist alternative. 

But we warn there should be no trust in, or support for, Western capitalist governments that have only recently taken up the plight of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and other minorities under Chinese rule in order to recast themselves in a more favourable light in global public opinion and particularly to cover up their own Islamophobic policies. This is all so much political camouflage for an increasingly ruthless strategic struggle against the Chinese regime for economic and geopolitical advantage.

‘Apartheid State’ 

Below is a report, ‘Xinjiang: China’s Apartheid State’, from ‘Socialist’ magazine (published by the CWI in China) written by Adam N Lee which documents the horrific discrimination and repression against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. 

Eyewitness reports coming from Xinjiang give a horrifying picture of the ‘Communist’ Party (CCP) regime’s repression against the mainly Muslim Uighurs and other non-Han ethnic groups such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who collectively make up 60 percent of the territory’s population. Hundreds of thousands have been sent to detention camps for “re-education”. This is a stark warning to the nascent workers’ movement in China, and the left, of the repressive trajectory of the dictatorship under Xi Jinping. 

Xinjiang, half the size of India, is China’s main energy producing region and a launch pad for Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Central Asia and the Middle East. It is also the regime’s number one testing ground for repression, combining a full-scale military crackdown with the latest hi-tech surveillance and monitoring systems. 

The CCP’s rule in Xinjiang is now openly racist and Islamophobic, to a much greater degree than before. Indeed during the Mao era, despite dictatorial top-down rule, there were some quite progressive policies including affirmative action and an increase in educational resources for non-Han ethnic groups like the Turkic-speaking Uighurs. This seems incredible today, with the Uighur language not only prohibited in secondary schools and the government sector, but at all levels of education in some parts of Xinjiang. 

“Xinjiang has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalised racism on the order of South African apartheid,” says historian Rian Thum (New York Times, 15 May 2018). 

Uighurs and other Muslims are treated as second-class citizens and openly discriminated. This was long the case in the labour market and education system, but now their lifestyle, culture and religious customs are the target of a severe crackdown in the name of fighting terrorism, despite the fact that freedom of religion is written into China’s constitution. Fasting, refusing alcohol, “abnormal” beards, going to the mosque other than on a Friday, are all branded as “extremist behaviour” by the authorities. 29 “extreme Islamic” names are banned for newborn children, including Mohammed. 

Unprecedented police measures 

For decades, and especially since ethnic riots in 2009, Xinjiang has seen numerous ‘strike hard’ campaigns launched from Beijing, with the aim of suppressing nationalism, and more recently terrorism and ‘religious extremism’. Xinjiang’s security budget has increased ten-fold from 2007 to 2017. Since 2016, this process has gone into overdrive with the appointment of hardline CCP boss Chen Quanguo to run the territory. 

More than 7,000 ‘convenience’ police stations have been built across Xinjiang to support a ‘grid-management system’ of surveillance and control, with cities divided into squares encompassing around 500 people, each served by a police station. Including low-paid auxiliary officers, police numbers have exploded since Chen took control. Last year alone, an additional 32,000 police officers were recruited. 

Chen, whose previous posting was Tibet, was sent to pacify Xinjiang. In fact, while outwardly ‘successful’ these policies will reap a whirlwind of hatred and resentment towards the Chinese state. This will enormously complicate Beijing’s BRI plan, in which Muslim-majority countries make up 40 percent, and will of course be exploited by US imperialism and right-wing politicians in other countries. 

Chen Quanguo’s rule is like that of Hong Kong’s former ruler CY Leung, but multiplied to the power of a hundred. Leung’s aggressive anti-democratic policies radicalised the younger generation as never before, earning him the nickname the “father of Hong Kong independence”. While unprecedented repression – mild by Xinjiang standards – has for now pushed back the threat posed by Hong Kong’s poorly organised localist (pro-independence) groups, the gap between the government and the masses, especially the younger generation, has never been wider. 

Recent visitors to Xinjiang report armed police checkpoints everywhere, every 200 metres in some cases, with Muslims forced to queue and be searched while Han Chinese are waved through. In Hotan, in the Uighur heartland of southwestern Xinjiang, a reporter for The Economist described the scene at one checkpoint: 

“Their identity cards are scanned, photographs and fingerprints of them are taken, newly installed iris-recognition technology peers into their eyes. Women must take off their headscarves. Three young Uighurs are told to turn on their smartphones and punch in the passwords. They give the phones to a policeman who puts the devices into a cradle that downloads their contents for later analysis.” (Economist, 31 May 2018). 

The Uighurs are being used as a gigantic test group for mass collection of DNA, blood samples and other biometric data, which the regime is using to perfect its police state machinery. Police spyware must be installed in every mobile phone belonging to a Uighur. Wifi equipment in all public places can detect phones that don’t have this spying app. Random police searches on the streets also enforce this law. To possess a phone without the spying app is a serious offence. Such methods can be exported to other parts of China in the future. 

Camp system 

A mass incarceration and indoctrination campaign (“transformation through education”) has led to hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims being held in camps. Viewing foreign websites, receiving phone calls from abroad, praying regularly, or growing a beard, are all ‘suspicious activities’ that could result in detention. 

The construction of new camps has surged since early 2017. Despite official denials, research and reporting by foreign media and rights groups offers credible evidence of the scale of the camps. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch says the overall number in the camps could be 800,000 (Xinjiang’s population is 22 million people). 

German researcher Adrian Zenz has produced a lengthy report on the camps, which estimates the numbers interred at between several hundred thousand and just over one million. His report states: 

“The latter figure is based on a leaked document from within the region’s public security agencies, and, when extrapolated to all of Xinjiang, could indicate a detention rate of up to 11.5 percent of the region’s adult Uyghur and Kazakh population… It is therefore possible that Xinjiang’s present re-education system exceeds the size of the entire former Chinese re-education through labour [laojiao] system.” 

Camp inmates are made to participate in drills and self-criticism sessions, watch propaganda videos and sing patriotic songs especially praising Xi Jinping. Those who denounce religion, their own family and friends, fellow inmates, are rewarded, while the less cooperative are punished. Local officials have defended this unprecedented crackdown using terms such as “eradicating tumours” and “spraying crops to kill weeds”. 

Political time bomb 

Rather than create ‘stability’, the construction of an unprecedented racist police state in Xinjiang amounts to a political time bomb. From Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to South Africa’s white-minority dictatorship in the past, such brutal methods inevitably at some point call forth mass revolt. But revolt needs a strategy and programme to go forward. What kind of struggle is needed to defeat a racist and brutal regime? 

The methods of terrorism, which may have attracted a small minority of desperate Uighur youth in the past, have been shown to be a dead end. These methods have always and everywhere handed a propaganda gift to oppressive regimes, allowing them to increase repression and sow confusion among the masses – the only force that can achieve real change. 

The struggle of oppressed minorities also needs a strategy to win the sympathy and solidarity of the working class and youth of the dominant ethnic group, who also suffer extreme exploitation, a precarious economic existence, and the crushing of democratic rights. 

Socialists stress the need to oppose racism and religious persecution by building a united movement of workers and youth of all ethnic groups against capitalism and authoritarian rule.

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March 2019