Xinjiang: China’s apartheid state

    Crackdown on Muslim population with 100,000s sent to prison camps

    Adam N. Lee

    Eyewitness reports coming from Xinjiang give a horrifying picture of the ‘Communist’ Party (CCP) regime’s repression against the mainly Muslim Uighurs and other non-Han ethnic groups such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who collectively make up 60 percent of the territory’s population. Hundreds of thousands have been sent to detention camps for “re-education”. This is a stark warning to the nascent workers’ movement in China, and the left, of the repressive trajectory of the dictatorship under Xi Jinping.

    Racist policies

    Xinjiang, half the size of India, is China’s main energy producing region and a launch pad for Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Central Asia and the Middle East. It is also the regime’s number one testing ground for repression, combining a full-scale military crackdown with the latest hi-tech surveillance and monitoring systems.

    The CCP’s rule in Xinjiang is now openly racist and Islamophobic, to a much greater degree than before. Indeed during the Mao era, despite dictatorial top-down rule, there were some quite progressive policies including affirmative action and an increase in educational resources for non-Han ethnic groups like the Turkic-speaking Uighurs. This seems incredible today, with the Uighur language not only prohibited in secondary schools and the government sector, but at all levels of education in some parts of Xinjiang.

    “Xinjiang has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalised racism on the order of South African apartheid,” says historian Rian Thum (New York Times, 15 May 2018).

    Uighurs and other Muslims are treated as second-class citizens and openly discriminated. This was long the case in the labour market and education system, but now their lifestyle, culture and religious customs are the target of a severe crackdown in the name of fighting terrorism, despite the fact that freedom of religion is written into China’s constitution. Fasting, refusing alcohol, “abnormal” beards, going to the mosque other than on a Friday, are all branded as “extremist behaviour” by the authorities. 29 “extreme Islamic” names are banned for newborn children.

    That capitalist governments around the world – from Trump with his ‘Muslim Ban’ to the new racist and populist government in Italy – use islamophobia and “terrorist” branding of Muslims to create division and further their own right-wing agendas is also a boon, in propaganda terms, to the CCP and its crackdown in Xinjiang.

    Police state

    For decades, and especially since ethnic riots in 2009, Xinjiang has seen numerous ‘strike hard’ campaigns launched from Beijing, with the aim of suppressing nationalism, and more recently terrorism and ‘religious extremism’. Xinjiang’s security budget has increased ten-fold from 2007 to 2017. Since 2016, this process has gone into overdrive with the appointment of hardline CCP boss Chen Quanguo to run the territory.

    More than 7,000 ‘convenience’ police stations have been built across Xinjiang to support a ‘grid-management system’ of surveillance and control, with cities divided into squares encompassing around 500 people, each served by a police station. Including low-paid auxiliary officers, police numbers have exploded since Chen took control. Last year alone, an additional 32,000 police officers were recruited.

    Chen, whose previous posting was Tibet, was sent to pacify Xinjiang. In fact, while outwardly ‘successful’ these policies will reap a whirlwind of hatred and resentment towards the Chinese state. This will enormously complicate Beijing’s BRI plan, in which Muslim-majority countries make up 40 percent, and will of course be exploited by US imperialism and right-wing politicians in other countries. They previously ignored the plight of the Uighurs, but will now draw attention to these horrors as a lever in their geostrategic tug-of-war against China and its overseas ambitions.

    Chen Quanguo’s rule is like that of Hong Kong’s former ruler CY Leung, but multiplied to the power of 100. Leung’s aggressive anti-democratic policies radicalised the younger generation as never before, earning him the nickname the “father of Hong Kong independence”. While unprecedented repression – mild by Xinjiang standards – has for now pushed back the threat posed by Hong Kong’s poorly organised localist (pro-independence) groups, the gap between the government and the masses, especially the younger generation, has never been wider.

    Recent visitors to Xinjiang report armed police checkpoints everywhere, every 200 metres in some cases, with Muslims forced to queue and be searched while Han Chinese are waved through. In Hotan, in the Uighur heartland of southwestern Xinjiang, a reporter for The Economist described the scene at one checkpoint:

    “Their identity cards are scanned, photographs and fingerprints of them are taken, newly installed iris-recognition technology peers into their eyes. Women must take off their headscarves. Three young Uighurs are told to turn on their smartphones and punch in the passwords. They give the phones to a policeman who puts the devices into a cradle that downloads their contents for later analysis.” (Economist, 31 May 2018).

    The Uighurs are being used as a gigantic test group for mass collection of DNA, blood samples and other biometric data, which the regime is using to perfect its police state machinery. Police spyware must be installed in every mobile phone belonging to a Uighur. Wifi equipment in all public places can detect phones that don’t have this spying app. Random police searches on the streets also enforce this law. To possess a phone without the spying app is a serious offence. Such methods can be exported to other parts of China in the future.


    A mass incarceration and indoctrination campaign (“transformation through education”) has led to hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims being held in camps. Viewing foreign websites, receiving phone calls from abroad, praying regularly, or growing a beard, are all ‘suspicious activities’ that could result in detention.

    The construction of new camps has surged since early 2017. Despite official denials, research and reporting by foreign media and rights groups offers credible evidence of the scale of the camps. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch says the overall number in the camps could be 800,000 (Xinjiang’s population is 22 million people).

    German researcher Adrian Zenz has produced a lengthy report on the camps, which estimates the numbers interred at between several hundred thousand and just over one million. His report states:

    “The latter figure is based on a leaked document from within the region’s public security agencies, and, when extrapolated to all of Xinjiang, could indicate a detention rate of up to 11.5 percent of the region’s adult Uyghur and Kazakh population… It is therefore possible that Xinjiang’s present re-education system exceeds the size of the entire former Chinese re-education through labour [laojiao] system.”

    Camp inmates are made to participate in drills and self-criticism sessions, watch propaganda videos and sing patriotic songs especially praising Xi Jinping. Those who denounce religion, their own family and friends, fellow inmates, are rewarded, while the less cooperative are punished. Local officials have defended this unprecedented crackdown using terms such as “eradicating tumours” and “spraying crops to kill weeds”.

    Political time bomb

    Rather than create ‘stability’, the construction of an unprecedented racist police state in Xinjiang amounts to a political time bomb. From Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to South Africa’s white-minority dictatorship in the past, such brutal methods inevitably at some point call forth mass revolt. But revolt needs a strategy and programme to go forward. What kind of struggle is needed to defeat a racist and brutal regime?

    The methods of terrorism, which may have attracted a small minority of desperate Uighur youth in the past, have been shown to be a dead end. These methods have always and everywhere handed a propaganda gift to oppressive regimes, allowing them to increase repression and sow confusion among the masses – the only force that can achieve real change.

    The struggle of oppressed minorities also needs a strategy to win the sympathy and solidarity of the working class and youth of the dominant ethnic group, who also suffer extreme exploitation, a precarious economic existence, and the crushing of democratic rights.

    Socialists stress the need to oppose racism and religious persecution by building a united movement of workers and youth of all ethnic groups against capitalism and authoritarian rule.