The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Cultural Genocide with Professor Sean Roberts

In this episode, we talk with Professor Sean Roberts about the Uyghur people and their relations with China. Professor Roberts discusses the history of the Uyghurs, how China came to view them as a threat, and what the international community can do to stop this cultural genocide. Our conversation is based on Professor Roberts’ new book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority.


00:03:19 WHO ARE THE UYGHURS: You can view the Uyghur as the indigenous people of this region. That’s important because the popular idea of indigenous people is that they are the first people on a territory. But it’s been recognized… we’re looking at the modern concept of indigenous people. It’s been recognized, it’s those people who have been in a region prior to colonization in the modern period. The Uyghur people certainly were the dominant ethnic group in this region in the mid 18th century when the Qing dynasty first conquered this region. By the 19th century it became more of a colonization of that region.

00:04:30 CCP AND ETHNIC MINORITIES: I think one of the things that happened when the Chinese Communist Party took over is that they took a lot of cues from the Soviet Union in terms of their approach to ethnic minorities or nationalities.  First, the Soviet system recognized that the Russian Empire had colonized parts of what became the Soviet Union, and it had a certain accommodation-ist approach to allowing ethnic groups to develop their identity, national consciousness a certain amount of autonomy in the sense that you had different Soviet republics that, at least in the Soviet Constitution, were allowed to succeed, though in reality they probably could never have been able to succeed during the existence of the Soviet Union. But China, really the Chinese Communist Party, really began straying from that sort of policy early on in its rule. I would say by the late 1950s, as there was a developing Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese government kind of strayed more from this kind of Soviet accommodation-ist position of trying to include nationalities on their own cultural terms, if not their own political terms. While the region that’s the Uyghurs homeland that became the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region within China, it has autonomy per the Constitution of China. But it’s noteworthy that included in that autonomy is no right to succeed. There’s always been this tension between wanting to create a multicultural social society and at the same time, an inability to recognize that these regions weren’t always part of China, that there had been a colonization in the past that there had been excesses of imperialism in China’s history. 

00:07:10 CCP’S ACCOMMODATION: I note in my book there’s a couple different periods of accommodation, the first one being in right after the revolution in the 1940s where the Chinese government essentially engaged a lot of the Uyghur elite as members in the Communist Party and as kind of the governing elite of the region. But that started to go the other direction already by 1957, when the Chinese government employed a kind of anti-nationalist purging as part of the Anti-Rightist campaign. And then you know you have a period of the Cultural Revolution that follows soon after that, which is very chaotic. Then after the Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, there’s another period of accommodation. But as I noted in my book, what seems to happen with these brief times of accommodation is that the state essentially starts moving backwards after a short period of experimentation and begins controlling, kind of a centralized control of the region in its people.

00:08:36 IMPORTANCE OF THE UYGHUR REGION TO CHINA: I think the story of what is happening now begins mostly in the 1990s as China is trying to, for the first time, really integrate this region into the state, society and its people. That’s partly because in the 1990s, while the specter of the fall of the Soviet Union began to worry the Chinese government, particularly with regards to different ethnic groups and national groups. It also presents an important opportunity in terms of economic growth. Because, as Deng Xiaoping started implementing economic reforms, the Soviet Union is an important market and that market borders on the Uyghur region, so that makes the Uyghur region more strategically important beginning in the 1990s.

00:10:07 Start of the repressive system:  During the 1990s the Chinese government, because of the fears of the dissolution of the Soviet Union repeating itself in China, the government began cracking down very much on expressions of nationalism, broadly defined. Both among Uyghurs, Tibetans and even Mongolians. But at the same time, there was an attempt to incentivize assimilation. You could say that up to 2000, that approach could have been successful over the long term. Cracking down on any expressions of desire for self-determination, while at the same time providing Uyghurs and another ethnic minority groups, the ability to integrate with Chinese society, go to Chinese universities, there was a lot of affirmative action plans and various attempts to Integrate Uyghur more voluntarily through incentives. The War on Terror kind of changes that that calculus because throughout the 1990s, the Chinese government targets any expressions of self-determination and again, I mean that very broadly in the sense of you know, publications that promote the idea of Uyghur Cultural national pride, any kind of investigation of past historical moments of glory of the Uighur people, and so on. And they target that in the 1990s, as separatism. Which is a very politically motivated term and I think it’s also one that’s not really recognized by the international community as a threat. I think in the international community there’s a sense that self-determination is something that nations should be able to assert, even if that doesn’t mean sovereignty. It means recognition of their unique position in a territory, their history, their culture, and so on. Almost immediately after 9/11, the Chinese government began a campaign to essentially rebrand what it had termed Uyghur separatism as an Uyghur terrorist threat. And it first did this through a series of policy papers that outline. Almost all of the Uyghur political organizations, Human Rights Defenders, and so on throughout the world claimed that they had a shadowy terrorist organization that was linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. And of course, right after the 9/11 attacks, that was a very serious accusation. But initially you know the first year after the Chinese government kind of began this campaign, the international community didn’t really pay much attention to it. They were familiar with a lot of these human rights defending organizations in the West. They knew that there was very little likelihood that they had any connection to international terrorist networks. They were mostly secular in their positions and so on. But suddenly in August of 2002, the US took a sudden turn in its policy, and it recognized an unknown organization, at that time, in Afghanistan called the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization, and as having ties with al Qaeda and the Taliban. Just that small recognition of a small group essentially validated this idea that China faced a Uyghur terrorist threat. A lot of my book follows that period from 2002 to the present and the kind of impact that had in many ways that lead us to the present moment.

