Since 2014, it has been reported that the Chinese government has been operating re-education camps in the western province of Xinjiang in the hopes to eradicate terrorism in the region. Anywhere from 100,000 to up to 1 million Uighur Chinese citizens have been sent to these camps. The Communist Party touts them as vocational schools, geared towards providing language training and re-education for Islamic extremists. With the Muslim population being significantly higher in this part of the country than any other, China has stuck behind nationalist sentiments of peace and reunification as justification for the reported torture happening behind the walls of Xinjiang camps. The United States has adamantly condemned China for its actions. However, in doing so, it seems to have forgotten a critical part of its own history where similar action was taken against an ethnic minority group as well.
Few survivors are willing to speak out for fear their family and friends will also be persecuted. However, one brave survivor, Gulbahar Jelilova, who spent 15 months inside one of the concentration camps, has spoke out and provided detail on her detainment. She has been quoted as saying that weights were tied to her ankles as punishment while she was strung up and forced to look at a wall for up to 17 hours. In addition, Ms. Jelilova also stated that detainees were given unknown injections, were forced to give blood samples, and were severely beaten and malnourished during their detention.
As shocking as personal testimonies by survivors such as Ms. Jelilova are, it is not just the gross human rights violations that convince western media in particular that the object of these camps is more than just to quell terrorist efforts. In fact, the camps are only one part of a systemic initiative the government has launched, seemingly in an effort to assimilate Uighur culture into traditional Han culture.
Being in close proximity to nations heavily influenced by Islam such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Uighurs are a Muslim minority in China. They do not typically speak Mandarin, and they commonly do not identify with traditional Han culture or values. Historically, one of China’s geopolitical challenges has been to maintain stability and peace between its varying regions with large cultural disparities. Terrorism by Islamic extremists has often been a threat to regional stability in Xinjiang. Recognizing this, the Chinese government looked to better connect Uighur populations to Han culture, in a way trying to create a brotherhood amongst its people.
What has arisen has been named the ‘New Xinjiang’ movement. It involves the recruitment and dispatchment of over 1 million Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China, into Uighur homes in Xinjiang. They call themselves ‘relatives’, even though they are not blood related, and spend a few weeks at a time observing their habits and daily rituals. They are given handbooks and instruction on things to look out for in particular and how to correct actions that do not resemble those of “typical Chinese” culture, such as using prayer mats, not speaking Mandarin, and not joining ‘relatives’ in an alcoholic drink, a practice recognized in the Muslim faith. They are even given checklists of particular things to look out for once inside their assigned homes, such as making sure there are no Muslim artifacts hanging on the walls.
The purpose of this mass movement of Han Chinese was for the government to identify those who might pose a terrorist threat to the region. By weeding out Islamic extremists, the government hoped to better assimilate Uighurs into Han culture in the name of unifying the nation. Those who displayed prominent Islamic values and tendencies would be sent to re-education camps, and through torture and repeated coercion, would learn to become more like their Han brothers and sisters. The ‘relatives’ even acted as propaganda tools to a certain extent, leading Uighurs in daily Chinese flag raising ceremonies, teaching classes on Xi Jinping’s vision for a ‘New China’ and singing patriotic songs, all conducted in Mandarin.
Sentiments of the Han participants better encapsulates this strong sense of Chinese nationalism. Some said that they “wanted to play a role in a flourishing of Chinese nationalism that would subsume Uighur society in Chineseness”,while another boldly claimed that, ‘These Uighurs are just uneducated, it is not their fault they began to practice these extremist forms of Islam… They don’t know any better”.
Now, many western media outlets and politicians have openly condemned China for these human rights atrocities. Notable figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been quoted as saying that the Xinjiang camps are ‘abhorrent.’ However, the idea of re-educating a targeted ethnic group under the shared presumption that they ‘do not know any better’ was once a narrative told in the United States.
