At the end of last year, China was rocked by a wave of protest against the government’s stringent “zero-COVID” policy. The uprising was triggered in part by a horrific fire in an apartment block in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, that killed and injured many Uyghurs trapped under lockdown in their apartments. The protests, combined with the failure of zero-COVID to stop the spread of the omicron variant, led the government to abandon its policy of mass testing and lockdowns and open up the country, leading now to mass infection and death.
All these developments focused attention on the broader plight of China’s population of 12 million Uyghurs — a mostly Muslim and Turkic-speaking ethnic group that has been subjected within China to settler colonialism, impoverishment, surveillance, mass internment, family separation and forced labor.
Predictably, the U.S. and other Western governments, which have been complicit in these horrors, have weaponized the issue of Uyghur oppression to add fuel to their growing inter-imperial rivalry with China. Many on the left have rightly criticized Washington for its blatant hypocrisy, exemplified by its unrelenting support for Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians. In doing so, however, some have erred in excusing China’s oppression of Uyghurs and accepted its various justifications of modernization, development, Islamophobia and counterterrorism. But the words of Martin Luther King Jr. remain as true as ever: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Following this logic, the left must simultaneously oppose U.S. imperialism and its crimes as well as those of other powers like China. This is the argument that Nyrola Elimä and Darren Byler make in this exclusive interview for Truthout. Elimä is an ethnic Uyghur from Yining City, Xinjiang, China. She is an independent researcher and journalist specializing in human rights and supply chains. Byler is assistant professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City.
In the discussion that follows, Elimä and Byler explain the history and nature of China’s oppression of the Uyghur people and make the case for the international left to build solidarity with their struggle for justice, equality and democracy.
Ashley Smith: China witnessed a national wave of protest against its zero-COVID policy of state enforced testing and lockdowns. It was set off by the horrific fire in an apartment building in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. At least 10 Uyghurs died, and many others were injured in the tragedy. What happened and why?
Nyrola Elimä: A strict COVID lockdown had been imposed since August in some of the cities in Xinjiang, China. In Ürümqi, most residents were banned from leaving their homes for more than three months. Due to … [the] zero-COVID rule, the rescue service could not enter the building on time, and the residents of that building were either locked inside their homes or could not leave the building itself without the help of the community workers.
At least 10 Uyghur people died in the fire and the government blamed the victims. In a press conference, a government official blamed the resident for being “unable to protect themselves as they were not familiar with the safety exits.”
What is the significance and also limitations of the solidarity shown by Han Chinese with the victims of the fire?
Elimä: I don’t see any significance. It is unlike white people protesting for Daunte Wright, Andre Hill, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson. If you are aware that police won’t kill you because of your color, you know you are safe in general, and the system works in your favor, but you still speak up and protest for the oppressed group; I would call that solidarity.
The Han Chinese did not recognize the “Uyghurness of the victims.” They are protesting because this zero-COVID policy also made them miserable and cost them. They protested because they didn’t want to be the next burned live victims. Han Chinese are not protesting for equal rights or to stop state violence against Uyghurs. The Uyghurness of the victims has been mostly omitted.
This fire is just one example of the horrific oppression of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese state. What is the history and nature of this oppression?
Darren Byler: The Uyghurs and their lands in northwest China are in the midst of a process of settler colonization. The People’s Republic of China inherited the imperial legacy of the Qing Dynasty, which had subjugated the Uyghur region in a series of bloody military conquests. Following the 1949 Maoist revolution, Xinjiang — or “the new frontier” — became the target of non-Muslim resettlement, particularly for former soldiers in the Chinese civil war, in largely segregated and isolated farming colonies. At the same time, Uyghur institutions were subjected to a process of colonization that framed community leaders as counterrevolutionaries.
During the Reform Era in the 1980s and 1990s, the Han Chinese settlement of the region turned to infrastructure development and a drive to capture natural resources for China’s emergent export-oriented economy. This brought Han settlers into Uyghur-majority areas in southern Xinjiang for the first time. It also built an institutional structure of violent dispossession of Uyghur lands, the domination of Uyghur schools, mosques, courts, and so on.
