Xi Jinping's Xinjiang Paradox
An interview with Darren Byler on his latest book, In the Camps: China’s Hi-Tech Penal Colony
There are two Xinjiangs in the far western region of China today.
One is the land of detention camps, torture, and cultural cleansing. The other is the promised land of opportunities, growth, and social harmony.
A titanic clash between these two worlds has propelled what was once a dreamy, isolated region into global focus. Both are largely the creation of Xi Jinping after he became China’s top leader in 2012. But even Xinjiang’s vast geography of 1,665 million square kilometers—nearly seven times the size of the United Kingdom—may not be large enough to accommodate the full expanse of Xi’s contradictions.
Nearly two million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been held or are still being held inside the hundreds of detention camps created and operated by the Chinese government. For those not yet detained, mostly the region’s other 13 million indigenous Uyghur and Muslim inhabitants, life outside the camps has become the outdoor version of a hi-tech prison.
Escape from Xinjiang is still possible but increasingly difficult for the targeted. Travel even within what has been their own homeland for centuries is restricted by police checks, checkpoints, and surveillance cameras. Passports to exit the country altogether are tightly controlled commodities available only to those trusted by the regime.
Beijing denies the existence of this Xinjiang.
Its official version showcases contented Uyghurs, and Muslims of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Hui extractions who endorse the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for bringing economic development into what was once a neglected backwater region. Beijing sees its heavy hand and the growing presence of Han Chinese migrants as saving the indigenous peoples from falling to Islamic extremism.
According to anthropologist Darren Byler, Xinjiang now has some nine million Han who form nearly 40 percent of its population. Many have flocked to the resource-rich region from other parts of the country over the past three decades on promises of career and business opportunities.
They have come to Xinjiang, the land of opportunities and growth.
Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang Experiment
Byler’s latest book, In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, offers an anthropological capture of Xinjiang as the land of detention camps and enforced cultural evolution. Anthropology evokes 20th century images of disappearing tribes and lifestyles in the Amazon and Borneo, but the field itself has evolved to reflect today’s conditions and changed human landscape.
“There are no 'hidden' tribes left to study with the spread of technology and globalization,” Byler said in an interview over coffee in Vancouver, B.C., where he and his family have recently relocated from nearby Washington state.
Under the onslaught of European colonialism, many non-western societies and indigenous cultures have assimilated, evolved, or disappeared altogether over the course of decades and centuries of imperial domination.
Contemporary Xinjiang offers a dramatic—and literal—version of disappearing people and lifestyles.
As has been well documented, Chinese security agencies are snatching people off the streets and from their homes and workplaces and disappearing them into “re-education” camps as part of Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang Experiment.
It is China’s updated, smart-technology version of the residential school system operated by the Catholic Church and other churches in Canada in the last century to “re-educate” indigenous children to become more like their colonizers. In the Xinjiang camps, the length of detention and the type of “re-education” meted out depend on how well detainees respond to being “deradicalized”.
Right before our eyes, Xi wants the Uyghur identity gone and Islamic influence watered down. He wants Xinjiang’s indigenous peoples as well as China’s other ethnic groups to become more Han and less themselves so that he can create a strong united China. A crucial first step is for the country’s 56 ethnic groups to reduce the use of their mother tongues and adopt Mandarin as the main language of communication.
“The more young Uyghurs speak Chinese and learn the Chinese ways, the less they will know about their own culture, especially in the boarding schools,” said Byler, who was recruited by British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University as an assistant professor in international studies.
He is now part of the Xinjiang Documentation Project based jointly at the Institute for Asian Research’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs in the University of British Columbia, and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department at the Simon Fraser University.
Since 2017, as many as 1.5 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui have been put into these camps, which Byler describes as “the largest internment of a religious minority since World War Two”.
Beijing argues that its draconian methods are needed to combat the twin threats of separatism and terrorism, said Byler.
Yet, as he points out, the Chinese government has fuelled those very threats that it now fears.
The 1990s were a turning point when China took on the role of “factory of the world” to turbocharge its economy to make up for decades of stagnation under Communist rule. Xinjiang’s large oil and gas reserves and the advent of a nationwide infrastructure-building boom made the region both relevant and accessible to the rest of the country. Xinjiang’s ideal farming conditions also turned it into a world-class producer of cotton and tomatoes.
