Xinjiang: living in a ghost world

Since 2016, at least a million people have been sent to re-education camps as part of the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uyghur people. Yohann Koshy speaks to anthropologist Darren Byler to find out what is going on in China’s northwest province.

Uyghur men in Xinjiang pray during the Corban festival (Eid) in 2016. Public displays of religiosity are now considered signs of extremism.
Credit: Kevin Frayers/Getty

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnic group who are native to Xinjiang, northwest China. In 2016, the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet, Chen Quanguo, was moved to the role of governor of Xinjiang, where he launched a mass persecution campaign against the Uyghurs, seemingly in response to a handful of terror attacks.

Amnesty International reports that up to a million Uyghurs have been through re-education camps, where many are forced to renounce Islam and sing nationalistic songs. In July 2019, the government claimed, without evidence, that most detainees from these camps had been released. Many of these ‘graduates’ have been transferred into a network of factories to perform forced labour. Outside the factories, a high-tech surveillance state ensures that Uyghur life is ruthlessly controlled.

Yohann Koshy: When did the mass detention – in what the government calls ‘vocational training centres’ – begin?

Darren Byler: The detention of a million people has happened over the last three years. The state decided that they were going to move from what they called a ‘hard-strike campaign’ against Uyghur ‘separatism, terrorism and extremism’ to a ‘re-education campaign’. They determined that around 10 per cent of the Uyghur population – the total population is around 12 million – were pre-terrorists or pre-criminals.

The Chinese authorities think of what they’re doing as something similar to what the UK calls Prevent, which is countering violent extremism before it happens. Beijing saw Uyghurs turning towards more pious forms of Islamic practice and was afraid that this would lead to violent struggle, although there was little evidence that this was necessarily the case or would happen. It decided pre-emptively that it would detain this number of people.

There had been violent incidents prior to this. In October 2013 there was an attack in Tiananmen Square when a Uyghur family drove a vehicle into a crowd of tourists in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong. Then, in March 2014, there was an attack in a train station: a group of Uyghur young people, dressed in black and carrying Islamic flags, cut people with knives and killed over 30. Those incidents made the Chinese public aware of the tensions that were on the rise in northwest China. And that is one of the reasons why the state decided that it wanted to respond. Initially it was a counter-insurgency-style crackdown, with the state mostly trying to target the leaders of what it saw as insurgent groups and imams who were teaching without permission. Then it moved into a larger-scale mass re-education.

Can you describe the relationship between Beijing and the Uyghur people since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established?

Prior to 1949, the Uyghurs existed fairly autonomously in their homeland, the southern part of what is now called Xinjiang. They were 95 per cent or more of the population. There was poverty and lots of problems, but for the most part what the Uyghurs saw as ‘foreign governance’ was not a major issue in their lives. It wasn’t until after 1949 that large numbers of people were moved into the region by the Chinese state, mostly into garrisons and farming colonies along the border. These people were kept separate from the Uyghur population but brought with them a new governance structure, which began to change Uyghur lives.

In the late 1950s restrictions on religious practice were introduced; many imams were arrested and mosques closed. This continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the time of the Cultural Revolution. Uyghurs could still speak their language, they just adopted socialist rhetoric and ideology into Uyghur [the language]. There were many Uyghur members of the Communist Party who became part of the state apparatus, so Uyghurs didn’t necessarily see their way of life as threatened.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when China began to open up to the West and marketization began to drive the economy, that there was a new push to extract natural resources from the Uyghur homeland. That had a dramatic effect on the Uyghur sense of autonomy. Basically, the state was only interested in oil, natural gas, cotton and tomatoes. Xinjiang is now the major source for all of these. Around 20 to 25 per cent of oil and natural gas used in China comes from this region; around 20 per cent of the world’s tomatoes come from here, as does 80 per cent of Chinese cotton.

Resource extraction brought lots of [mostly Han migrants] into the Uyghur homeland itself. They moved into prefectures that had been 95 per cent Uyghur and through that process Uyghurs saw themselves being displaced and dispossessed of their land. They saw the cost of living begin to rise, but they also felt themselves excluded from the new economy because most of the jobs – especially in the lucrative oil and natural-gas sector – were not offered to them. They saw themselves becoming poorer in relation to the people around them and more desperate in terms of how they would provide for their families and create a better life for their children. Those are the conditions that have produced a lot of the tensions and violence in the region.

How are the Uyghurs perceived from the mainstream Chinese perspective?

