The War on the Uighurs

The War on the Uighurs: China’s campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslims

By Sean R Roberts

Published by Manchester University Press, 2020, £20

Reviewed by Clare Doyle

The struggle against oppression by the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, is nothing new. Their homeland has been fought over for centuries and the particular suppression of national rights by Han Chinese regimes long predates the present regime in Beijing. Nor have governments outside China been unaware of the vicious persecution of Uighurs and other minorities in China or the denial of basic trade union and democratic rights across the vast, rapidly industrialising country for that matter. But for some time these inconvenient truths were swept under the carpet during negotiations over trade deals that benefitted the money-makers on both sides of the table.

Now, in a climate of increasing enmity between China and its competitor rivals, once again the questions of oppression and democratic rights in China are being highlighted. The plight of the eleven million Uighurs in Xinjiang, along with that of the three million plus ‘imprisoned’ Tibetans, have been raised more than once at international gatherings of United Nations bodies taking up human rights issues. But nothing much will come from this. The big power rivals use the UN and other such bodies as platforms to attempt to give a ‘democratic’ cover to their actions or to hypocritically attack each other. It does not mean that the accusations are always false, but that often it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

What is new is the almost daily publicity given to the imprisonment and torture of over a million Uighurs in vast detention camps in Xinjiang. The Beijing-based dictatorship is pursuing a policy of a forced total assimilation of Turkic Uighurs effectively wiping out their identity.

As China’s still growing economic and military power threatens that of other major capitalist countries, these accusations have become a convenient stick with which to beat the so-called ‘communist’ regime of Xi Jinping and use as an excuse for reducing economic ties with it. On the other hand, as the recent row amongst Tory MPs and the British Foreign Office indicates, there are those who warn of “asset flight” if sanctions are imposed on Chinese officials. Such action, they say, could represent “a risk to the British economy”, read profits.

Sean R Roberts is an academic and anthropologist who has been probing Uighur history and writing about it for more than 30 years. He knows the Uighur language well and has visited, lived with and discussed with Uighurs in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria and inside China itself (although now banned from entering the country!). In his latest book he traces in chilling detail the decades-long campaign of the Han Chinese-dominated government to physically eliminate Uighur history, identity, religion and language. Almost in passing Roberts refers to Lenin’s ideals of anti-imperialism being adopted by some of the Uighur independence fighters against the Kuomintang nationalist regime. In the late 1930s there were deadly clashes between Uighur activists with mass executions which mirrored what was happening between Stalinists and Trotskyists at the time.

Sub-titling his book, China’s campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Roberts sets out to show how, after 11 September 2001, the Chinese regime used the cover of the Global War on Terror to radically step up the use of state violence against the Uighurs. He uses the abbreviation GWOT to describe this policy used by western capitalist states after nearly 3,000 people were killed when the ‘Twin Towers’ in New York were destroyed by Al-Qaeda Muslim ‘fighters’.

The main theme of this very detailed book is that Beijing latched on to the concept of fighting terror as a cover for its campaign to annihilate the culture and identity of the Uighurs. It claimed to be contributing to the world-wide campaign against Muslim jihadists.

Roberts looked at various hypotheses that could justify this action. He rubbishes books by authors with little or no knowledge of the people or their language. He traced the history of a group of Uighur fighters, for example, based in Afghanistan around one or two characters who were, indeed, attempting to emulate Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. They seemed to be planning, but patently failing, to organise something significant against the Chinese state.

The scant acts of terrorism carried out by Uighurs inside China, Roberts shows, were a response to atrocities carried out against them and their cultural traditions. The first serious clashes with central state forces were not until just before the end of the first decade of the 21st century in the north of the province. The biggest explosion of Uighur anger was after some killings of Uighurs in Urmqi and also outside the province. The Chinese state stepped up its campaign to eliminate all traces of Uighur culture, destroying whole farming communities and villages in the name of economic advance. Mosques were destroyed and meeting places put out of bounds. It was then that the policy was enforced of getting all Uighurs to learn to read, write and speak in Mandarin and not their own mother tongue.

Roberts details the Chinese state’s relentless campaigns to destroy all traces of Uighur and Muslim culture and identity. There are accounts of some workers’ resistance and protest strikes. But, as the book progresses, it becomes heart-rendingly clear that escape from constant oppression for the Uighurs in Xinjiang is well-nigh impossible without revolutionary upheaval across China.

The Uighurs in Xinjiang were endeavouring to defend their traditions – language, religion, dress, festivals. They were not even pushing for self-determination in what they call Eastern Turkestan. Xinjiang is a Chinese name meaning ‘Western province’ and underlines what Roberts defines as an “imperialist/colonialist” approach adopted by the central governments of the post-Mao era.

Sean Roberts is not the only western researcher to have written on the plight of the Xinjiang Muslims, but this book appears at a time when the world is in turmoil, due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and in which the rise of China, challenging the US to become the world’s number one superpower economically and militarily, proceeds apace. The country with the largest population in the world continues to grow faster than any other capitalist economy because of its special features. It is ploughing vast resources into its ‘Belt and Road’ projects worldwide, not least in its westernmost province – a strategic hub for trade. Xinjiang is also home to China’s largest natural gas reserves, 40% of its coal and 22% of its oil.

