China and the Uyghur question

Robbie Mahood presented this educational talk to a public meeting of the Montreal branch of Ligue pour l’action socialiste on June 22, 2021.

   At the centre of the diplomatic, trade and public relations offensive by the western powers against China is the alleged maltreatment of the Uyghur minority in the western-most Chinese province of Xinjiang. Xinjiang covers 18% of China’s land mass but has a population of only 27 million out of the 1.5 billion in China as a whole.  48% of Xinjiang’s population are Uyghurs down from 80% in 1949. Han Chinese constitutes another 40% after several decades of steady migration.   The remainder are other Muslim minorities, Mongols, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks.  

   Xinjiang is 12th of 31 Chinese provinces in terms of per capita income, which is even more impressive considering that several wealthier provinces are located in the favoured south-east coastal region. There are substantial reserves of oil, coal and gas and Xinjiang is a significant exporter of cotton. The province constitutes China’s western frontier with a long border shared with several central Asian nations many of whom speak languages of Turkish origin and/or share a Muslim heritage with the Uyghurs.

   Xinjiang or East Turkestan was incorporated into China during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. It has remained an outlying province of China ever since, except for brief periods in which the indigenous Uyghurs asserted their sovereignty, notably in the 19th century and in the 1930’s and 40’s during the Chinese civil war. It was as a concession to this contested reality that in 1957 Mao Tse Tung named the province: the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region. 

    Paradoxically, it is the modern economic and social development of Xinjiang promoted by Beijing that has strengthened the Uyghur identity and sense of grievance.

    Xinjiang occupies a key place in China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a strategic transport corridor to Central and South Asia.  By the same token, it looms large in western imperialist ambitions to counter China’s and Russia’s influence and to dominate the region.

   The western media and political leaders allege genocide with suppression of the Uyghur language and culture, closures of mosques, police surveillance and suppression of dissent, separation of families, slave labour and the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in re-education camps. Claims that a million Uyghurs are imprisoned in concentration camps are common in the western media.

   Beijing denies the charges.  While conceding that it is concerned to stop the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism responsible for a series of bombings and assassinations in Xinjiang, China cites a big improvement in living standards for the Uyghur population. What the west calls concentration camps, Beijing claims are ‘re-education’ facilities to improve skills and career opportunities for Uyghurs and to inoculate them against “extremism”. China points out that Uyghurs are free to practice Islam and speak their language. Furthermore, some measures favouring Uyghurs have been introduced such as preferential admission to universities and relaxation for Uyghurs, but not Han Chinese, of the one child per family policy.

   It is difficult to arrive at firm conclusions about what is actually happening in Xinjiang.  Even so, I will venture some opinions.

  I don’t accept the characterization of China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as genocidal. The claim of a million Uyghurs in concentration camps would mean that one in twelve Uyghurs are imprisoned! This is not credible.

  But what about lower levels of repression?

   Several years ago, Xinjiang saw a small wave of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. These have subsided, but Beijing continues to cite the terrorist threat as justification for a “strike hard, maximum pressure” approach. Despite relaxation of this policy, it would be surprising if the authorities did not continue to see Muslims along a potential pathway to radicalization.  In addition, China is concerned to preserve its historic claim to Xinjiang and block any move toward separation.

  The propaganda war has been fierce over the nature and scope of the re-education centres opened in Xinjiang. By Beijing`s own admission, residents are given vocational and language training as well as political re-education`. Who are targeted? Possibly dissident intellectuals and artists, party members deemed disloyal or Muslims who are excessively pious or suspected of Islamic fundamentalism. Are incarcerations time limited and what happens on discharge? We simply don`t have reliable information. The same can be said about the claim that large numbers of Uyghur children are separated from their parents and placed in boarding schools and the allegation that Uyghurs from rural areas are sent to the Chinese interior to work in factories linked to the supply chains of western corporations.

 There is no way knowing how Uyghur political opinion divides, whether integration or even assimilation into the majority Han society or at the other extreme outright separation. Perhaps a majority of Uyghurs favour a middle course involving a larger degree of autonomy for the province. We simply do not know.