Xinjiang’s economy grew, but it came at a hefty price to the indigenous peoples. The enhanced settler migration of the 1990s brought about a new political economy as the state gave job and irrigation rights to the new Han arrivals.
“As in other colonial projects, the native peoples were largely excluded from the most lucrative aspects of the new economy,” Byler observed in his book.
Xinjiang became “the classic peripheral colony, catering to the needs of the metropoles in Shanghai and Shenzhen”. What the European powers did to their colonies in Asia, China was now doing to Xinjiang and its inhabitants.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) increasingly existed only in name as the expanding Han population, along with Beijing’s territorial integration program, diluted indigenous political power. As local resentment grew, Uyghur protesters began occupying government buildings, and using rifles and farming tools to clash with local police.
China’s War on Terror
After nearly two decades of simmering political and ethnic tensions in the region, the inevitable happened.
In July 2009, Uyghur and Han groups clashed with each other in a series of deadly battles in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital. A protest by Xinjiang University students against the lynching of Uyghur workers degenerated into retaliatory attacks that killed over 130 Han civilians and injured many more. Chinese police responded by firing live ammunition at the protesters as riots spread to other cities in Xinjiang.
Over the next few months, Chinese authorities launched a militarized campaign that disappeared thousands of Uyghurs, said Byler. But far from bringing peace to the region, it only fanned more violence and revenge attacks, leading to Uyghur suicide attacks against Han civilians in the cities of Beijing, Kunming, and Ürümqi in 2013 and 2014. These attacks played into the newly installed CCP chief’s belief that China needed a tough leader who would take a hardline response to threats to the country.
Xi had Chinese public opinion firmly on his side. Islamophobia had been building in China against the backdrop of the original War on Terror launched by President George W. Bush and his disastrous military invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Beijing seized upon the Bush administration’s talking points about Islamic terrorism to tighten control over Xinjiang which shares borders with eight countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Byler.
To justify turning Xinjiang into the world’s biggest detention centre, China argued that, like the West, it too was facing a terrorism threat. The leadership believed that China’s Muslim population, including its well-integrated Huis, was being radicalized.
As evidence, it cited the ethnic clashes in Xinjiang and other Chinese cities along with reports that Uyghur men were fighting alongside Islamic State militia in Syria and Iraq, and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
“The government’s narrative on (the situation in) Xinjiang began shifting from ethnic separatism to terrorism,” said Byler, who was on the ground in different phases to witness the changes over a 15-year period.
Arriving first as a tourist and photographer in 2003, he returned later to the region as a researcher in 2006. Four years later, he enrolled in Xinjiang University in Ürümqi to study the Uyghur language and to deepen his command of the Mandarin language that he had learned as an undergraduate in the United States. Byler is recognized as an expert on the impact of China’s policies on Uyghur and indigenous Muslim societies in Xinjiang.
“I saw a lot of changes in Xinjiang’s urban centres. Initially, the mood was positive. There was energy in the cities as modernity and growth were seen coming to Xinjiang,” he said.
“Many young Uyghurs saw the change as good for their careers. They were hopeful for the development of Xinjiang into a modern economy.”
Cellphones and the Internet had become popular, enabling Xinjiang’s inhabitants to connect with the world at large. The young learned about economic opportunities beyond their towns and cities. Chat groups opened up possibilities and created virtual communities and relationships that were unimaginable just a few years earlier.
A favourite subject was religion as Xinjiang’s numerous ethnic Muslim groups formed virtual communities to discuss issues and share information with people from around the world.
Ürümqi the ancient city was waking up to the idea of recapturing some of its past glories from the days of the old Silk Road.
Apart from his time living and working in Ürümqi, Byler said he made friends with Uyghur, Han, and various peoples while travelling on China’s trains.
“I was invited to visit and stay over at people’s homes. They wanted to practise English, and I was interested to learn about them and the region,” he said.
But amid the excitement over Ürümqi’s revival, state controls were also creeping in. The leadership began acting as if it saw similarities between China’s diverse Muslim groups and the war-hardened extremists of the Middle East.
Already in 2003, Byler noted the authorities were restricting where people could live and visit in Xinjiang.
“Civil servants and people under 18 were not allowed go to mosques,” he said, a clear sign of Beijing’s growing suspicion towards its Muslim citizens.
According to new document leaks, it was Xi who took it a step further by personally ordering the crackdown on the Uyghurs.
