Playing into imperialist hands
Foppe de Haan seems to have been taken in by the campaign to demonise China, argues Daniel Lazare
In his article last week1 Foppe de Haan has a problem with what I wrote last month2 about US charges that China is engaged in genocide against 12 million members of the Turkic Uyghur minority in its western province of Xinjiang.
Curiously, it has nothing to do with my argument that the charges are overblown nonsense based on dubious sources and “shifting and inconsistent” evidence. To the contrary, comrade de Haan quite agrees. He writes:
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 [Lazare] that the capitalist countries are promoting this narrative for the usual reasons, via the usual avenues (eg, the National Endowment for Democracy).
No, de Haan’s complaint is not about genocide, but about the fact that I had anything positive to say at all about Chinese government educational programmes aimed at expanding job opportunities and better integrating a previously neglected province into the larger economy. Any such argument is “unhelpful”, de Haan says, because it “paints over underlying issues” concerning how the Communist Party of China is “cynically using the fact that a small part of the Uyghur population has been ‘radicalised’ … as an excuse to forcibly retrain and relocate Uyghurs”.
Since the CPC has “no real interest in dealing with the problem of Han chauvinism”, as de Haan puts it, then even something as ostensibly benign as job training winds up replicating and reinforcing it. The government may “teach them [the Uyghurs] a ‘modern language’ (ie, Mandarin) and enrol them in civics classes (focused on teaching ‘respect’ and ‘patriotism’ for the state and its legal system)”. But the results are oppressive all the same. Efforts aimed at purposely undermining Uyghur culture are not the same as physical genocide, but they are bad enough.
But is this really what is going on?
De Haan’s main source is an article entitled ‘Spirit-breaking’, by Adam Hunerven, which ran last September in an online journal called Chuǎng.3 He finds it so convincing that he urges followers of the Weekly Worker “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”. His article then quotes six paragraphs, some 440 words in all, in which Hunerven assails China for not “acknowledging the centrality of native sovereignty in the Uyghur homeland throughout its history” and for “emphasis[ing] ‘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’ … 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 … increasingly they experience high levels of fear.
‘Liberation’ is just another word for old-fashioned imperial subjugation - or so the Hunerven/de Haan narrative goes as well. But, while ‘Spirit-breaking’ is certainly interesting, it is not in the way de Haan thinks. Rather than an exposé, it is a textbook example of the ultra-liberal sensibilities that the United States is mobilising as part of its anti-China campaign. Now that the ‘yellow peril’ has gone out of fashion, the US has had to come up with a new a line of attack - one that assails the People’s Republic for not living up to the lofty ethical standards that America supposedly espouses. The result is a double win, in which the US position winds up morally enhanced, while China is demonised in terms of world opinion.
Hunerven shows how it is done. His article opens with a description of a young Uyghur man named Alim, whom the author encountered in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2014:
He was a tall, quiet young man, who had come to the city looking for better opportunities. Critical of many of the rural people with whom he had grown up, he saw them as lacking capitalist ambition and an understanding of the broader Muslim world. But he was even more critical of the systemic, ongoing issues that had pushed Uyghurs into migrant labour and limited their access to Islamic knowledge. There were far too few economic opportunities and far too many religious and political restrictions in the rural areas of north-west China, he explained.
Since the beginning of the most recent ‘hard-strike campaigns’ that led up to the implementation of the ‘People’s War on Terror’ (renmin fankong zhanzheng) in May 2014, many people in the countryside had reached a new level of despair and hopelessness. Alim told me: “If suicide was not forbidden in Islam many people would choose this as a way out.” After praying in the mosque he often saw men crying in each others’ arms - the promise of future redemption matched by the brokenness they felt in their own lives. “Have you seen The hunger games?” he asked. “It feels just like that to us.” But it was hard for him to put into words what, exactly, this felt like. He was grasping for a cultural script with which to contextualise the devastating feeling of being so powerless.
Exhibit A in terms of Chinese oppression, according to ‘Spirit-breaking’, turns out to be an Islamist who thinks his fellow Uyghurs are lazy and unambitious and whose main criticism of the government is that it limits access to “Islamic knowledge”, which today invariably means Saudi-style Wahhabi jihadism. Hunerven feels Alim’s pain. But should the rest of us feel it as well? Or should we feel a measure of relief that Alim’s powerlessness means that he and his co-thinkers are unable to plunge Xinjiang into a holy war like the one in neighbouring Afghanistan?
The article continues:
Once, meeting Alim in a park, he said that a relative stationed at a prison near Alim’s hometown had told him what was happening there. Over the past few months many young Uyghur women who had previously worn reformist Islamic coverings had been arrested and sentenced to five to eight years in the prison as religious ‘extremists’ who harboured ‘terrorist’ ideologies. As he spoke, Alim’s lower lip trembled. He said the Uyghur and Han prison guards had repeatedly raped these young women, saying that if they did this “they didn’t miss their wives at home”.
Many Uyghurs repeated such claims. They described beatings, torture, disappearances and everyday indignities that they and their families suffered at the hands of the state. At times these stories seemed to be partial truths, but many times the level of detail and the emotional feeling that accompanied these stories made them feel completely true. Part of the widespread psychological damage that Alim mentioned above, came precisely from hearing about such things in an atmosphere that makes all kinds of atrocities possible. Even if the individual claim might be false in some instances, the particular type of violence it describes was probably occurring nonetheless, or it would soon.
