Mass detentions, surveillance, and ethnic repression in China’s far west: the situation right now

By Anthony Tao | January 15, 2020

A scholar discusses forced labor in global chains, and the Chinese government’s collective punishment of the Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.

Over the last two years, the world has become aware of an invasive surveillance regime targeting Muslim minorities and a vast network of internment camps in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang.

James Millward is a professor of history at Georgetown University and a clear-sighted observer of contemporary China. We interviewed him last November at our NEXT China conference in New York about the country’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.

You can watch the video above, or read a full transcript of his answers here. But we thought we’d pull out five quotes to examine in closer detail, using the opportunity to update our previous explainers on Xinjiang (from August 2018 and August 2019; if this topic is completely new to you, it’s worth reading those earlier pieces for context).

1. Collective punishment to combat terrorism

“What’s remarkable is that they chose a vast, massive, collective punishment approach to deal with the threat of terrorism.”

Detainees in a Xinjiang camp located in Lop County listening to “de-radicalization” talks, originally published and then deleted by an official WeChat account.

More than anything, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fears separatism and unrest, and when it comes to Xinjiang, the leadership has been uneasy for the last decade. “July 5, 2009, is a date that forever changed the course of Xinjiang history,” SupChina’s Xinjiang columnist, Darren Byler, wrote last year. On that day, Uyghurs and Han Chinese clashed on the streets of the provincial capital, Urumqi, leading to 129 deaths and more than 800 casualties, according to Chinese state media (likely the most conservative estimates). That event, Byler writes, “is often evoked as a key moment that precipitated the current mass internment of Turkic Muslims across the region.”

But the detention and thought reform program only began some years later, after Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 had firmly established his leadership of the Party, the state, and the military. As Millward points out, the classified documents leaked to the New York Times in November 2019 show that “three terrorist events in 2014 seemed to have pushed Xi to adopt a whole new approach” in Xinjiang, and to accelerate the CCP’s “strike hard” campaign (严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动 yánlì dǎjí bàolì kǒngbù huódòng zhuānxiàng xíngdòng) initiated in May of that year.

Those three incidents:

  • March 1, Kunming: Thirty-one killed and 141 wounded at a train station by eight knife-wielding assailants.
  • April 30, Urumqi: Three killed and 79 wounded at a train station in a knife and bomb attack, coinciding with Xi’s first visit to Xinjiang as president.
  • May 22, Urumqi: Thirty-nine killed and more than 90 wounded in a morning market attack via explosives.

From the government’s perspective, there was a problem that needed to be addressed. But as the vast majority of outside observers would argue, the CCP’s response was out of proportion to the threat. The acceleration of Xi’s “people’s war on terror” has resulted in nothing less than cultural genocide.

Millward continues: “If you actually look at the kinds of acts which we would recognize as terrorism — that is, with a religious inspiration and targeting random civilians — there aren’t that many… The idea of locking up one and a half million people is absolutely crazy when you have a handful, literally a small handful, of perpetrators of terrorist acts.”

Context: Chinese state media’s 50-minute documentary on “fighting terrorism in Xinjiang,” released last month.

2. Misled by a metaphor: There’s no cure for a “thought virus”

“There’s a very broad, very large misdiagnosis of the problem going on, and hence they’ve come up with the wrong prescription for how to resolve it… The stated goal is to inoculate people from extremist thinking, or to eliminate a ‘thought virus’ in their minds by locking them up for months and years and subjecting them to indoctrination followed by a kind of coercive labor regime.”

An opening ceremony of a Xinjiang re-education camp, which was posted by the government in Korla, Xinjiang, in June 2018. On the left, the partially obscured words for “Transformation Through Education Center” (教育转化中心 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà zhōngxīn) can be read directly behind the man in the white shirt.

Reeducation camps, internment camps, vocational training centers, concentration camps…whatever one calls them, the vast network of camps in Xinjiang for “transformation through education” (教育转化 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà) represents a massive human rights violation. Chinese government officials are “trapped in their own metaphor, the metaphor of the idea of a ‘thought virus,’” Millward says. “The metaphor has taken over policymaking in Xinjiang. And so, of course it’s not going to work, and even Chinese Communist Party officials on the ground know that it’s not going to work.”

While many camps have been closed — this following the Chinese government’s announcement last July that most detainees have been released — there are still signs of ongoing oppression. There are enforced labor programs, for example, which the New York Times reported in December are not exactly optional:

The order from Chinese officials was blunt and urgent. Villagers from Muslim minorities should be pushed into jobs, willing or not. Quotas would be set and families penalized if they refused to go along.

This is just the latest in the government’s “social re-engineering” program, which has targeted all facets of Uyghur life: education, family life, religion, and now work.

Context: Mass internment in concentration camps, forced labor, parent-child separation: These are just a few of the realities of life for Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, explains scholar Darren Byler in China’s ‘social re-engineering’ of Uyghurs on SupChina. 

See also: Xinjiang education reform and the eradication of Uyghur-language books on SupChina.

3. Forced labor in Xinjiang taints global supply chains

“I think one thing that’s going to start happening more…is going to be the problem of tainting of supply chains of things coming from Xinjiang, in particular cotton.”

According to a state-sponsored report, on August 15, 2017, 1,805 minority herders and farmers entered the new industrial park and “put on leather shoes” to become industrial workers.