00:15:33 Professor RObertS’s DEFINITION OF TERRORISM: One of the things that really surprised me when I started researching this issue… there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. What’s even more surprising is that in a lot of books that look at terrorism they acknowledge that there’s no definition and don’t necessarily establish a definition when they’re talking about the term kind of suggesting that well terrorism is something you know when you see it. Which is of course, I think a very slippery slope and is one of the problems with the Global War on Terror is leaving the definition so wide open has allowed a lot of different governments around the world to attack domestic opposition in the name of counterterrorism, and it’s difficult to push back on that if there’s no definition. The definition that I adopt, I get it in part from an Israeli expert in terrorism who makes the case after 9/11 in 2002, he wrote an article where he outlines the importance of establishing a definition, particularly as we’re entering this global war against terrorism. He notes that definition should be holding non state actors to the same standards that state actors are held in conflict… He makes the point that we should define terrorism particularly by the act, not by the ideology or the associations of groups, and that the act that is most central is political violence, premeditated political violence that targets civilians. In international law, states are held accountable if they target civilians in a conflict. It seems reasonable and appropriate that non-state actors should be held to the same accounts. But of course, the history of conflict has shown that non-state actors engaging in conflict itself is not something that is not universally condemned; it’s been something that has given us the world we have today. Through revolutions and through anti colonial struggles of national Independence, so I think that it’s important to hold non-state actors to that same account and that really the most important issue is looking at whether a non-state actor is engaging in predetermined, premeditated political violence targeting civilians.

00:19:42 US invasion of Iraq & China’s UN vote: Most people who were looking at this decision at the time they didn’t know yet that we’re about to invade Iraq, but you know their call Colin Powell, for example, in his memoirs, notes that the US government was all already in the summer of 2002, laying out the plans for invading Iraq, so there was certainly a major foreign policy goal of the US at that time, and one of their biggest hurdles was at the UN. People would broadly say that recognizing this group was an attempt to get China on board in the Global War on Terror. But really, where that was most important was the pending invasion of Iraq, and with China as a prominent member of the UN Security Council, making sure that there was no opposition within the Security Council for the Invasion of Iraq. I think even though there’s no smoking gun for this, and we may not know until the archives are declassified, but I think there’s a very strong case to be made that the reason the US government recognized this group was to ensure China’s acquiescence for the invasion of Iraq, that would happen the following year.

00:21:39 No organized Military group within China: Often when you talk about nations that don’t have statehood and sovereignty, it’s very difficult to determine what is their common goal. Because they don’t have any form of governance that would allow them to actually negotiate that and have representation. It’s fair to say that the Uyghur people as a whole, they might have a variety of perspectives. In fact, in the 1990s I mentioned, there were incentives to assimilate and you had parts of the Uyghur population who were taking advantage of that and assimilating. What was really neglected by the Chinese government was the majority Uyghur population in the South of the Uyghur region, which was not really given many opportunities like that. Even there you would have- I believe-  a variety of perspectives on the importance of Uyghur statehood and I think what’s most important is that during the 1990s and I would argue to this day,  there’s not been an actual organized militant group within China of Uyghurs that were trying to use violence as a means of establishing sovereignty. The one group that the US recognized ETIM… there is one person who has this vision of going to Afghanistan to try to establish an army to liberate the Uyghur homeland, but in fact, this is a complete failure. He gets no support from the Uyghur diaspora. He gets no support from the Taliban or al Qaeda. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs entered into a number of negotiations with the Taliban in 1999/ 2000, and as a result, the Taliban makes sure this group is unable to do anything. There’s no evidence that this group actually ever carried out any acts of violence, politically motivated or otherwise, and what’s interesting is in the original documents, the Chinese government was promoting this idea of a Uyghur terrorist threat they outlined during the 1990s, 200 terrorist attacks that led to 162 deaths and over 440 injuries and this is a long list of violent incidents, mostly spontaneous clashes between the police and Uyghur civilians. A couple things that may have been attempts at political violence there was one bus bombing in the list, but this group, which was only established in 1998, didn’t have anything to do with any of that. But when the US government recognized it as a terrorist organization, it claimed that ETIM had been responsible for all of this violence and that it had all been terrorism. That actually meant that the US government recognized this group as more of a threat than the Chinese government had even done so in their own documentations. 