From the late 18thto mid 19thcentury, the United States established a system of Native American boarding schools, whereby upwards of hundreds of thousands of Native American children were sent to learn the ways of Euro-American culture. The intention behind these schools was to assimilate these children into mainstream, white American culture, or as one of its pioneers’ motto puts it, to ‘Kill the Indian, save the man’. When first conceived, it was portrayed as a way of giving these children an equal chance in society alongside their white counterparts, and was derived from Protestant ideals. The kids were forced to cut their traditional braids, learn English and abandon their traditional languages, and were even given new English names. If they did not comply with these rules, teachers and administrators were instructed to beat and starve the children until they would behave.
The impact the boarding school system had on Native American children was long-standing and detrimental. First, because most children were sent to off-reservation schools hundreds of miles away, traditional knowledge and rituals were lost on the children who returned to their homes after high school. If they raised children, they were not able to pass down traditional stories or tribal practices. In addition, the cruel treatment defiant children received led to feelings of personal and cultural inferiority, inclining them even more to abandon their cultural heritage. Also, logistically, because so many children were displaced vast distances, populations of tribes often decreased and never recovered to original numbers. In addition, with many of these children not learning their respective cultural traditions, the scope of Native American religious and cultural values was greatly diminished as well.
The boarding school system had an adverse effect on the relationship between Native Americans and whites. Coincidingly with the schools, the government began containing shrinking Native American populations in smaller plots of land and taking the residual land, leading to feelings of mistrust and resentment towards whites. Not only that, but by establishing new reservations, tribes were also physically not really able to integrate into white populations. They acted almost as barriers to cultural exchange and understanding. What could have been an opportunity for joint projects or collaboration was made impossible because Native American trust in the federal government was completely lost.
When compared side by side, one can see stark similarities in both method and motive between the current New Xinjiang movement and the Native American boarding school system almost 200 years before. In both cases, the targeted ethnic group are seen as a group in desperate need of intervention by the controlling regime. Tactically, each regime took radical steps to dismantle the targeted groups’ cultural identity to some degree through physical intimidation. Not only that, but both regimes looked to diminish the usage of native languages as well as establish a limited tolerance of differing religious belief. Simply put, the targeted groups were seen as savages in need of help.
One might ask why it is important to make this historical comparison. First, it is important for the United States to recognize that it does not have an unblemished human rights record. Openly condemning a nation committing intolerable human rights violations is significant, especially for a global hegemon. However, it is important for the nation to recognize its own historical shortcomings and not brush them aside. Secondly, and more importantly, the comparison can allow us to realize possible consequences that could arise from the New Xinjiang movement using similar historical accounts as supporting evidence. Considering the negative impact on Native American populations, the New Xinjiang movement could potentially lead to decreased Uighur populations in China and severe loss of cultural identity of those who are detained.
Finally, as more and more Uighurs are sentenced to these camps, a sense of resentment could metastasize among non-detained members, leading to populations being even more segregated and disconnected from Han culture. In my opinion, if the movement is to continue in the current model, there is a strong possibility Uighur populations will not only decline but also be more dispersed throughout China’s borders, effectively making many of them internally displaced persons attempting to flee persecution from their government. At that point, it will be up to the Chinese government to decide whether or not to designate certain reservation areas for these citizens, following the United States’ current model for dealing with Native American populations, or leave them to their own survival. I do not foresee international intervention due to China’s growing economic strength and other nations’ reliance on their manufacturing markets.
One last element to consider is Xinjiang’s geopolitical importance in China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (一带一路). Many transport routes from China into Eastern Europe and to the Middle East pass through Xinjiang, making it a key area to maintain stability and peace. This means that tensions between Uighurs and the Chinese government will need to monitored and balanced carefully. Otherwise these tensions could result in complications in transporting energy through the region, and, more severely, attacks by revolting extremists who oppose the government’s treatment of Uighurs could lead to even more dangerous consequences, both for One Belt One Road as well as for future relations between both sides.
For now, the fate of Chinese Uighurs is uncertain. What China chooses to do in the near and distant future will most likely dictate the relationship not only between Hans and Uighurs, but also between Uighurs and their nation.