In late November, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, a predominantly Uyghur community in China, that resulted in at least 10 deaths and several serious injuries. Questions arose whether the tragedy was brought on by authoritarian enforcement of China’s zero-COVID policies. Chinese leadership and government were accused of creating the overall conditions that complicated and deterred the efforts of the first responders. Furthermore, the deaths from the fire inspired intense protests in the region and across mainland China with the hopes of producing a renewed focus on the plight and human rights issue concerning the Uyghurs.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Rebecca E. Karl, a scholar of modern China at New York University, explains the events around the recent fire in Urumqi, the second largest city in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, and the middle-class reaction to the strident and rigid COVID policies authorized by the state. Karl emphasizes the importance of focusing on connecting the mainstream protests to the concern for the human rights and social conditions of Uyghurs and the factory workers of Zhengzhou. Aside from the political and social context, Karl also comments on the media’s “simplistic and often contradictory” treatment of the situation. Karl is the author of China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History (Verso Books, 2020).
Daniel Falcone: Can you bring the reader up to date with the tragedy unfolding around the Urumqi fire? What are the background and root causes of the protests in the context of the recent fire, including the one in Anyang?
Rebecca Karl: As of now (December 11, 2022), it appears that the fire in Urumqi as the immediate catalyst for the protests in the cities is being overwritten by a vigorous heroization of urban middle-class people, who want to claim their lives back from the protocols of the dynamic zero-COVID state and who (it seems, successfully) forced the state to backpedal on certain of the more intrusive and stringent elements of the testing and disease containment routines. That is, while in the beginning of the urban protests, Urumqi Road was a symbolic and actual site of gathering and mourning and demanding, the sea-change in iconography to the “white paper” — powerful and marvelous as that is — seizes the protests away from the necropolitics of Xinjiang/Uyghurs (as well as away from the carceral politics of Zhengzhou worker lives and protests) and places politics back in the urban spaces and among the middle classes. [Blank sheets of white paper are used in protest to express resistance to Beijing’s policies without using words of defiance that could prove costly if construed as a subversion of state power.]
If we were to understand these protests as not only urban and not only about zero-COVID, but also about the politics of workers and the criminalization/incarceration of Uyghurs, the popular understanding [in mainstream circles] is now being revised to strip away the possibilities for cross-class, cross-geographical solidarity towards something more manageable by the state and more legible by mainstream media abroad.
The mainstream media in Euro-America is beholden to a simplistic and often contradictory analysis that on the one hand condemns the Chinese state for its authoritarianism and single-minded social control and yet, on the other hand, also is somewhat envious of that state for its apparent ability to control social life. When something like this kind of protest breaks through this idea of total social control, the mainstream media is baffled and can only swing in one other direction: This, they say hopefully and with massive wishful thinking, is the revolution against the Communist Party; this, they say with illogic and no serious idea, is the moment at which the whole political edifice will crumble.
And then, it doesn’t — of course it doesn’t. And that’s because there is not and never has been total control, and rarely has there ever been a real desire to topple or to threaten to topple the Communist Party of China (CPC) — nor is there now. What Euro-American mainstream media can never get is that, for all the criticisms and the sniping and oppositions to some of what it does, the CPC is a relatively stable state form at this point. It is as stable (or unstable) as our own state forms, that seem to be in perpetual danger of collapsing.
We live in the midst of a deepening crisis of and in global capitalism: This manifests as a crisis in global ecology and resources, which can no longer sustain the plundering to which they have been and continue to be subjected; it manifests as a crisis in global governance, which has actually never been able to prevent local and regional wars from devastating large swathes of the world’s peoples and polluting large zones of the planet; it manifests as a crisis in heteronormative patriarchy, whose threatened supremacy has sparked some incredibly vicious backlashes; and it is a crisis in racialized domination, through which the hegemonic hold of white power is now globally challenged.