00:32:21 2014 and the People’s War on Terror: And now, under Xi Jinping starts this People’s War on terror that looks at the idea of extremist ideas as being a crime, and it very broadly defines its idea of Islamic extremism to encompass much of Uyghur cultural expressions that may be founded in Islam, including dress, including what you name your child, including whether you accept a hand in marriage from somebody of another ethnic group or religion. All of these things become essentially criminalized at the same time we start to see early stages of testing out the tactics that have been in place since 2017 so we see kind of beta testing of this idea of re-education which the Chinese might also call Vocational Education and Training Centers. So how you reform Uyghur consciousness to make sure that they’re not extremist, which is essentially equated with you need to completely eliminate their social capital, their faith, their collective identity and culture. You also see the beginnings of the establishment of this massive electronic surveillance system, which includes I think most ominously this this database where if you identify any Uyghur at a checkpoint or something you can look up everything from where they were in the last 24 hours, what their communications had been on the telephones, internet, records from their employment, any records of whether they went to mosque even over the last several years. All of these policies put in place during the People’s War on Terror in 2014 set the scene for what happens in 2017  which is continuing to happen now.

00:41:32 CULTURAL GENOCIDE: The term cultural genocide it is usually associated with the kinds of genocide that we’ve seen Indigenous people suffer from settler-colonialism. In the United States Native Americans, in Australia aboriginals, in Latin America various Indigenous people. As settlers come in, you know, settler-colonialism is kind of being characterized as differing from other forms of colonialism because other forms of colonialism generally need to exploit both the people and the land, but in settler-colonialism the aim is usually to settle this with new people, with the colonizing population, and therefore the indigenous population is kind of superfluous. As a result you have to remove them, but I think it’s important to note that this is certainly qualifies as a form of genocide by the UN Convention on Genocide, but it’s not really the same kind of genocide you saw during the Holocaust because the aim is not necessarily to physically exterminate the entirety of this population, but it does aim to depopulate the population, displace them, breakdown their ties both to the land and to each other, breakdown their social capital and their identity so that they’re become essentially marginalized within society. It really appears to me that since 2017 the acts the Chinese government is taking against Uyghurs really amounts to that. That also makes sense in terms of the goals integrating this region and making it an important economic hub for external relations of China through the Belt and Road Initiative.

00:43:42  Xi Jinping’s Drive for a mono-cultural China: There’s kind of a perfect storm of things happening. China, as I mentioned during the 1990s, was trying a more gradual approach to assimilating Uyghurs through incentivized programs, and at the same time, cracking down on any kind of dissent. But one of the things that changes, obviously, is Xi Jinping. When he comes to power, I think he has a much more immediate desire to see things happen. Given that the Belt and Road initiative is his signature policy project, making sure that things become normalized for the state in this region sooner than later, so they can begin building the infrastructure for that, but another aspect of it, is also there’s evidence that under Xi Jinping the Chinese government is taking a much less tolerant position towards difference of all kinds, certainly political differences. The political liberalism has been scaled back, but also ethnic and religious differences. We’re starting to see some of the things that have happened to Uyghurs the government is implementing with less aggression in Tibet and in Mongolia with regards to other Muslims, the Hui Muslims in Gansu and other areas around China. I think that this kind of turn against difference, a drive for a more mono-cultural China is part of it. I think the strategic importance of this region is part of it. And I think  Xi Jinping’s party, its belief that it can essentially forcibly make things happen. And all of that adds up to a decision to not go for a long-term gradual simulation of Uyghurs but just forcibly assimilate them, marginalize them, take them off their land, and essentially erase their legacy there.

