Orwell’s Nightmare: Cultural Genocide in China
“All animals are born equal, but some are more equal than others” is the quintessential Orwellian quote which succinctly summarised the authoritarian politics of the Soviet Union. Now, over 30 years since the collapse of the communist dream, one would imagine the draconian policies of the Politburo would be well and truly lessons learnt.
Yet the horrors Orwell describes in his works are very much the harsh realties that many face today in communist China. President Xi Jinpings autocracy casts a pervasive shadow in the Xinjiang province where the state knows all sees all.
In recent years, China is systematically erasing the identity and culture of the regions native Uighur muslim population. A predominantly turkic speaking people, numbering 11 million, Uighurs have inhabited the region for millennia, arguably predating the groups adoption of Islam. Activists have postulated traces of Xinjiang's Uighur population as distant as the bronze age, following the discovery of a number of mummified Tarim remains. Regardless, Uighurs have dwelled in Xinjiang for time immemorial, enduring the rule of the Tang dynasty and the conquests of the Mongol empire.
In recent history, Uighur muslims have contested Chinese rule, declaring sharp intense bursts of independence. In 1933, Xinjiang declared brief sovereignty following zealous rebellions before government forces crushed the unrest during the Kumul rebellion. Moreover, following revolts in 1944, Xinjiang tasted an illusion of freedom as a Soviet satellite. A preliminary to its merger with Mao’s declaration of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.
Today, the very existence of Uighur identity is facing an impending threat. China has constructed a plethora of concentration camps across Xinjiang, a term not to be used lightly. Under the guise of ‘re-eduction schools’, authorities are endeavouring to eradicate Uighur traditions through a complex mechanism of fear and indoctrination. Due to the rather secretive nature of communist governance, it is a laborious task to understand precisely what these camps contain. Nevertheless, through a number of victim and journalist reports it is possible to gauge a fairly detailed appreciation of the practices.
At least since 2015, as many as 500 camps have been erected. As a consequence, over 1 million Uighurs have vanished from their families and their homes. In some regions, as much as 80% of the population has dissipated since 2016. Orwell’s Thought Police all of a sudden appear rather clement. These camps are vast. From satellite imagery, Guymer Bailey architects for prisons deduce the larger camps can hold up to 11,000 people each, assuming they operate on a one person one cell basis. If prisoners are held in blocks, the camps can hold up to 130,000 each.
It is suspected missing persons are transferred to these camps for an extensive process of brainwashing. Indeed, inmates are coerced to rigorous studies in legal theory, hard labour, and work skills, while they are simultaneously forced to abandon their ancestral language and faith in favour of mandarin and subjugation to the state. Meanwhile, the camps are soaked in propaganda. Former inmate Ablet Tursun Tohti explained to the BBC how he was forced to bellow anthems glorifying Chinese communism including “Without the Communist Party there can be no new China”. On a more sinister note, rumours of torture are commonplace. Prisoners are beaten if they do not adequately recite Chinese law while women are forcibly sterilised to quell Uighur population growth.
Meanwhile, government policy within wider Xinjiang is equally bleak. China has implemented the most intrusive and pervasive surveillance apparatus of any state against its own people, ever. Specifically, security services enforce mass collections of biometric data, monitoring and storing mobile phone content, accompanied by police checkpoints, and facial recognition. The Party’s official responsible for overseeing this highly invasive Big Brother style of surveillance is Chen Quanquo, Party Secretary for Xinjiang. Prior to his appointment, Quanguo was Party Secretary for Tibet from 2011-2016. During his tenure, Quanguo established similar methods of hyper-surveillance to thwart opposition to the Politburo. Neighbours were encouraged to spy and report on one another, while party officials were permitted to enter homes as they see fit to interrogate the local populace. This culture of fear is a signature policy of Quanguo now forced on Uighur muslims. Alas, in Xinjiang, Big Brother is very much watching you.
But what, one may ask, is particularly menacing about a nanoscopic ethno-religous group on the fringes of western China in comparison to the might of The Party?
Religion is a fundamental cornerstone. Uighur Islam is perceived as an ominous threat to the state. China’s response to global condemnation is counter extremism. Following 9/11, China believes Uighur muslims pose a direct threat to national security, suspecting a number of individuals travelled to Syria in 2014-2015. Therefore, the camps, the government maintains, re-educate Uighurs to dismiss extremist beliefs. However, like all communist regimes, China is principally frightened of all religion, an ideological disease in the communist utopia. Indeed, in 2017, Xi Jinping proclaimed “all religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and adopt socialist practices. In the camps, prisoners must denounce Islam in favour of the state. In wider Xinjiang, fasting for Ramadan is prohibited, while headscarves, religious education, long bears, and Islamic sounding names are all forbidden. Plainly, authorities are diligently curtailing the Uighur’s Islamic identity. Any faith or beliefs which do deify the state, are ruthlessly stamped out.
In light of this, The Party is ravaging the Uighur’s importance on family. Children are taken from their homes while their schools are destroyed. Faith and family, the pillars of Uighur identity are now ransacked. The state comes before all.
China is unmistakably, and unashamedly committing ‘cultural genocide’ - the eradication and suppression of a groups identity, removing any trace and evidence of their existence in a given region. This is the case in Xinjiang. In the provincial capital, Kashgar, shops are closed and the central mosque is lifeless. An ancient people now faces imminent extinction.
There is no evidence to suggest Chinese authorities are carrying out systemic killings in Xinjiang. History, however, indicates this is unlikely to endure. One only has to cast their mind to Hitlers Germany. The boycotting of Jewish business, ghettos, and Kristallnacht paved the way for the Third Reich to execute its Final Solution. Cultural genocide is the precursor to mass violence. A glance at nearby Myanmar is evidence of this. Following restrictions on marriage and sex, authorities are now brutalising Myanmars Rohingya muslim population with extreme prejudice.
If the international community continues to avoid this issue, violence will erupt in Xinjiang. Orwell’s nightmares are now once again a reality and the Uighur community no longer has a voice. Fear breeds silence. If this is allowed to continue, Xinjiang will be yet another horror of history humanity will not learn from.
By Daniel Mountain