Most people in China have encountered Uyghurs in their home cities. That’s because Uyghurs have been pushed into forms of labour migration and often the grey economy: in the food-service sector or, in some cases, selling drugs illegally and other petty crime. For the most part they’re involved in setting up restaurants, selling kebabs and other Uyghur food – a popular cuisine throughout the country. Yet because they’re associated with the grey economy they’re often seen as ‘criminal’ and ‘dangerous’. And because they speak their own language they’re seen as strangers, not fully part of Chinese society. They also look different, so there’s a racialized component to [this].

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, in their homeland, the Uyghur ethnic identity came under threat and so there was a push to revive it. A number of historical novels were published that really united Uyghurs around a shared common history in a new way. Then in the 2000s and 2010s, as new forms of media began to circulate – VCDs [a precursor to the DVD] of Uyghur movies and then movies in translation from parts of the Islamic world such as Iran and Turkey – the Uyghurs began to identify more and more with an Islamic and Turkic identity. Their commitment to Islamic piety and ethnic difference also affected how they were perceived in China.

Is it fair to say that Beijing is using this clampdown against extremism as an excuse to turn the Uyghurs, mainly pastoralists and small-business owners, into factory workers, so they contribute more to the Chinese economy?

As the economy is taking off, the government is looking for new populations that can produce things at a low wage. The Uyghurs are now engaged in textile manufacturing in association with these camps. A lot of the jobs that are being done in Xinjiang today would have been done in eastern China in the past. So we’re seeing a move towards [creating] a population of workers that can be paid less and trained to do the same work as Han workers in other parts of the country.

State authorities saw the attack in Beijing and several others in Ürümqi as related directly to the Islamic State… They call what they’re doing ‘community-policing with Chinese characteristics’. They would say they’re doing a much better job than Western countries because they’re not killing people on a mass scale [as in the US-led ‘war on terror’] and through the process of teaching real skills in the camps they think they will turn the Uyghurs into a population that will work and be functional in the economy.

They identify two major problems in the Uyghur population: their standard of living is too low (they talk about what they’re doing as ‘poverty alleviation’) and the religious problem, which they say is psychological. They first want to ‘treat’ the problem of believing in Islam and then teach them how to work and have industrial-style quality as a worker, or suzhi, which means ‘quality’ in Chinese. They’re bringing the factory to the Uyghurs.

Waiting in the salon: a Uyghur woman is about to have her hair done before a religious festival in 2013.Taken in Turpan County, Xinjiang.
Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty

What is it like to live as a Uyghur today in Xinjiang?

What Uyghurs tell me is that their communities have been turned into open-air prisons. They say the camps are horrible and everyone should pay attention to the camps. But that’s just one symptom, one element of the system. They say that the larger problem is that the future of Uyghur identity is under threat: Uyghur language itself is being eliminated, it is not taught in schools, people are not encouraged to speak it in public, and religious practice has [effectively] stopped throughout the region.

Then they talk about the restrictions on their movement. One man told me that he feels like they’re living in a ‘ghost world’, where they’re alive but isolated from the rest of the world.

Some Uyghur homes have QR codes affixed to the doors, which police can scan with their phones. How is the state using technology?

When I lived in Xinjiang between 2014 and 2015 that process began as part of what they called the People’s War on Terror. So they put a QR code on the door of my apartment in Ürümqi; the local police officer who was responsible for [our building] would come on a regular basis and knock on the door or scan that code. Her smartphone would pull up our pictures, as they were registered to that apartment. Because my partner and I are American they didn’t view us with suspicion, but my Uyghur friends told me that often during visits the authorities would look under their beds, search computers, search smartphones. If a person wasn’t home, they would put a note on their door saying ‘you need to come down to the police station’ within a period of time and have an interview.

In many apartment buildings there are now security guards at the entrance who scan a person’s card [to let them in]. Often there are face-scanning machines. In future they want to automate the system of surveillance so they’ll be able to track people and to look for patterns of movement and predict whether a person is planning something or turning towards a religious practice.

Is any sign of religiosity enough to set off alarm bells – for example, simply owning the Qur’an?

Absolutely. A Qur’an is not something you can own at this point. Learning Arabic is also a sign of being interested in foreign forms of Islam. Saying As-salamu alaykum, which was the most common greeting, is also now banned as a sign of extremism. Praying after a meal is a sign of extremism, going to the mosque is a sign of extremism, fasting during Ramadan is a sign of extremism. I think that people are able to say that they are Muslim and, in most cases, are not forced to violate forms of Halal food practice. But at the same time Uyghur restaurants are not allowed to advertise themselves as Halal, at least not with Arabic script.

