In Xinjiang, one becomes very accustomed to the adage, “Big Brother is watching you,” except replace Big Brother with President Xi. Xinjiang is a surveillance state; it relies on the grid-management system, where cities are divided into squares of approximately 500 people. Police survey the square by installing checkpoints and cameras at every bank, school, gas station and mosque to collect Uyghurs’ biometric data. Facial recognition technology is implanted everywhere to facilitate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when they arbitrarily detain Uyghurs for behaviors deemed “pre-criminal,” such as growing a beard or speaking to someone in a Muslim-dominant foreign country.
Big Brother Xi does more than just watch you. He mandates intrauterine devices (IUDs) for Uyghur women as part of Xinjiang’s targeted eugenics campaign. As I previously wrote, Uyghur women must undergo quarterly gynecological check-ups to ensure the IUD is still implanted to maintain one’s ‘trustworthy’ status on the CCP’s list. Xi has inculcated every aspect of Uyghur life in Xinjiang — he’s replaced texts of the Quran with CCP socio-political objectives, destroyed 16,000 mosques (65% total) and instituted mass detention camps, where inmates are forced to chant, “Long Live Xi Jinping.”
Why is Xi going to massive lengths to commit what the United States has described as “genocide and crimes against humanity” and suffer consumer boycotts from H&M, Zara and Nike? Most evidently, China believes it’s well justified in preventing separatism and religious extremism, such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement. After 9/11, the CCP claimed it would crack down and criminalize the “Three Evils” — terrorism, extremism, and separatism — no matter the cost. In 2009, Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi experienced protests and violent clashes. In 2014, a knife attack and bombing occurred in Urumqi and was deemed a terrorist attack by the CCP — another inflection point for justifying their punitive behavior to prevent ethnic unrest. China believes Xinjiang is the vector for political infection from transnational jihadists and erects a counterterrorism narrative as justification for “preventive repression.”
Also evident, Xinjiang province is a key area in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which accounts for the majority of China’s petroleum, coal and natural gas. Xinjiang also produces around ⅕ of the world’s cotton, supplying about 83 companies via forced labor.
However, these explanations don’t fully answer the question: Why is Xi going to these massive lengths given the tremendous opportunity costs? Because the impunity from countries and corporations won’t continue forever. I believe there are many more constituents to the narrative, beginning with China’s dynastic era.
First, the Xi Jinping Thought. Xi’s plan for “The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” was embedded into the preamble of China’s Constitution in 2012. But, beyond just a 14 point blueprint to prevent the CCP from dissolving like the Soviet Union, it’s a symbol of something more — a return to a Mao-like cult of personality as well as universalism.
During China’s dynastic era, there was no conception of a nation-state. The dynasty believed in the concept of “All Under Heaven 天下,” perceiving other states (like Uyghur and Hui Muslims) as barbarians through their ethnic Han lens of superiority. Concerning Xi’s cult of personality, he believes he can control China as former emperors did. He believes any challenge to him is a challenge to the CCP and vice versa; loyalty to the country must mean loyalty to the regime. Under Xi, China is now a civilizational state, a unique civilization in its own right, and everyone that is a part of it must pledge full allegiance to it. The individual is subordinate to the state.
Second, however, to maintain his Great Rejuvenation, a cult of personality and the civilizational state trifecta, I believe that Xi thinks he cannot be undermined by any variable — because that trifecta is also contingent on the nationalism of Chinese citizens. As said in George Orwell’s 1984, it’s not enough to obey Big Brother Xi. Chinese citizens must also love him.
Contrary to what many think, China is not a unitary actor in policy. China’s authoritarian state is not synonymous with centralized policymaking but rather a kind of fragmented authoritarianism. Xi has to adjudicate between subnational actors: state-owned enterprises, PLA (People’s Liberation Army), its 31 provinces and the competing interests of its bureaucracy — often affecting the formulation and implementation of policy. These actors’ opinions and public opinion matter because nationalism ensures regime legitimacy. China cannot afford to look weak. If Chinese citizens and netizens display widespread dissatisfied sentiments, it affects the party’s ability to govern effectively. This is why Xi homogenizes textbooks to include the Xi Jinping Thought or to highlight U.S. democracy as politically deadlocked and inefficient.
Xi’s far-reaching breach of human rights in Xinjiang is to enforce regime legitimacy and prove that he has absolute control even in China’s most Northeast autonomous province. If Xi can effectively control Xinjiang and maintain absolute stability in a region that is perceived as having rampant separatism and violence, he can convince every subnational actor and citizen that he can deliver on his ambitious agenda: control of the South China Sea, Taiwan, Tibet, Macau, and Hong Kong. It’s a power play to enforce that he is sovereign and will implement his political dogma for creating a socialist society with Chinese characteristics.
Nationalism is a salient bargaining chip in China. It allows for the blind defense of a country’s policies, beginning at sinicizing religion and ending at 1.5 million Uyghurs in internment camps — all in the name of national self-determination. An increase in ethnonationalism begets an increase in minority repression.
Xi’s unequivocal vision of sinicizing Xinjiang will not end. Looking forward, the international community cannot confirm China’s false narrative of characterizing the issue through a counterterrorism framework. Xi knows what he’s doing. He knows that this framing can absolve him of the full extent of international pressure. Countries need to stop giving Xi a quasi-moral blank check. In June of 2021, at the UN Human Rights Council session, 65 countries sided with Beijing, defending its counterterrorism policies, and only 44 countries signed a statement raising concerns about Xinjiang.
Further, for there to be unmuted and unpolarized global governance, countries need to understand the full extent of Xi’s actions, not just his inflated and misperceived terrorist threats. If countries look at the curriculum in detention camps, they’ll understand it’s not just in good faith to deradicalize terrorists or for securitization. Uyghurs are inculcated with CCP propaganda, learn Chinese characters, and sing patriotic songs. Simply having friends of citizens from certain countries deems an Uyghur suspicious and a target for the detention center.
Collection action of the international community, whether it’s threatening to boycott the Winter Olympics or threatening sanctions, ultimately won’t change Xi’s mind. However, it could prevent further escalation of increased extrajudicial detentions, more intensive ideological indoctrination, and human rights abuses. Countries like Thailand need to stop the repatriation of Uyghurs that escape for asylum because it enforces that what China is doing is legal and moral. The United States should emphasize its advocacy for human rights by sanctioning countries and corporations that assist Xinjiang’s surveillance and consider rejoining the UN Human Rights Council. Though it will not dramatically shift Xi’s efforts, America’s stance increases support to countries wondering which side of the pendulum they should be on — denouncing the CCP’s efforts or remaining complicit.
If countries fail to act differently and fail to amend their complacent stance, China will be cemented as an absolute, draconian architect in an era of multipolarity and forcefully expand Han dominance across Asia. Xinjiang is only a stepping stone in Xi’s master plan and only the first of many other instances that should make us all alarmed.