Throughout 2020, the Editorial Board of the Washington Post has published a series of opinion pieces covering China and its relationship with the Uyghur Muslim population of the province of Xinjiang. In those pieces the editorial staff of the Post accuse China of genocide, and accuse US companies of profiting off genocide, with the headlines using the phrases “concentration camps,” “China’s bullying,” and “hardening resolve to wipe out the Uyghurs.” The hawkish pinnacle of these headlines is their entry from December 4, “Congress has a chance to strike a blow against Chinese forced labor.” The article itself calls for increased sanctions against China while not shying away from a combative tone. The phrases “strike blow,” and “forced labor” work in tandem to set the reader in an aggressive mentality before even reading a single word of content. And the usage of “China” as a monolithic entity representing Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing’s politburo, and the totality of the 1.4 billion people living in China also works to undermine clarity as to whom the reader’s assured outrage must be directed against. With such aggressive rhetoric and the absence of context from these articles we are left to pose the questions: what is happening with the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, how did it come to pass, and who benefits from the conflict?
The famously inhospitable province of Xinjiang in Northwest China has almost no arable land or reliable water sources, yet it is still home to 25 million people. The province’s lack of above-ground resources is offset by large deposits of oil and natural gas, which goes not an insubstantial bit towards explaining Beijing’s interest in growing settlements there. More pointedly, Xinjiang is also home to over ten million Uyghur Muslims, with the province being the home of nearly all the global Uyghur population. The past thirty years have seen a rise in ethnic violence between Han and Uyghur groups including one particularly bloody 2009 incident resulting in nearly 2000 casualties in the province capital of Urumqi.
Uyghur nationalist historical perspectives contrast strongly with Beijing’s (outlined in a CCP white paper from 2003). There is ample disagreement over the status of the Uyghurs as an indigenous population, whether or not the Uyghur people ever were politically independent, and the precise genealogical history of the Uyghur people. Modern Uyghur nationalist historical narratives stem from a Soviet-backed education campaign in the late 1950s, whereas the Chinese perspective on the Uyghurs is backed by Beijing itself. Interestingly the Soviet-education campaign on Uyghur history peaked during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, suggesting that the Uyghurs’ status as an indigenous population matters not only to Beijing, but to Beijing’s foes.
To enforce its claims the Beijing regime has acted swiftly and fiercely by establishing, starting in 2017, the “Vocational Skills Education Centres.” These centres are notoriously opaque, and through 2018 Beijing denied these centers even existed. More opaque still is by what laws someone can be detained in the centers, with Beijing’s anti-extremism laws going so far as to list such signs of extremism as: rejecting Chinese radio and television, having a halal diet, wearing a niqab, opposing CCP policies, or having a name like “Mohammad,” or “Arafat.” The CCP-owned Xinhua News Agency has largely avoided covering the goings-on of the centers, except for promoting Beijing’s white papers about the need to counter extremism in Xinjiang.
But the centers have drawn a hyperfixation in the western media, as they have proven to be Beijing’s next big human rights crisis du jour. The New York Times, since July of 2020 alone has reported on imprisoned Uyghur laborers manufacturing COVID facemasks, US restrictions on Xinjiang-grown cotton, the construction of new detention sites in Xinjiang, and the removal of Mosques and other non-Chinese religious and cultural buildings throughout the province. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have active campaigns calling for increased international action against Beijing’s re-education camps, and publishing eyewitness accounts from inside Xinjiang from both Han Chinese and Uyghur alike. But while the raw facts about Beijing’s campaign against Uyghur identity are largely evidenced, there is an unnerving second element to the reporting. Like the Washington Post cited above, western corporate news outlets have grown increasingly hostile to Beijing and China as entities, adopting a martial tone in the latter half of the year.
And it is finally onto this stage that we can introduce the third player to the Beijing-Uyghur struggle in Xinjiang: the intelligence agencies of the United States of America.
To point out the CIA’s involvement in securing the American empire is a rhetorical turn so familiar it borders on cliche. But it’s a cliche of the CIA’s own creation as they actively chose to bulwark the American empire by installing fascist dictators in Latin America, attempting coups against democratically elected socialist leaders, and frantically selling armaments and training to every ultranationalist group making dubious promises to fight communism and Soviet influence. But the CIA will tell you they do not operate in Xinjiang (at least they don’t operate in any way you can prove.) There are no reports of American government intelligence gathering and espionage in the Xinjiang province. No lurid declassified documents proving the existence of a clandestine informant network. The CIA and by extension the government in Washington DC are virtuous in their motives and actions, or so the agency’s communications will have you believe.
And it is onto this stage that the nonprofit NGO the National Endowment for Democracy put out a single tweet on December 10, 2020 trumpeting the millions of dollars given to “Uyghur groups” for most of the past twenty years.