  In any case, Beijing is clearly worried about growing separatist sentiment. For the moment, militant separatism is largely confined to the exile Uyghur community from which the CIA and the State Department draw the recruits for their anti-Chinese campaign. In this they are aided by right wing extremists such as the sinister evangelical Christian, Adrien Zenz, who claims to have a divine mission to destroy the Chinese communist state.

    In truth, China’s approach to its Uyghur minority includes both repression and accommodation. Substantial state investment in Xinjiang has improved incomes and education from which Uyghurs have benefited even if there is still a shortfall compared to the Han population. Efforts have been made to increase Uyghur representation in the civil service and to recruit more Uyghurs to the Communist Party. There has been some decentralization of power to local governments. It would be useful to have more information on the status of the Uyghur language in schools and in the media in Xinjiang. These questions are often left unaddressed in the competing narratives.

    Whether China will be able to stabilize its restive western province remains to be seen.  Resentment among Uyghurs will continue to be fuelled by the influx of Han Chinese migrants especially in the cities.  This unchecked migration poses a linguistic and cultural challenge to the Uyghur presence. 

  For the foreseeable, those Uyghurs who wish to assert their rights must contend with a powerful central Chinese state for which  Xinjiang is a vital strategic asset. There is no sign of a limit to Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang or that Beijing will grant a greater degree of autonomy to the province. Nor has it shown much concern for environmental degradation in Xinjiang linked to cotton monoculture and exploitation of fossil fuels. The subterranean aquifers of the province are shrinking. Nature will set its own limit on the Xinjiang model of state driven development.

   I want now to take up the question of the obligations of the left in Canada and other imperialist countries.

   As socialists in the imperialist heartland, our principal obligation is to oppose the aggressive and predatory policy of our own ruling class. That is in line with a time-honoured principle of socialist internationalism, the policy of revolutionary defeatism, first formulated by Luxemburg, Lenin, Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean, James Conolly and other working class leaders during the First World War as the Second International was being torn apart.

   The charge of genocide in Xinjiang is one instance of the rising hysteria in the western media and political establishment in what has been termed a new cold war against Russia and now China. Canada’s hypocrisy was underscored by the discovery of mass graves of missing indigenous children at church run residential schools only weeks after the House of Commons voted to denounce China as a perpetrator of genocide.

   The truth is that genocidal policies directed at the Indigenous population were foundational in the construction of the white settler colonial states, United States, Canada and Australia. The same cannot be said of China, even if ethnic or national oppression exists, as in the case of the Uyghurs. But the charge of genocide is spurious.   

   We should oppose every effort to ramp up hostility towards China and generate a war-like atmosphere. This means opposing the trade war and sanctions and the detention and threatened extradition of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou.  We should be in the front ranks of those opposing anti-Asian racism and denouncing any pandering to this latent sentiment in the white settler colonial states of North America. This should be our main priority.

   The U.S and its imperialist allies are trying to counter China’s growing power internationally. Biden’s policy follows that of Trump, but with a liberal humanitarian gloss. Biden has replaced Trump’s bluster by projecting a “rules based international order” to which China must submit. Of course, the ‘rules’ are established and interpreted by Washington and its close allies, which include Canada, the UK and Australia.  China’s rather naïve response has been to champion the United Nations and ‘respect’ between sovereign states including reviving the slogan of peaceful coexistence, from the Soviet era.  Of course, the western media never talks about this. Instead, China is painted in the darkest and most menacing of shades.   

   But should we not line up with the western humanitarian left who are disturbed by the plight of the Uyghurs and want to rush to their defense? As Owen Jones put it in an opinion piece in The Guardian: “we should not sacrifice oppressed Muslims on the altar of geopolitics.”

   In a penetrating critique, former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, notes that Owen’s argument is seductive, but dangerous. It risks providing a left cover for western imperialism’s main game, which is to demonize and isolate anyone who presents a challenge to its political and economic domination.

  Anti-imperialist politics cannot be centered on a perennial search for the moral high ground. Self-righteousness and ‘virtue signalling’ are no substitute for finding the most effective way to discredit and undermine the aggressive foreign policy of our own rulers and stop their present-day wars or those they may precipitate in the future. In other words, it is necessary to concentrate on the underlying disease, and not on this or that morbid symptom.