Are such tales partially true, partially untrue, or what? What does Hunerven mean when he says that even though a horror tale is false, it is psychologically damaging because it seems true and might soon prove true as well? In 1990, people were horrified when, in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl known only as Nayirah regaled US congressmen with tales of invading Iraqi soldiers looting hospital incubators and dumping premature babies on the floor. The emotions that such stories aroused were also real. Yet Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and her testimony was eventually revealed as a lie cooked up by the US public-relations giant, Hill and Knowlton.
The same goes for booby-trapped toys that Soviet soldiers tossed out of helicopters in order to kill and mangle Afghan children in the 1980s. Those stories were also felt true because, as we all know, nothing is too bestial for those wicked Soviets. But even though they were picked up by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones magazine, Human Rights Watch and others, they turned out to be lies designed to drum up support for CIA-backed jihadis seeking to topple the Soviet-backed government in Kabul - the same jihadis who would later topple the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.4
A fact, in other words, is not something that seems true, feels true or might even prove true at some later date. It is something that is true right now. Hunerven’s attempts to dance around this basic principle are absurd. Yet not only does de Haan swallow it hook, line and sinker: he urges his fellow socialists to do so as well.
But wait - it gets worse. While de Haan rejects the anti-Chinese genocide campaign, he apparently does not notice that Hunerven’s article relies on Adrian Zenz - the German ultra-rightist, who is the campaign’s chief architect - for two of its most important claims: ie, that “a police state has rapidly taken form in Xinjiang” and that “an estimated one million men and women had been sent to the ‘transformation through education’ centres that had been built across the region” (see footnotes 38 and 41).
If Zenz is unreliable when it comes to genocide, how can he be reliable when it comes to police-state tactics and mass incarceration? If de Haan had taken five minutes to Google Hunerven’s name, he would have discovered that it is a pseudonym for a young American academic named Darren Byler - an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose views align perfectly with those of the US state department under Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken.5
Elsewhere, Byler thus writes that “it is crucial that US policymakers strive to work with partner nations and civil society to build a global coalition that stands for the civil and human rights of unprotected citizens in China and opposes authoritarian statecraft in general”.6 In an interview a few months ago with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington’s top foreign-policy think tank, he said:
We need to have greater coalition-building with European states, with the G-10, with states in the global south to take a stand … By putting moratoriums on trade coming from the US to these places [ie, Xinjiang], I think that is the first and best approach. But it’s not enough.7
So ‘Spirit-breaking’ is a small but not insignificant part of a global campaign aimed at isolating Beijing and putting it on the defensive. Washington has scads of ‘Darren Bylers’ at its disposal - bright and shining young academics and journalists, who are desperate to enter America’s bloated foreign-policy establishment and willing to do or say anything to gain a perch. But, instead of exposing ‘Spirit-breaking’ as the warmongering nonsense it is, de Haan ‘red-washes’ it by giving it a pseudo-left gloss and then passing it along to his comrades in arms.
There is a lot to unpack in this episode. If anti-racism has become “part of the legitimating ideology of the bourgeoisie”, as Paul Demarty recently observed,8 then the super-sensitive liberalism of people like Byler has as well. If truth no longer matters in any straightforward sense, then it is not only Donald Trump who benefits, but liberal Democrats, who are far more skilful when it comes to the concentrated mendacity that US propaganda represents. If do-gooders can be made to sympathise with an Islamist who uses rumours and innuendo to curry American support, then they can be made to sympathise with the military build-up currently underway in the western Pacific or the provocative shows of force that have become the US norm in the South China Sea.
This can also be used to blind people to America’s own hypocrisy. While Hunerven/Byler lambasts China for putting a million Uyghurs behind bars, the fact is that the US imprisons twice that number - 2.2 million people in all as of 2016 - with another 4.5 million under close government supervision by virtue of being on probation or parole. Roughly half have been locked up for non-violent offences, most stemming from the ‘war on drugs’ that Richard Nixon initiated in 1971 for reasons that could not have been more racist.9 As a top Nixon aide named John Erlichman explained two decades later, it was all about stirring up popular hostility against black people and the anti-war movement:
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.10
Yet the current US administration now has the temerity to accuse China of behaving in a racist manner toward the Uyghurs. As Joe ‘No Malarkey’ Biden might put it himself, “C’mon, man, give me a break!”
‘Examining underlying issues’ Weekly Worker April 1.↩︎
‘Uyghurs: why now?’ Weekly Worker March 18.↩︎
A Hunerven, ‘Spirit-breaking: capitalism and terror in north-west China’: chuangcn.org/journal/two/spirit-breaking.↩︎
quora.com/Did-the-USSR-really-drop-toys-filled-with-explosives-on-Afghanistan. See also R Braithwaite Afghantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 Oxford 2011, pp234-33.↩︎
csis.org/node/58909. Quote starts at 20:00.↩︎
‘Anti-racism as a straitjacket’ Weekly Worker April 1.↩︎