Once in power, he expanded the “extremist tendencies” list to include young men with beards, and people who frequented mosques, wore head scarves and prayed five times a day, or had downloaded religious content onto their cellphones.
Later, more Uyghurs “qualified” when the criteria expanded to cover those with a passport, had visited one of 26 countries deemed “sensitive”, had relatives in a foreign country, and home-schooled their children.
At the last count, security agencies had a checklist of 75 signs to screen people for what Byler calls “pre-crime” behaviour.
The strategy “rests on the assumption that most Uyghurs and significant numbers of Kazakhs are terrorists, separatists, and extremists-in-waiting”.
This pseudo-scientific method to weed out suspected religious extremists and predict future jihadists is a hallmark of Xi’s war on terror. It feeds off a giant database of people’s identities and their contacts constructed from data and images collected, often forcibly, by the state’s extensive surveillance system.
The frightening speed and scale of its implementation on Xinjiang’s 14-million Muslim population have been made possible by the heavy investment and political directive provide by the regime.
In his book, Byler interviewed and documented the suffering of many unfortunate individuals caught up in the Chinese state’s high-tech trawl nets.
How does the Chinese government explain its actions?
Apart from denying any Uyghur suffering and the existence of any detention camp, it points to the U.S. war on terror that has killed thousands of innocent Muslims and inflicted destruction on Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.
At a news conference in September 2020, officials from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government stated that Xinjiang’s inhabitants are far better off than Muslims in countries invaded by the United States.
“The U.S. waged wars under the flag of 'anti-terrorist' in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan,” said Mehmut Usman, XUAR’s director of ethnic affairs.
Another official told reporters to contrast conditions in those countries with Xinjiang where he said diverse ethnic groups have been able to “shake off poverty through hard work, grow their income, and share the benefits of development”.
Xi himself has defended his government’s methods as having brought peace and stability to the region.
Byler would have none of this “whataboutism” argument.
“The United States has done terrible things, but it is not an excuse for China to do the same,” he said.
Byler condemns all wars on terror for giving cover to governments around the world to trample on human rights in the name of national security. “This is not just a Chinese problem or phenomenon, but a global one.”
In his book, he cites the growing pervasive use of smart technology by governments to monitor and control people in various parts of the world.
“What is happening in northwest China is connected to camps at the southern border of the United States, digital control in Kashmir, and checkpoints in the West Bank,” he writes.
In short, the war on terror has become a universal tech-enabled global war on human rights. The main difference is that China has taken it to a whole new level with its scale and intensity.
Not unlike fascist ideologues who want a homogenous culture built on the belief in a strong race, Xi views diversity as a weakness. To him, diversity impedes the emergence of a unified country that requires a people, regardless of their backgrounds to share the same values, speak the same language, and swear allegiance to the CCP.
Xi’s focus on building a Han-based China may have influenced the recent shift in the discussion on Xinjiang from the war on terror to genocide.
In early 2021, the U.S. government and Canada’s House of Commons declared and condemned China’s treatment of its Uyghur population as "genocide".
Despite his criticism of China’s Xinjiang policies, Byler does not share that opinion. Genocide evokes Nazi Germany’s Holocaust that murdered some six million Jews during the Second World War.
“It is unhelpful to refer to it as a genocide. Rather, I would call it crimes against humanity,” he said.
Some aspects of the Xinjiang Experiment fit the definition of a genocide such as the forced separation of some 500,000 Uyghur children from their families for placement into residential schools.
But as yet, there have been no reports of the government committing, or even evidence of it intending to commit, mass murders in Xinjiang.
“For sure there have been some deaths in the Xinjiang camps, but those were due mostly due to neglect and poor health care. This is not to minimize the wrong, but it was unlike what happened in Auschwitz,” said Byler.
The genocide description has allowed Beijing to push back against its critics for “spreading lies” and exaggerating the situation in Xinjiang. Beijing’s claims are partially supported by the U.S. State Department lawyers, who have declared that the evidence of mass imprisonment and forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang point to crimes against humanity, but not genocide.
Some scholars are also concerned about the possible overuse of the word for fear it might lose its meaning if applied too loosely and frequently.
China has responded by releasing a series of documentaries produced by the state-owned media CGTN and propaganda videos by a handful of foreigners who deny the existence of detention camps in Xinjiang. Mostly, their focus is on China’s fight against terrorism, the lives of successful Uyghurs, and Xinjiang’s growing economy.