Coerced labor is a big concern, and could be behind many products made in Xinjiang, particularly apparel. According to an October 2019 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, 22 percent of the world’s cotton supplies comes from China, and 84 percent of Chinese cotton came from Xinjiang in 2018: 

A cheap and compliant minority labor force not only supports government stability efforts but is an important element of the government’s economic plans for Xinjiang. State documents indicate that the government is in the process of significantly increasing textile and apparel manufacturing in the region through a mix of company subsidies and underpaid workers.

Darren Byler, writing for SupChina, noted that companies profit from forced labor in Xinjiang:

State documents note over and over again that the new industrial parks are being built to teach “basic quality” to Uyghur and Kazakh detainees and other surplus laborers. What is left unsaid is that in Xinjiang, the labor is coerced, and furthermore is subsidized and directed by the state. The system is enforced by a complex web of technological surveillance that includes teachers, guards, “relatives,” and police that monitor the populace.

In a bit of unfortunate timing, Japanese brand Muji rolled out a line of “Xinjiang cotton” shirts on May 17. Of course, it’s not just Muji, as the BBC shows us.

Millward also points out that Xinjiang produces 20 percent of the world’s supply of tomato paste.

Context: According to the National Law Review, forced labor and other human rights abuses “present significant risks for companies whose supply chains include products from Xinjiang.”

[S]ome companies, such as Target Australia, have reported that they will no longer source cotton from China… On October 1, 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order for garments produced in Xinjiang by Hetian Taida Apparel Co., which were produced with prison or forced labor.

See also: Xinjiang supply chain risks intensify and extend beyond China’s borders from supply chain consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, and How companies profit from forced labor in Xinjiang on SupChina.

4. “State of exception”

“They’ve put this whole class of people, collectively, in what the theorists of ethnic cleansing and of concentration camps call a ‘state of exception.’”

Source: Chinese state television shows Muslims in re-education classes in Xinjiang. Screenshot via the New York Times.

“State of exception” is a theory by the political theorist and Nazi ideologue Carl Schmitt, who begins his argument with the line, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” That is to say, power and authority reveal themselves through the act of deciding when it is appropriate to override the rule of law. Schmitt had the virtuous dictator in mind while framing that idea; in much the same way, Xi Jinping and the authors of the Xinjiang crackdown must think themselves virtuous in tagging the region a “state of exception,” one in which the regular rules no longer apply.

As Millward reminds us, the U.S. has also been guilty of doing the same: “The fact that the state has decided that it can do that to Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang is an indication that it’s worrying about them in some of the same ways that, for example, the United States worried about Japanese Americans during World War II.” President Donald Trump has been accused of trying to create “an ongoing state of exception” by trying to declare a state of emergency — what he calls the “border crisis” — where there is none.

Context: The Chinese government’s attempt to bypass the rule of law by citing “terrorism” just might create a dangerous precedent, David Palumbo-Liu argues in Jacobin:

Besides (Saudi crown prince Mohammed) bin Salman, other leaders regarded as strong advocates for Muslims have also signed on to what might be called the “Uyghur Exception.” In 2017, Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, while still in the political opposition party, condemned the “hypocrisy” of the international community in failing to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; Khan also has criticized human rights violations against Muslim Kashmiris. 

But when asked about the Uyghur, Khan simply said, “Frankly, I don’t know much about that,” explaining that the issue was “not so much in the papers.”

5. Global Magnitsky sanctions

“Right now, U.S.-China relations have come to a very sorry path. They are more tense and problematic than they have been for a long time…I suppose since the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen killings.”


“I think one tool that’s been created now, which really wasn’t around in 1989 so much, is this idea of sanctioning individual officials in a very public way. Global Magnitsky sanctions is of course the law from which this comes.”

Chén Quánguó 陈全国, who took over as Xinjiang Party secretary in 2016 and is considered the architect of the region’s crackdown. 

The Global Magnitsky Act is a bipartisan U.S. bill passed in 2012 in the name of a Russian whistleblower who was tortured and allegedly beaten to death in jail after exposing malfeasance by Russian officials. The bill basically allows the U.S. to sanction individuals accused of human rights abuses. While it was designed to target Russian officials — and was successful enough that people like Senator John McCain and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov both praised it as a “pro-Russian law” — it can now be applied anywhere. More recently, the law was in the headlines after Trump reportedly violated it by not responding within 120 days to a congressional request for a report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Magnitsky Act has only been invoked once on a Chinese official: In 2017, former police chief Gāo Yán 高岩 was put on the list in connection to the death in custody of activist Cáo Shùnlì 曹顺利. While some U.S. politicians have called for the Magnitsky Act to be slapped on officials in Xinjiang, including Chén Quánguó 陈全国 — who took over as Xinjiang Party secretary in 2016 and is considered the architect of the region’s crackdown — so far, nothing has happened.

Context: Aside from the Magnitsky Act, the most recent Congressional-Executive Commission on China annual report suggested that “crimes against humanity” may have been committed in Xinjiang. 

In October, the U.S. Department of Commerce added 28 Chinese organizations to the U.S. Entity List for their involvement in Xinjiang, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which was involved in building many of the detention camps.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, introduced on January 17, 2019, “to condemn gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang,” passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 407 to 1 last month. It is currently with the Senate. Xinhua called it an “egregiously baseless and biased bill” that is “teeming with lies, arrogance and prejudice,” and “doomed to failure, eventually making a mockery of itself.”

See also: China must answer for cultural genocide in court in Foreign Policy.