00:47:42 Human impact of re-education and force labor: We have more accounts of people whose family members have been interned. There are some accounts of people who were interned but  it’s  interesting is some of the justification for these internment camps which the Chinese government initially said did not exist at all. But after that they claim that these were just vocational training centers. But the accounts of people who work in these camps suggest that they’re very prison-like. They are completely controlled, people are not allowed to communicate with the outside world very much. It is important to note that also there is difference between camps, which I think is something that you see whenever you have this kind of mass internment may depend on the local people running the camps, how vicious they are, but there’s also been a lot of reports of torture if people don’t follow the rules. There’s been reports of sexual violence… it’s every bit you know as gut wrenching as any kind of mass atrocities you’ve heard about in other contexts. Historically, we do also see a lot of this impacting people, particularly the Uyghur diaspora, which is really mobilized around this. All over the world because almost every Uyghur who is outside the country has relatives who have been subjected to these camps or to imprisonment. What’s important to note is I think the internment camps, and perhaps the mass surveillance are the most headline grabbing aspects of this, but what’s really important to understand is those two institutions essentially ensure that any Uyghur who’s not interned complies with any other policies the state is bringing in so that the government is also promoting inter-ethnic marriage. And since turning down marriage from somebody by a different ethnic group is a sign of extremism and therefore criminalized and subjected to imprisonment or internment that’s essentially coerced Inter-ethnic marriage. We have these coerced labor programs, which are taking Uyghurs out of their native villages and putting them in residential factories where they also are subjected to re-education which is a combination of Chinese language and Communist Party ideology. It also includes things like self-criticism, and particularly as it relates to anything one may have done in the past that reflected being religious. The actual Interment, is a significant psychological torture. For anyone who has to go through it, but even for those outside of the penal institutions, it’s it’s constant psychological torture, because you’re always wondering whether you might end up being taken away or somebody you love might be taken away. So it’s a very grave situation indeed.

00:52:46 WHY ARE MUSLIM COUNTRIES SILENT: The US has very strained relations with the Muslim world. As a result of the Global War on Terror, and it’s very easy for these Muslim countries to buy into China’s justification that this is a double standard. If the US is criticizing, the US and the EU which were both involved in all kinds of human rights abuses during the Global War on Terror. The other component, which is very important, is that China has increased significantly its soft power around the world through economic investment and this is particularly true in in the Muslim world. And then finally, the fact that there’s very few democracies in the Muslim world means that it’s easier for state leaders to do what is in the interest of their country in terms of real politic in economic gains, rather than take a stance on some idealist position. But where you do see some of that breaking down are places like Turkey, Indonesia and even to a certain extent Malaysia. Because in those countries there are Democratic processes. So as the population learns about the things that the Chinese government is doing to Uyghurs and to Islam in the country, that’s putting more pressure on these governments to act.

00:55:25 International Action and Consumer Advocacy: The US has been trying to take a leading role, and one thing I should note for the listeners is several weeks ago the US removed the designation of Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization. And the Trump administration has been trying to push this issue around the world. But I do think that the US is not well positioned to lead on this issue. Both because of the US involvement and essentially the US origins of the Global War on Terror, but also because the US positions on human rights have really faltered over the last several years, or particularly under the Trump administration. My hope is to see under a Biden administration kind of a return to the Obama strategy in foreign policy, which is this idea of leading from behind and building coalitions because I do think this issue is something that should be removed from geopolitics. Right now  when people look at this issue and they look at the US leading they say well, this is just the Trump administration trying to beat up China and they really just wanted a trade deal with China and that’s really counterproductive. This really should not be perceived as a geopolitical issue. It should be perceived as a humanitarian issue. One of the importance of protecting human rights. In that sense, there’s really a need for a global coalition, and I’m hoping that if the US steps a bit out of the spotlight on this issue that we will see other countries taking stances and joining to put pressure on China. We are already seeing in Europe, in Canada, the Canadian Parliament just passed a resolution saying that that this this should be considered a genocide. They are considering sanctions on people involved in it, which the US has done as well, the UK is doing similar things, Germany is as well and Japan is even considering sanctions. But I do think the real key will be also getting support from the Muslim world and from other developing countries and that’s a tougher thing to do right now given China’s prominence economically around the world. But the last point I’d like to make is that, particularly as this has become intertwined with coercive of labor programs that Uyghurs are subjected to, it’s infected so many supply lines in global capitalism, so really taking a position of consumer advocacy and making sure that products being sold in your country are not infected with this coercive labor from the Uyghur population which could really amount in the end to boycotts on massive amounts of Chinese products, and we know how important Chinese products are to the global economy. So I think that seeing more of that kind of consumer advocacy could really turn the position of Beijing and make it rethink what it’s doing.

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