Some Uyghurs I’ve spoken to say they’ve found ways of, say, praying sitting up, or without making it obvious. But it means it’s difficult for them to pass [their culture] on to the next generation.

Just as the US-led ‘war on terror’ produced ‘blowback’, is Beijing not worried that its clampdown may lead to violence?

I imagine that many people in the administration are worried, though this is not something they would say publicly. What they say over and over again is that it’s working, it’s a model for dealing with extremism. Many people working in the apparatus that I’ve interviewed – Han intelligence workers, police – see it as a success. They feel they have a lot more power. They feel as though Uyghurs have become docile and productive in the economy. But if you look a little bit closer and talk to people who are more candid you hear concerns. One elderly Han woman from this region told me that she’s worried about what will happen if or when they let people out of the camps. She thinks there will be a major rise in violence.

In response to these kinds of concerns, the state is controlling everyone as they come out. They’re not fully ‘released’, they’re simply transferred into factories. These are meant to be Chinese-language environments that teach the skills required for industrial work… [and] pay below the minimum wage. The factories are still part of the camp system. In some cases, the workers are not permitted to contact their families and movement is controlled. Most Uyghurs at this point are under arrest of some kind: house, village, and neighbourhood. They’re often forced to carry a smartphone to track their movements or wear a bracelet. They’re not permitted to travel outside certain routes or their home county without special permission.

Police offers stand guard near a bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang in 2013.
Credit: BJ Warnick/Alamy

But you haven’t noticed an increase in separatist sentiment?

A lot of the sentiments – terrorism, extremism, separatism, as the Chinese state refers to them – are a misrecognition of what Uyghurs actually believe. Mostly, Uyghurs want to have freedom to make choices themselves as people, a better life for their families… Most people that I know don’t necessarily want independence in a strong sense. They’re not organizing in an insurgency. Like I mentioned, there were attacks but those were isolated and localized. It is too soon to tell how they will respond to the abuse they are experiencing in the camp system.

Is there any solidarity between Han Chinese people – such as labour or pro-democracy activists – and the Uyghurs?

The Han people who express most solidarity with the Uyghurs are the long-term residents of Xinjiang. Those locals grew up in or around Uyghur communities and identify with the way Xinjiang used to be before the 1990s, when the new folks arrived; they often see what’s happened to the Uyghurs as a real travesty. Many of them are working as allies in small ways – through forms of individual resistance like not co-operating as well as they should. They let Uyghurs use their phones to contact people on the outside and get messages out. So there is a level of risk they’re willing to take, but it’s small and not organized.

Across China itself, what’s happening in Xinjiang is seen as a positive: the Chinese state standing up for the Han people against the perceived threat of Uyghur terrorism. There’s a widespread perception among most middle-class Han people that Xinjiang is now ‘safe’ and the problem has been taken care of. They’re willing to send their children as tourists to the region.

Labour solidarity? I think it’s a nascent part of that movement. There’s still a lack of information, so many Han labour-rights activists don’t know the specifics of what’s happening to the Uyghurs. There are also, among some Chinese democracy advocates or activists, various forms of Islamophobia. Many people actually are in agreement with the government that something needed to be done against the Uyghurs. Those are some of the things that need to be pushed back against.

What needs to be done?

It’s instructive to compare the way in which nations have responded to what has been happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar compared with what’s happening to the Uyghurs in China. Many more nations were willing to condemn the former than the latter. Even Muslim-majority nations are reluctant to condemn what is happening to the Uyghurs for three main reasons. One is that they themselves may be autocratic states with dissidents that they want to crack down on and they don’t want UN intervention when they do so. Two, they’re major trading partners with China – the Belt and Road Initiative targets 60 to 70 per cent of places where the world’s Muslim population lives. Third, China is a strategic counterweight to the United States and other Western nations; Muslim-majority states don’t want to cut off relations with China because that will make them more of a target for the West. They’re playing the great power game.

There are things the West could do, mostly, I think, through economic ties as the camp system is turned into a factory space for consumer durables and cotton. There’s an immense supply chain bringing cotton, yarn or thread from these factories into the production of products for companies like The Gap and H&M. These things could be targeted quite easily. There are government sanctions that could be levelled against key political operators and those in positions of power in the corporations, particularly in technology firms doing the surveillance. But, I think, if we want to have a grassroots movement, we need to be looking at the supply chain.