In 2019, leading international experts gathered to understand what was happening to the Uyghurs. Now, they have produced one of the best textbooks on the genocide.
by Ruth Ingram
“How did a revolutionary state which came to power promising to end all forms of national discrimination, end up resorting to such horrific policies?”
The answer to this question, posed by scholar of the Uyghurs David Brophy, has exercised world leaders and experts as they grapple with the whys and wherefores of China’s onslaught against the Turkic peoples of its Northwestern borderlands, particularly since an acceleration of the atrocities against Xinjiang’s so-called minorities in 2016.
Michael Clarke in his new anthology “The Xinjiang Emergency: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of China’s Mass Detention of Uyghurs” (Manchester University Press, 2022) wrestling with the issues involved, considers the writing has been on the wall for decades, profoundly shaped by a colonialist mindset that laid the foundations for cultural genocide to solve a “Xinjiang problem” that had been vexing China’s rulers for years.
September 2019 dawned as the full extent of the atrocities being meted out on the Turkic peoples of Northwest China was coming into focus. A multi-disciplinary band of experts gathered in the Australian city of Canberra, to piece together the available evidence so far. Something was happening in this desert land but a revelation of the full horrors was yet to be unleashed.
The genocide word and its relation to these crimes was being tentatively framed in terms of culture rather than of an entire ethnic group, but suspicions lurked in the shadows of something worse to come.
The pieces of the puzzle available to date were laid on the table by some of the best minds in the field, and Michael Clarke’s “The Xinjiang Emergency” is the result.
There have been other conferences, panels, endless webinars and Zoom meets since. Analysis has moved on, satellite imagery has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that vast numbers have been incarcerated in hundreds of secret camps, the Chinese government’s meticulous online records have betrayed their genocidal endgame, and sickening firsthand testimonies of camp survivors have trickled out.
Genocide is now firmly on the table.
But in 2019, with red flags flying metaphorically and physically, this group of academics sat down in the Australian National University (ANU) to thrash out the genesis of what has been described as the largest mass incarceration and persecution of an ethnic group since the Nazi Holocaust.
As the first team of analysts to specifically confront the warning signs, their observations provide valuable background and rare insights into a genocide that continues to unfold to this day.
Experts on the whole agree that since imperial times, the Chinese state has had its eye on controlling and assimilating both the territory and the non-Han peoples of the great Northwest.
Whilst, since the terror attacks of 9/11, draconian measures to rein in the Muslim “minorities” have been conveniently framed as “counterterrorism,” it has become increasingly obvious that assaults on the indigenous culture, language, religion and population control have more to do with colonial ambition than curbing terrorism.
Clarke’s compelling ride through the imperial past of the area, once known as East Turkestan, takes the reader through a history of warlords, emperors and rebellions. Two separate East Turkestan Muslim republics came and went followed by the “peaceful emancipation” of it all by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. The PLA heralded a tentative renaissance of “Minzu” (minority) autonomy, which has surfaced from time to time since then, but all pretense of self-determination has now vanished; replaced by President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “New Era” for his country, fully sinicized and culturally uniform.
Large scale Han migration into the area, forcible “transformational” re-education policies that “resonate with the worst totalitarian precedents of the twentieth century” and pathologize Uyghur cultural identity and practice, provide clues as to the final settler-colonial intent, according to some of the authors. The CCP ultimate ambition is to appropriate the land and degrade or vanish the indigenous Turkic people altogether.
Exercised by the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang, much of the anthology examines elements of human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the backdrop of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) whereby intent to destroy in whole or part, a national, ethnically, racial or religious group can be established.
Arguably, according to the spirit of Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, several authors conclude the CCP is “seeking to destroy the shrines of the soul” of the Uyghur nation, and replace them with Chinese culture and civilization.
Delving into the why’s, how’s and what’s of the current crisis, the anthology is divided into three parts that examine in detail the causes and consequences of China’s mass detention of Turkic Muslims.
Understanding Mao era campaigns go some way in understanding the CCP’s copycat abuses but nowhere in assessing the timing of the end game, says Sandrine Catris.
Anna Hayes cites the “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform Programme,” as an example of “creeping” cultural genocide whereby eventually Uyghur culture is destroyed and ultimately eradicated, and the ripping apart of families by scattering parents into camps, forced labour or worse and their children into orphanages is examined by Timothy Grose and James Leibold who try to understand the CCP’s treatment of Islam as a disease or a mental illness to be cured.
Sean Roberts asks why the PRC has chosen this moment in its history to violently exclude the indigenous peoples from the region’s development and Darren Byler looks at the dehumanisation of Uyghurs and Kazakhs who are forced to collaborate with their “colonial masters.”
Dilmurat Mahmut and Joanne Smith Finley unpick the process of coercive re-education and de-extremification that sees the Uyghur race as an “existential and biological threat to the Chinese nation.” Their analysis of Uyghur children’s textbooks illustrate the CCP’s attempts at assimilation by deliberately removing all vestiges of Uyghur cultural content for the next generation.
The specter of organ harvesting, both in China and now poignantly among Uyghur captives is tackled by Matthew Robertson and Michael Clarke reviews evidence of pervasive surveillance that has rendered Xinjiang a virtual open prison.
Uyghur academic Ablimit Baki Elterish focuses on the collective trauma of thousands of Uyghur exiles scattered throughout the world cut off from their families knowing they might never be reunited or see their homeland again. The anthology concludes with David Tobin’s surmise that China’s increasing confidence on the world stage has launched it on a trajectory to transform the “rules” of the accepted “rules-based” world order and impose on the world something more akin to a “new age of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The “Xinjiang Emergency” is an ambitious, in-depth analysis of the mind of Beijing as it hounds its Turkic peoples through a staggering range of unprovoked assaults on their ancient culture, language, traditions and religion. Despite its obvious academic appeal, reams of footnotes and painstaking scholarship, this anthology is also a compilation that makes essential reading for avid China watchers eager to make sense of the Uyghur crisis.