Uyghurs in front of UN building in New York

Examining underlying issues

Obviously, there is no genocide going on in China, but we must conduct our own research into what is happening in Xinjiang, urges Foppe de Haan

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Lazare correctly dismissed allegations of Uyghur ‘genocide’ (‘Uyghurs: why now?’, March 18).

We are all aware of how the US will weaponise and even create ‘human rights’ situations in order to further its goals, and that it has engaged in such actions almost constantly since World War II. As such, I obviously agree with him that the capitalist countries are promoting this narrative for the usual reasons, via the usual avenues (eg, the National Endowment for Democracy). Nevertheless, I found comrade Lazare’s contribution unhelpful, because of how it paints over underlying issues that are very much worth talking about - they both affect the proletariat locally and illustrate the under-theorisation of certain issues related to revolution and the building of socialism and communism.

Lazare writes: “[The Chinese Communist Party’s] general aim in Xinjiang seems clear: to foster economic growth, provide jobs and education, and integrate the Uyghurs into Chinese society overall.” And, rather flippantly, he writes that, if the CPC’s aim was indeed genocide, then “it must be one of the most inept political parties in modern history, since what it is achieving is the opposite: ie, strong population growth, coupled with government-led economic growth.”

Now obviously, there is no “genocide” as such going on. Why would the CPC do such a thing? What China as a state needs - especially now that its population is ageing - is a constant stream of new, skilled workers to fill its factories. And what it has in Xinjiang is a province that, firstly, has become vastly more important with the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road initiative - as the ‘belt’ runs right through the province, thereby forcing the CPC to stop neglecting it. Secondly, the province is filled to the brim with what the CPC and Han Chinese consider ‘backward’ non-Han peoples, who are Muslim to boot (although the latter is rather less important to them than the ethnic and cultural divides between Han and other peoples). And, thirdly, it is a province whose population has been restive since at least the 1990s, and which has been treated as largely irrelevant by the Communist Party when it comes to encouraging self-emancipation.

The ‘Xinjiang problem’, then, is something to be addressed. And the CPC is Han-dominated, but has never really addressed the issues that flow from that. As such their solution will most likely involve quite a bit of cultural and demographic homogenisation of the type engaged in by every empire since at least the Romans. The Chinese are basically using the same carrot-and-stick approach. That said, since they have state control, since they are fairly serious in their effort to attain the United Nations ‘Millennium Development Goals’1 and since they wish to avoid bad PR, the most logical way to go about this is to offer the Uyghur part of the population vocational training, teach them a ‘modern language’ (ie, Mandarin) and enrol them in civics classes (focused on teaching ‘respect’ and ‘patriotism’ for the state and its legal system).2


As we all know, China has been quite busy since at least the 1980s in pushing its population off the land and into the cities and factories. To its ‘credit’, it appears to have done so at a slightly more balanced pace and lower ‘exploitation level’ than the European countries did a few centuries ago.

Still, in order to grow its industrial output, it has engaged in an absolutely massive programme of de facto land enclosure and/or expropriation, for the dual purpose of developing and building entire new industries and urban regions, and forcing people into those places. This process has been tempered since 2008 by the decision to launch similarly huge infrastructural projects aimed at creating domestic markets, and improving the living conditions of the whole of the population, to attain the relevant UN Millennium Goals.

The demographic effect of these efforts has been the proletarianisation of large swathes of the population, at an enormously high rate. And it seems to me that the CPC wants to do the same thing with the Uyghur population - cynically using the fact that a small part of the Uyghur population has been ‘radicalised’ (very likely partly spurred on by veterans from the CIA’s ‘Operation Cyclone’ programme3) as an excuse to forcibly retrain and relocate Uyghurs.

At this point, I would quote at some length from an article by Adam Hunerven, called ‘Spirit breaking’. I would encourage comrades to read this in full, as it goes into the issues surrounding settlerism and colonialism, as well as explaining what life in Xinjiang is and has been like.4 It seems to me that the problems with mass migration and (in China’s case ‘internal’) settlerism and colonialism are still not very well understood or appreciated by the left - not least because the two major successful revolutions took place in former empires, both of which would be faced with the question how to treat ethnic minorities within their borders.

Hunerven writes:

In official accounts of its rule of Chinese central Asia, the Chinese state positions itself as the inheritor of an empire that is over 2,000 years old. Although the 19th century Chinese name for Chinese central Asia (Xinjiang or ‘New Frontier’) belies this history, the state nevertheless describes the Uyghur homeland of contemporary southern Xinjiang as an inalienable part of the nation.

In official histories, the intermittent presence of military outposts administered by the progenitors of the contemporary Han ethnic majority - first during the Han dynasty and then centuries later in the Tang and centuries later again in the Qing - lends a feeling of continuity of rule across the millennia. In these histories the fact that the region spent nearly 1,000 years outside of the control of Chinese empires is unacknowledged. These state histories do not acknowledge the fact that state-sponsored migration of people identified as Han from Henan, Shandong, Zhejiang and elsewhere did not reach more than five percent of the population of the region until the 1950s.

