China's crackdown on the Uighur minority - Rian Thum

China's crackdown on the Uighur minority
Rian Thum


The Chinese are using some of the oldest methodologies of tyranny in their suppression of Uighur Muslims in the far western province of Xinjiang, like neighborhood spy networks in which one family is responsible for monitoring everything done by 10 neighbor families, or formal, public self-criticism sessions in which people are forced to renounce everything they’ve thought or done that doesn’t conform to Chinese Communist Party dogma.

There are even new wrinkles in the old fabric of oppression, like Communist Party “work teams,” that stage home invasions that can last a day or 2 weeks, in which the party invaders teach and enforce the lessons of proper behavior and reliable thought on their captive families.

That formula of constant private monitoring and frequent public self-denunciations is also in wide use at dozens of re-education camps, prisons really, that have been built over the past few years in almost every city, county and village of the province.  In many of these camps, prisoners have to give thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping for their daily bread.

So many Uighur adults are filling these new prison camps that a parallel project of massive public building is clearly visible in satellite photographs of Xinjiang, “orphanages” for the “troubled” children of the adults in re-education.

But the Chinese cultural war against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities like the Kazakhs also features lots of 21st century high technology…surveillance cameras, listening devices and police or military checkpoints everywhere on city streets and squares, and even inside some “unreliable” family homes snooping devices have been implanted.  Digital databases are crammed with data captured by facial and voice-recognition software.  And smartphones in Xinjiang now come equipped with a mandatory app that records all calls for content and communicants for state security agencies.

The Beijing government says its crackdown is to defeat terrorists and religious extremists, but that’s applying fresh 21st Century paint on a Chinese message so old, it predates the American revolution: Han Chinese are the people in power here, indigenous locals like the Uighurs or the Kazakhs are the savages who must be lifted out of their own cultures to qualify for citizenship in the Empire.

Xinjiang,” writes our guest today, scholar Rian Thum, “has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.”

And, at long last, the outside world has taken notice.  Australian politicians in Parliament, Bangladeshi protestors in the streets, the new chief for Human Rights at the United Nations and Senators and Congresspeople from both parties in the United States are all calling for China to ease up, and threatening everything from investigations to sanctions if President Xi doesn’t listen. 

But the net-net of all that noise might be summed up by this zig-zagging sentence from a recent Reuters news agency report, published by the New York Times: “On Tuesday, the State Department expressed deep concern over China’s “worsening crackdown” on Muslims in Xinjiang, while U.S. congressional sources said discussions of possible sanctions had gained momentum within the U.S. government, although imposition of steps did not appear imminent.


Rian Thum is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University New Orleans and an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow. Rian Thum’s research and teaching are generally concerned with the overlap of China and the Muslim World. His book,  The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Harvard University Press, 2014) argues that the Uyghurs – and their place in China today – can only be understood in the light of longstanding traditions of local pilgrimage and manuscript culture.  The study uses manuscripts in Chaghatay and Persian, contemporary Uyghur novels, graffiti, and ethnographic fieldwork to uncover a complex of historical practices that offer new perspectives on what history is and how it works. 

The book was awarded the 2015 Fairbank prize for East Asian history (American Historical Association), the 2015 Hsu prize for East Asian Anthropology (Society for East Asian Anthropology, American Anthropological Association), and the 2015 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award.



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