In the 2000s, China appropriated the discourse of the “global war on terror” to label Uyghur protest and violence that corresponded with these processes an effect of so called “foreign Islam.” Much of the violence we see in northwest China today is a direct outcome of processes of colonization.
Under Xi Jinping, the oppression of Uyghurs has dramatically escalated. Scholar Rian Thum describes Xinjiang today as a “totalitarian ethnonationalist dystopia” in his introduction to imprisoned Uyghur writer Ilham Tohti’s book, We Uyghurs Have No Say. What are Xi’s policies and what has been their impact?
Byler: Under Xi Jinping, Chinese state policies toward Uyghurs have shifted toward a military and policing project that combines the strategies of counterinsurgency — as modeled by the U.S.-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq — and the so-called “preventative policing” strategies of Countering Violent Extremism or CVE — a strategy used by policing agencies across the Global North that conflates Islamic piety with political violence.
This meant that they needed to map the entire population using so-called full-spectrum intelligence, break up their social networks, excising … Islamic extremists, and then begin a process of transforming the population. This reengineering process built on older Maoist strategies of “thought reform” in concentrated internment.
This entire process, which Beijing refers to as a people’s war on terror, resulted in the development of some of the most sophisticated computer vision and digital forensics tools in the world today. The way these tools were used to implement, often retroactively, one of the world’s broadest counterterrorism laws, resulted in the mass internment and formal imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people.
According to Chinese state documents and available evidence, the majority of those detained appear to be guilty of “extremist and terrorist activities [that were] not serious” — things like studying the Quran, mosque attendance, using a VPN or installing WhatsApp. Nearly half a million Muslim children were sent to Chinese-medium non-Muslim residential boarding schools. More than a million mostly Muslim villagers were assigned to work in newly built factories.
As part of this Han settler colonialism, Xi’s regime has introduced measures to lower Uyghur birthrates in order to decrease their percentage of the region’s population. What has it done and what impact has this had on Uyghur women?
Byler: Much of the reduction in birthrate appears to be a result of family separation. But there is also a great deal of evidence in government documents of an “eliminate all illegal births” policy that required Uyghur women of childbearing age to use a so-called long-term birth control strategy such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) in order to prove they were “trustworthy” citizens. These devices were inspected on a regular basis by state workers. Neighbors were given rewards if they provided any information regarding illegal birth behavior in their Muslim neighbors’ households, including whether they allowed the children of relatives to stay with them.
In the state rhetoric, these practices, which amount to a negative eugenics program, are framed as a liberation of Muslim women from the control of their husbands and as a pathway toward employment in assigned factory work. In some ways, this discourse of liberation mirrors the Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush administration toward Afghan women: that invading and occupying Afghanistan was justified because it resulted in “saving” Muslim women from their husbands and sons.
This imperialist form of feminism is fundamentally antithetical to feminist liberation. Instead, it results in families that have been torn apart, women who have been forcibly separated from children even as they are, in some cases of internment, still breastfeeding. Ultimately, it results in in a radical diminishment of Uyghur social reproduction. The women who are a primary force in building a future for Uyghur society have suffered tremendously because of these policies.
How are these policies connected to Xi’s economic project? How have China’s state and private capitalist corporations exploited Xinjiang and Uyghur labor?
Elimä: Since the spring of 2017, the People’s Republic of China government has placed more than a million people in the sprawling network of internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China says these newly built or repurposed internment camps in the Uyghur region exist for the “reeducation” of the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples and Muslims who are supposed to “deradicalize” there and learn “skills” before reintegrating into society.
While continuing to hold Indigenous citizens of the Uyghur region in internment camps without trial, China has placed millions of Uyghurs into what the government calls “surplus labor” and “labor transfer” programs. China claims that workers join voluntarily and that these state-sponsored programs, which exist in accordance with Chinese law, aim to alleviate poverty. However, drawing on government employment documents and state media reports, researchers have clearly identified that these so-called surplus labor and labor transfer initiatives are, in fact, coercive labor.
Evidence reveals that labor transfers are deployed in the Uyghur region in an environment of unprecedented coercion of people under the constant threat of reeducation and internment. Furthermore, coercive labor in the Uyghur region is accompanied by intergenerational separation and compulsory land expropriation. Workers are usually subjected to constant surveillance and, in some cases, segregation. In the name of poverty alleviation, Indigenous Uyghur and Kazakh citizens are being deprived of their jobs, land and families.