To further #humanrights & human dignity for all people in China, the National Endowment for Democracy has funded Uyghur groups since 2004. #NEDemocracy #HumanRightsDay https://t.co/C0LJEyWxq1 pic.twitter.com/OqZdehdxXN— NEDemocracy (@NEDemocracy) December 10, 2020
The NED does not have the same global profile as the CIA, and its position as a quasi-independent NGO does not do much to arouse suspicion. However, an auditor’s report from 2008 (25 years after the foundation was created) reveals the vast majority of funding comes from US government sources. Also, former NED president Allan Weinstein was quoted by David Ignatius in a 1991 interview: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection.” The current financial and organization similarities to that of official US intelligence works to underscore the labor the word “quasi” in “quasi-independent NGO” needs to do. All this is to say Beijing’s self-appointed foes still see Xinjiang as a convenient weakness for Beijing and will use the campaign for Uyghur human rights to exploit it.
And of the organizations the NED mentions in its article that it has funded, one of the most prominent is the Campaign for Uyghurs, currently chaired by Rushan Abbas, and Uyghur activist. Abbas got her own New York Times profile in 2018, hailing her as a grassroots activist humbly seeking justice and recognition for her interned countrymen and their families. Omitted from the New York Times profile was the fact that at the time Abbas was Director of Business Development at ISI Consultants, a firm that “assists U.S. companies to grow their business in Middle East and African markets.” The article did mention her speech at the right wing Hudson Institute about her detained family members. Abbas’ activism earned her an invite from Senator Marco Rubio to attend the 2020 state of the union address, while domestic prison abolitionist activists fighting for the same ideological causes in the United States continue to be criminalized and surveilled by the same United States that trumpets its glorious vision of human rights.
The rank odor of the American imperial-political class also pervades the figures and estimates of the camps themselves. Beijing’s reticence to even admit the camps’ nature means no actual figures or estimates of detainees escape Beijing’s tight-lipped politburo. Estimates have emerged placing a lower bound on the number of detainees at 100,000 based on expenditures for food, clothing and educational resources for the camps. The most frequently cited researcher of the Xinjiang camps is Adrian Zenz, who put out the first serious estimates of the camps’ populations and effects on Xinjiang at large. And while this author has no intention of questioning Dr. Zenz’s figures (indeed the “at least 100,000” figure seems to be consistent from differing independent estimates and from leaks within Xinjiang) it is worth noting his more recent reports come from the far-right Jamestown Foundation and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (the former having at one point Vice President Dick Cheney on its board of directors.) Such affiliations cause this author to wonder about Dr. Zenz’s motivations in maneuvering himself to be the preeminent data collector of the Uyghur liberation movement.
Even the NED tweet above seems to be crafted with the stronger intention of inflaming international tensions than seeking the liberation of an oppressed minority. The image used in the tweet and in the NED’s linked article features a map of western China with the Xinjiang province highlighted instead by the flag of East Turkestan (the name for the Xinjiang preferred by the Uyghur population), a light blue banner with a white star-and-crescent charge. Does the NED intend to say with the tweet that they support East Turkestan separatism? The NED’s status as a quasi-representative of the US government means the implicit declaration of support is a militaristic one rather than liberatory. And the usage of the East Turkestan flag without any qualifiers deliberately introduces unnecessary ambiguity to whom the “Uyghur groups” are that they fund. While NED’s article names the organizations funded (such as the World Uyghur Congress, and the Campaign for Uyghurs) this has not stopped Beijing’s allies from charging the NED with laundering money for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a fundamentalist ethno-nationalist party that has operated intermittently in Xinjiang since the 1980s.
Like Britain and France before them, and like the United States and the USSR more recently, the United States and China have now declared themselves to be the sole claimants to hegemonic power and have set the stage for the globe to be their battlefield. These two imperialistic visions are more than content to divide up the world amongst themselves allotting themselves alliances of convenience as the proxy battles shift across the globe. And while the same less-than-10,000 people across the world are busy inside closed boardrooms plotting World War III it is going to be the rest of the globe’s impoverished exploited peoples who will have to suffer the consequences of it.
Beijing and Washington have to this end created dueling imperial visions supported each by their own haphazard web of lies so laughable it pushes the human rights crisis in Xinjiang from tragedy to farce back into tragedy again. Beijing’s contention that the Xinjiang re-education centers are for vocational training is insultingly specious and the narrative that they only exist to counter extremism is equally as transparent so long as the criteria for imprisonment is as vague as “being somewhat Uyghur.” Washington’s clarion call for human rights in Xinjiang is also transparently false as the context of half a century of CIA meddling has achieved nothing for human rights and everything for a richer, crueler American hegemony. Washington’s ample imperial war chest also seems to only find its way into well-connected members of the political class whose actual substantive actions to aiding Uyghur human rights remain opaque and ineffective. You, dear reader may crave nuance in all this but there is none to be had. Neither Washington nor Beijing will allow it. To call for understanding in the midst of mass ethnic internment is to realize that these crises are inherent to the existence of state-supported hegemonies and will continue until they are abolished. And neither Beijing nor Washington is all that keen on abolishing anything anytime soon. So we have no choice but to choose between two hegemonic, militaristic, racist police states, and we can never be allowed to question their existence.