Like any other capitalist country, China’s economy is geared to maximising profit for the rich few. Like any dictatorship, Xi Jinping’s regime fears revolt from below – from exploited workers, rural poor and oppressed nationalities – even more than aggression from abroad.

While its military spending is vast, at over $200 billion, the Chinese state spends more on surveillance of its own population, not least the Uighurs. The sophistication of the spying methods used day and night on the Uighur population, and described by Roberts in his book, is 1984-esque but with the very latest scientific methods – AI ‘Big Brother’! But this systematic attempt at genocide uses a combination of the most modern techniques of surveillance and the most barbarous forms of torture.

The book by Roberts concentrates on the paranoiac Han Chinese nationalism wielded against the Uighur population. But the Xi Jinping dictatorship aims to crush the language and cultural identity of all minorities within its borders – even though, together, non-Han Chinese make up the majority of China’s 1.5 billion population. Recently there have been protests about Mandarin becoming compulsory throughout Inner Mongolia. Han culture and language are being forced on practically all ethnic minorities.

Roberts’ book is forensic in its approach to the crimes perpetrated against the Uighur people and is crammed with detail. But it is also peppered with irritating trendy jargon and initials are used for almost anything that comes up regularly: GLF for Great Leap Forward, GPCR for Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and even SCIOPR (State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic).

But the book elaborates in informative detail the early days of the Uighurs’ struggle for self-determination, the international dimensions and the way in which vicious state repression and clashes fuelled the determination at least of a layer of youth to step up the struggle – armed and otherwise.

Several journalists have now had rare glimpses of life in Xinjiang and have spoken of the vast concentration camps there, actually visible from space. Appalling instances of disappearances and organ stealing as well as the forced sterilisation and foetuses being forcibly removed from pregnant women. A BBC radio report on February 3 carried harrowing first-hand testimony of the systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture of women detainees by police and guards who were told to ‘administer punishment or be complicit and be punished!’. Punitive re-education courses are held to kill off the Uighur language and culture and ensure that only Mandarin Chinese is spoken. The works of Xi Jinping have to be studied daily and memorised.

Roberts goes into far more detail on the nightmare of these places with incredibly elaborate surveillance and torture techniques. Rape, beatings and death are commonplace. The scenes he describes bring to mind the brutal cruelty meted out to dissidents under the zig-zagging dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung described in the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Sean Roberts and others inevitably make comparisons with George Orwell’s dystopia in ‘1984’ with “ubiquitous CCTV cameras” providing “omnipresent surveillance”. But Roberts’ spine-chilling account of what goes on in modern-day Xinjiang is all the more distressing, if only because it is describing what is actually happening right now!

During the early days of the Covid crisis, it was Uighurs from Xinjiang who were transported to the most dangerous areas of Wuhan to do the menial tasks and cleaning up operations. Their lives counted for nothing.

The horrors of life and death in today’s China, a vast country run in the name of the working class by a ‘Communist’ party committed to capitalism, provide huge ammunition to those who wish to discredit the very idea of socialism as an alternative. The author of this new book, like many others including some on the ‘left’, frequently refers to the “authoritarian Chinese Communist Party”, identifying authoritarianism with communism. But in fact today the ‘CCP’ label is simply used as a way of claiming historical legitimacy while the ‘CCP’ has been the main sponsor of the reintroduction of capitalism into China. But this same expert has no solution for overcoming the horrendous crimes against humanity he describes except to call on “the people of the world” to “put pressure” on China, boycott its goods and disinvest!

Academics can reveal horrific human rights abuses, diplomats can complain about them, but Xi Jinping and his billionaire friends in the ‘Communist Party’ government can (and do!) ignore them. The regime that uses censorship, surveillance and state repression on the vast scale indicated in Roberts’ book and elsewhere can only be challenged and overthrown by a mass movement – strikes and uprisings. It will not be mealy-mouthed appeals from diplomats and governments who continue to trade with Xi’s dictatorship to make profit for their own capitalist moguls. Nor will it be journalistic exposés of slave labour in China’s factories.

Books like The War on the Uighurs can make you angry. But the power to change the horrific levels of repression and exploitation, not only of ethnic Uighurs but the vast majority of China’s massive population, is to implement genuine Marxist ideas. This means mobilising on a programme for full state ownership of industry, banks and commerce with democratic planning under the control and management of workers’ elected representatives. Only in this way can the sickening hypocrisy and tyrannical rule of the Chinese ‘Communist’ Party of today be wiped from the scene of history.

Just as the Bolsheviks did when they created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a century ago, a Chinese government genuinely led by working people would inscribe on its banner the right to self-determination of all oppressed nations. But it would also give the greatest encouragement to voluntary participation in a confederation of socialist nations, within and beyond the borders of present-day China, extending across the vast continent of Asia and internationally.