State-sponsored labor programs exist in other parts of China, but in the Uyghur region, they are part of an anti-terrorism strategy that employs labor as one of its tools. Resisting these state-sponsored forced labor programs purportedly designed to promote vocational skills and “poverty alleviation” would mean for the government that Uyghurs align themselves with “separatism, terrorism and extremism,” which are the official rationale for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) crackdown in the Uyghur region, including the camp system.
According to government directives, those who do not comply with the state-sponsored labor transfer program can be branded as “radicalized” or as “potential terrorists” and can be sent to an internment camp. The CCP’s labor transfer program in the Uyghur region is used to punish people with oppositional ideological views, to create a regime of economic development built on coercive labor, and to discipline the masses whom the government deems to be deficient because of their race and religion. Corporations happily benefit from this system, using forced labor and then exporting the products worldwide. Every private capitalist corporation doing business in Xinjiang should be sanctioned.
Western states, in particular the U.S., have used these horrors to whip up propaganda for their growing inter-imperial rivalry with China. Isn’t this a bit hypocritical since Western and specifically U.S. corporations have been complicit in the plunder of the region and the exploitation of Uyghur forced labor? What has been the relationship between Western states and corporations and Xinjiang?
Byler: For the past two decades, cotton from the Uyghur region has long been a primary source of fast fashion products for global consumers, particularly in the United States. As labor associated with the camp system moved textile manufacturing to Xinjiang over the past five years, labor rights organizers have grown increasingly concerned that U.S. supply chains are exposed not only to the colonial system in the region, but also now to state organized forced labor at a mass scale.
It is only with a great deal of effort from researchers like Nyrola Elimä to expose these supply chains, and coalition building by labor unions, fair trade organizations and lawmakers that the U.S. Congress has passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and forced global brands like H&M and Adidas to relocate their supply chains.
When it comes to technology, global companies who helped to train Chinese state contractors, particularly Microsoft, or sold software to Chinese police, such as Oracle, have paid almost no price at all. Instead, they have quietly tried to disassociate themselves from former partners in China, and largely sought to align themselves with the U.S. military-industrial complex as it ratchets up a new AI cold war rhetoric. Similarly, recent research has shown that many U.S.-based investment funds are exposed to forced labor and technologies associated directly and indirectly with the internment camp system.
As in Iran, Syria, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Ukraine, some U.S. leftists have been reluctant to extend solidarity to Uyghurs and their struggle for self-determination out of fear of being complicit with Western imperialism. What is the problem with that position? What should the international left advocate instead?
Elimä: For progressive people and others on the left, they must realize that the Xinjiang crisis is one of the most significant human rights violations we’ve seen nowadays. We’re talking about more than a million people who are in internment camps. We are talking about crimes against humanity and genocide. Speaking up for Uyghurs does not amount to denying what is happening to other oppressed groups or ignoring what is happening in the United States, such as its racist treatment of migrants and people of color.
So, please don’t use whataboutism, or “fear of being complicit with Western imperialism” as a justification for abandoning Uyghurs. It looks ugly and won’t help other oppressed groups. We Uyghur people are not the first oppressed group; we won’t be the last. Today, if the anti-imperialist left can use this as a justification for abandoning us, they can also use it on the next oppressed group. It is just a matter of convenience.
What are Uyghurs demanding as a solution to their oppression?
Byler: To a certain extent, differently positioned Uyghurs want different things, but I think at a minimum all Uyghurs would agree that detainees and forced laborers should be released, China’s own laws regarding the autonomy of religious and ethnic minorities should be enforced, and a process of truth and reconciliation should be begun.
Decolonization is a long process and will come at a cost to Chinese people and the Chinese state. The protests against state control in the wake of the Ürümqi fire could be an important first step toward this.
In the short- and mid-term, tens of thousands of Uyghurs living in Turkey who are effectively stateless need governments to begin processes of settlement and Uyghur institution building. Uyghurs need solidarity from other colonized and targeted groups. They need to be included in global movements for prison and police abolition.
This interview has been lightly edited.