And who is left to suffer in all of this? Well the Uyghurs, of course. They are left used for political convenience by the USSR, leveraged by the United States for their diplomatic capital, and abused by China for the inconvenient existence. The mass internment shows no signs of stopping (with Chairman Xi’s promises to shut down the camps ringing frustratingly hollow.) Washington will not help the Uyghurs. It cannot help. Washington is a well-oiled machine for doing harm and controlling resources where human rights aren’t even up for consideration to be on the menu. To Empire, the elements of truth and lies are merely cudgels, another tool in the arsenal of states to snatch up unwilling allies and beat down unwilling opposition.
But there is one hope for us to fight for true liberation from this noxious dichotomy. And that is to realize that the seeds of Empire are not sown all at once. Empire needs a long propaganda campaign to gestate properly, especially when the fate of global dominion is at stake. And this is what we resist. We must realize that even indisputable well-sourced and evidenced facts can be propaganda, especially when the language and context is growing progressively more aggressive. We must assume the worst, that these hegemonies are positioning themselves for a war of global dominance, and we must resist that call even when they deny they are making it. Because the real liberation for the oppressed peoples of the world will come when we can tear down not just other peoples’ prisons, but our own as well.
- An article about the fall of the western Tibetan civil rights movement https://psmag.com/news/what-ever-happened-to-hollywoods-free-tibet-rallying-cry
- Another article talking about Hollywood’s fleeting interest in the Tibetan cause https://www.tibetanreview.net/tibet-the-cause-celebre-without-closure/
- 2008 article about Uma Thurman calling on Hollywood to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics https://preciousmetaltheblog.com/2008/02/21/uma-thurman-joins-speilberg-and-speaks-out-against-human-rights-violations-in-china/
- An NYT article talking about Xinjiang’s potential oil and natural gas capabilities https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/world/asia/china-invests-in-xinjiang-region-rich-in-oil-coal-and-also-strife.html
- BBC article about the 2009 Urumqi riots http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8181563.stm
- A Guardian article featuring first-person accounts from Han Chinese residents of Urumqi about the 2009 riots https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/06/china-riots-uighur-xinjiang
- Xinhua article about the 2009 riots which links them to Islamist terrorism https://www.webcitation.org/5p3pHXm0l?url=http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-07/18/content_11727782.htm
- An academic article summarizing the Uyghur and Chinese perspectives on Uyghur historiography going deep into detail about the differences between these perspectives http://turkistanilibrary.com/sites/default/files/06_fmuhcpuh20080887-100.pdf
- A QZ article from 2018 about Xi Jinping’s denial of the existence of the Xinjiang re-education camps https://qz.com/1354447/china-flat-out-denies-the-mass-incarceration-of-xinjiangs-uyghurs-as-testimonies-trickle-out/
- A translation of Beijing’s de-extremification laws detailing how Beijing’s police can identify someone as a “terrorist” https://wokeglobaltimes.com/33a959dd06214e1f9d1be3dfaef2b4e2
- Human Rights Watch article detailing the actions happening inside the re-education camps from witness testimonies https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/20/more-evidence-chinas-horrific-abuses-xinjiang
- Amnesty International article calling on world governments to sanction China for human rights abuses https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/tell-china-to-close-its-secret-reeducation-camps-for-ethnic-minorities/
- The history of bill S.3744, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act https://clerk.house.gov/Votes/2020110
- The offending tweet from the National Endowment for Democracy https://twitter.com/NEDemocracy/status/1337063301113581568
- A 2008 auditor’s report of the NED’s financials https://www.ned.org/docs/08annual/PDFs/AR_Financials08.pdf
- The ProPublica article rebutting a claim made by the then-NED president citing the Allan Weinstein quote https://www.propublica.org/article/the-national-endowment-for-democracy-responds-to-our-burma-nuclear-story
- Trotskyist-perspective blog post outlining the credentials and connections of the activists the NED funds https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/05/09/uygh-m09.html
- Rushan Abbas’ personal statement at ISI consultants (archived after 2009) https://web.archive.org/web/20190702012940/https://www.isi-consultants.com/rushan-abbas
- Reuters article mentioning Abbas’ attendance at the 2020 SOTU https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-congress-uighur/senator-rubio-bringing-uighur-activist-as-state-of-the-union-guest-idUSKBN1ZX2VH
- The Washington Post Editorial Board’s hawkish opinion piece calling for greater sanctions against China for their actions in Xinjiang https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/congress-has-a-chance-to-strike-a-blow-against-chinese-forced-labor/2020/12/04/d1f80f48-3584-11eb-8d38-6aea1adb3839_story.html
- A translated copy of Beijing’s white paper outlining their history of Xinjiang which is completely at odds with the Uyghur nationalist narrative http://www.china.org.cn/english/2003/May/65428.htm
- Trotskyist perspective blog post detailing how the American hegemony is deliberately heightening tensions with the PRC and the PRC is responding in kind https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/07/08/pers-j08.html