China’s message appears to resonate with many developing countries. Last October, a block of 62 countries led by Cuba voted in the United Nations to support China’s Xinjiang policies.
In opposition were 43 mostly western countries, which criticized Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghur people that included “torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children”.
But importantly, the Muslim world’s most influential countries are either reluctant to criticize, or are outright supportive of, Beijing.
Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang Paradox
All this gives the appearance that Xi is winning the narrative war that will support his continuing sociocultural and surveillance experiments in Xinjiang. Within China, his position as the country’s most powerful leader means his policies, especially on Xinjiang, will be unchallenged.
On closer examination, nothing is certain. Xi has unleashed enormous geopolitical risks in trying to remake Xinjiang in his image.
He is in an almighty hurry to become China’s first leader to assert full and direct control over the resource-rich frontier land. Xinjiang is both an anchor link and a vital frontline for his U.S.$1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative to connect China with the economies of Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
He wants to Sinicize the Uyghur and other indigenous peoples in the belief that it will help secure China’s westernmost and largest region against the historical influences of other cultures, peoples, and the messy politics of the Middle East and Central Asia. If Xinjiang’s indigenous people speak, think, and communicate in Chinese, and act as Chinese, he believes they might buy into his Common Destiny vision, and support the CCP’s work to reshape humanity.
But having imprisoned and tortured a large section of the Uyghur population, what are his chances of convincing them that their ancestral home is a land of opportunities and harmony? It brings into focus the contradiction of Xi’s two worlds in Xinjiang.
In pressuring Xinjiang’s indigenous peoples to become Han, he has ended up fuelling Uyghur consciousness. Where Xinjiang’s peoples once took their culture and lifestyle for granted, Xi has made them fear they can lose it all, said Byler.
The Uyghurs’ very personal and direct experiences with oppression have not led them to bow to Han rule. Instead, Beijing’s harsh colonialism has strengthened their resolve for identity and self-affirmation.
As Byler has documented in his book, the Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples detained and tortured to be “deradicalized” now nurse a deep sense of injustice and anger. Xi sees the “re-education” of 1.5 million people over the last few years as a triumph of and for totalitarian governance.
The reality is he has given them a crash course in nationalism, and a sense of purpose to their common suffering.
“By holding large groups of Uyghurs together in schools and camps, China is actually making them aware of their oppression and their weak position,” Byler said.
“They are also aware that their parents, relatives, and friends are being arrested and detained. Now they’re even more determined to fight to keep their culture and identity.”
Furthermore, unlike in the 20th century, colonial subjugation of indigenous peoples today cannot be covered up for long. Abuses eventually attract media coverage and human rights condemnation. In just a few years, the Uyghur struggle has gone global, sparking international opposition to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.
The powerful surveillance state that Xi has so proudly constructed over Xinjiang has the making of a double-edged sword for his rule. The massive amount of information that it has collected to control the population is showing up as evidence of human rights abuses against the regime.
Byler has not been back to China or Xinjiang since 2018, but he has been receiving new and detailed information about the detention camps, names of some of the officials operating the facilities, the identity of people detained, and how the surveillance system has developed.
“Because so much information is stored in digital files, someone with access to the computer servers can leak them out. And, that is what has happened,” he said.
Xi may have the power to monitor and jail people, but he is powerless to shut down the conscience of whistleblowers.
With the help of a team of 12 graduate students, Byler is currently poring through “tens of thousands of documents and digital files” leaked from inside China about the Xinjiang Experiment. The leaks are reminiscent of the 2019 China Cable reported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that included official government manuals for operating Xinjiang’s camps and surveillance systems. The China Cable leaks are the most detailed description of how Chinese police have been guided to use “artificial intelligence to select entire categories of Xinjiang residents for detention”.
Xi’s government has used those files to detain, judge, and convict millions of people of pre-crime radicalism. The same files, with more likely to come in future leaks, could one day be used to indict him and his officials for crimes against humanity.
In ways that few would have expected or foreseen, the Xinjiang Experiment is morphing into the Xinjiang Paradox. As frightening as the revelations are about the Chinese government’s methods to subjugate people, they also raise doubts about Xi’s intellect and judgment.
China could yet pay the price if his extremist, contradictory ideas were to result not in the strengthening of the CCP’s reach, but the political destabilization of the western frontier that the country’s past rulers have always feared.