   Cook points out that the anti-war and socialist left cannot control how its support for humanitarian causes is understood by the broader public. We have nothing like the capacity of the corporate and western state media to shape public opinion.  

   Experience shows that naïve arguments that seek balance between what seem like two unsavoury alternatives can be quickly co-opted into a cover for the richer and more powerful side, leading to another savage act of imperialist aggression and war. We saw that in Iraq and Libya and in Syria with devastating consequences and before that in the bombing of Serbia.  A part of the left became obsessed with autocrats like Hussein, Ghaddafi and Assad or Milosevic and lost sight of the bigger picture. In China, the stakes are that much higher, not excluding the possibility of a nuclear confrontation. We want to avoid giving, even obliquely, a stamp of approval to the confrontational course set by our rulers.

   Anti-imperialist and anti-war activism must move beyond good intentions and reflect on where we can have the most beneficial impact.  We can acknowledge injustice or repression in China and Russia but we are not in a position to influence politics in those countries.  Our task is to concentrate our small forces here in the imperialist heartland with the aim of mobilizing broad layers of the population who, whatever their views on the regime in China, do not want war and will come to oppose the belligerent policies of our rulers. That will require particular attention to exposing the humanitarian posturing of politicians like Justin Trudeau or Joe Biden.

   We should vigorously contest the anti-Chinese and anti-Russian demagogy of the West.  But we cannot hope to build an anti-war and anti-imperialist movement by simply echoing the talking points of Beijing or Moscow. Exposing western arrogance, bullying and hypocrisy is a top priority.  At the same time, we must maintain our political independence for reasons of both principle and expediency. We wish to build the broadest anti-intervention and anti-war movement possible. That means bringing together persons and organizations with differing views about the nature of the regimes targeted by the world’s most powerful capitalist states, but who are united in their opposition to western aggression and war.

   We only need to look at the disagreements in the socialist and Marxist left about the nature of the Chinese state. Is China capitalist or does it retain aspects of a transitional society not yet fully capitalist? And if China is capitalist, is it also imperialist?  Clarification of these differences is important, but is the topic for another discussion.  I do not think it changes an approach to the Uyghur question.

   My own sympathies are with the minority view in the Marxist left that China is not fully capitalist, let alone imperialist.  I hasten to add that my organization, Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste, does support the analysis that China is capitalist. For me, this is not an issue of principle but rather one of analysis, to be clarified in the fullness of time.

   In summary, in my opinion, there is a case to be made for the ethnic or national oppression of the Uyghur people of China, but not that they are victims of genocide.

   A further point is that the resolution of Uyghur grievances does not lie in an alliance with imperialism, nor in an appeal to liberal and social democratic opinion in the west. The danger is that Uyghurs who seek change will be pushed into the arms of imperialism. There are many examples of oppressed nations allying with western powers who use them for their own short-term interests before ultimately abandoning them.

   Rather, the fate of the Uyghurs is tied to social and political developments inside China as a whole. The western powers are vainly trying to return China to its subordinate position in the global capitalist order. The Uyghurs have nothing to gain from being a pawn in Washington’s game. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party has not, and will not, be able keep the lid on social unrest and class struggle including agitation by oppressed minorities within its borders.

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Sources for this presentation:

“The Xinjiang Problem”, Graham E. Fuller and S. Frederick Starr, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, School of Advance International Studies. Johns Hopkins University.

“China’s Uyghur Repression”, David Brophy, Jacobin, May 2018.

“Xinjiang: a report and resource compilation”, Qiao Collective, Monthly Review on Line, 21 Sept 2020.

Open letter to Monthly Review on Xinjiang and the Qiao Collective, Critical China Scholars,  19 Oct 2020.

“The Right condemns China over Its Uighur abuses. The Left must do so too”, Owen Jones, The Guardian, Jan 21. 2021

“The ‘Humanitarian’ Left Still Ignores the Lessons of Iraq, Libya and Syria to Cheer on More War”, Jonathan Cook, Counterpunch, 27 Jan 2021.