It is rarely mentioned that Xinjiang was not named an official province-level territory until 1884, following what in the Uyghur oral tradition is referred to as a “massacre” of native Muslims by a general from Hunan named Zuo Zongtang and his armies. These Muslims, the ancestors of contemporary Uyghurs, had attempted to regain their sovereignty in the 1820s and 1860s, much like they would again in the 1930s and 1940s.

Instead of acknowledging the centrality of native sovereignty in the Uyghur homeland throughout its history, in its narration of Xinjiang’s history the contemporary Chinese state emphasises “the liberation” of the Uyghurs and other native groups by the People’s Liberation Army in the 1940s …

Since the 1949 revolution - so the self-valorising narrative goes - Uyghur society has entered into a tight harmony with their Han “older brothers”. Their solidarity in shared socialist struggle is said to have resulted in ever-increasing levels of happiness and “progress”. Uyghurs and the 10 million Han settlers who have arrived since 1949 are said to share a great deal of equality and “ethnic solidarity” (minzu tuanjie). Yet only minorities are thought to possess “ethnic characteristics” (minzu tese). Both the sophisticated Han liberators and the “ethnics” (minzu) are described as happy citizens of the thriving nation.

Of course, despite this rhetoric of economic liberation and harmonious multiculturalism, all is clearly not well between Uyghurs and the state. In fact, since almost the very beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Uyghurs have experienced diminishing levels of power and autonomy relative to Han settlers, and, as Alim’s stories demonstrate, increasingly they experience high levels of fear.

Ethnic strife

Now as a Marxist, I obviously believe in open borders. This is not about that, though, but about the roles of state and party.

The first question this raises for me is to what extent a (revolutionary) government should encourage or sponsor mass migration to ‘underdeveloped’ regions (especially if this is taken up by the dominant ethnic group). Second, imagine we gain control over an empire as a revolutionary communist party. Given the historical distrust that will likely still exist, how much should we - or could we - make use of state organs versus building a party/movement to push for self-emancipation in all regions, especially those that previously lacked any kind of proletariat as such (due to hyper-exploitation or what have you)?

The CPC’s answer to this, besides pushing settlerism, appears to be proletarianising and dispersing the minority group - after teaching them mandarin, ‘respect for the state’, a few marketable skills and so on. While ‘official’ communists, Maoists, liberals and conservatives may defend this, it is obviously the wrong way to go about it - not just because the CPC never appears to have pushed for self-organisation among, by and with the Uyghurs, but also because it had no real interest in dealing with the problem of Han chauvinism. The CPC even devised policy on the basis of it by promoting mass migration to Xinjiang as desirable or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ posed by the existence of the Uyghurs as a distinct group. And now we have re-education and relocation, after the years-long, ‘low-intensity’ state terror campaign described by Hunerven, involving the mass abuse of women.

Yet, even though the above is horrendous enough, despite the fact it is nothing approaching ‘genocide’, it is worth noting that the capitalist nations must tell lies about and misrepresent what is going on here, for two reasons. First, one main way the imperialist countries - and especially the US - go about destroying nation-states is by promoting identity politics in the form of Balkanization, for which it is necessary to promote ethnic strife. Secondly, even though the actual reasons why this is happening are also problematic, they cannot come to light precisely because these policies do not meaningfully differ from those promoted by the capitalist class ever since the start of the enclosure movement. And so they must speak of ‘genocide’ or ‘cultural genocide’ of ‘Muslims’, rather than of how this is part and parcel of the usual capitalist process of indoctrination and proletarianisation to grow the industrial reserve army (even though they themselves have relatively recently killed and displaced millions of people in the Middle East and north Africa).

In closing, the main reason why the US has been so successful in promoting ethnic strife is that it is a theoretical and organisational issue that - like the ‘woman question’ - has been ignored for far too long. If we want to succeed in the future, we cannot let this continue to be the case; nor should we invoke or rely on productivist logic - trying to make the problems go away by offering ‘material improvement’ while removing autonomy.

While we certainly should not reproduce capitalist propaganda, given the results this tends to have, we do need to undertake our own research into where the smoke is coming from, whether we can help (though this strikes me as unlikely, given where the organised left is at today) and what we can learn from this.

  1. un.org/millenniumgoals.↩︎

  2. For more on this, see the useful 2019 State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China white paper (english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2019/03/18/content_281476567813306.htm); and the analysis of it by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) at cpiml.net/liberation/2020/08/chinas-concentration-camps-for-uyghurs-in-chinas-own-words.↩︎

  3. This is an effort that we should not forget China itself contributed to - very likely at least partly because the Uyghur population is uncomfortable with mass Han migration to the region and the changes associated with that.↩︎

  4. chuangcn.org/journal/two/spirit-breaking.↩︎