These are only some of the crises. Yet, our commentariat cannot see that China is part of this world, and that whatever happens in China is part of our world, too. One would have thought that the pandemic would have clarified this issue, at least as a biological principle with lessons for other realms of existence. It did not. Only by understanding the socio-political crisis in China as part of the various manifestations of socio-political crisis in our countries — the U.S., U.K., the Eurozone etc. — can we begin to get a handle on what our shared crises might be, and how we, as human beings, need to deal with our severely undemocratic and increasingly oligarchical modes of governance and survival.
How can Americans, namely progressives and the U.S. left, mobilize and unite around eradicating the human rights abuses of the Uyghurs while criticizing the overwhelming drive of partisans and corporate media that push for Sinophobic policies and worldviews?
This is a great question and almost impossible to address adequately. Others, far more schooled than I in Uyghur affairs, have counseled that our best bet is to find and make common cause with progressives within the Uyghur populace itself. This means, practically, from among diaspora populations across the globe, who have a more immediate sense of what is going on and how to amplify voices against it. The idea of linking Uyghur lives — incarcerated, enslaved, precarious, encamped — to others around the world, whose lives are also threatened by their states and corporate/land greed, is one way, perhaps, of forming solidarities around issues of common concern. That takes the pressure off of exceptionalizing China in ways that feed Sinophobia and Sinophobic policies.
The problem, of course, is wider: Progressives around the world are riven by any number of divisions among themselves and beset by the corrosiveness of local mainstream political convictions. There is, thus, no one progressive view on any of this. There are those who believe themselves to be progressive — and proclaim it loudly — but who deny that there is anything untoward happening in Xinjiang to Uyghurs. They deny that the CPC is anything other than marvelously socialist and marvelously humane. They wish to pretend that Chinese capitalist governance is somehow so much better than any other capitalist governance. They proclaim all this in the name of condemning U.S. imperialism. And U.S. imperialism, to be sure, needs to be condemned in the loudest and deepest ways possible. The historic and contemporary treatment by the United States of those within its expansive territorial reach, and of the world’s people more generally, needs to be exposed to every critical denunciation we can muster. Yet that condemnation cannot lead to excusing the CPC from responsibility for the brutality of treatment of Uyghurs (and Tibetans, and others) today.
Capitalism is brutal no matter who practices it. For me, this is simply a principle of progressivism: We cannot relativize our view so as to erase the problems we don’t wish to see. That is simply ignorance and betrayal.
Ultimately, using history as a guide, as well as other pertinent areas and victims of oppressive states (such as the Palestinians, Kashmiris and Rohingyas), what kind of outcome can we project for the fate of Xi Jinping?
I’m a historian, so I don’t project into the future very much in specific ways. Xi Jinping could fall tomorrow, or he could last his lifetime. What happens to Xi will be the prerogative of those who live in his governing domain. But, what appears to be happening, is that China will reopen after this COVID interregnum. This means, probably, that its plundering of the world’s resources in competition with everyone else who is also plundering (the U.S. being one of the most rapacious, of course), will contribute to the depletion of those resources in more and more un-replenishable ways. It means, probably, that the urban demands for productive economic growth will overtake whatever sympathies had been generated for workers in the last several months, and that labor will be absolutely resubordinated to capital in all of its forms (infrastructural, digital, platform, industrial, mining, agricultural, manufacture and financial, among others). And it means, probably, that this will provoke a race to the bottom globally as the climate changes and the resilience of the world’s weakest is further eroded. This will not be China’s doing alone, of course. But China will have much to do with this trajectory.
Xi Jinping is not a socialist; he is not a communist in any real sense of the concept, even if he is the leader of the Communist Party of China. Xi Jinping is a nationalist Chinese capitalist, who appears not to blink at destroying the possibilities of others’ lives in order to maintain his power and the rising supremacy of the Chinese nation-state. His desires are not so very different from those of many of our governing leaders in the Euro-American world, even if our leaders’ desires must be framed in different language and through different political rhetoric, at least for the time being. It is their similarities, not their differences, that will tell of the future.