[english | deutsch | italiano] – Darren Byler presented his analysis of the events in Xinjiang during the online discussion “Terror Capitalism. The Enclosure of Uyghurs in Northwest China” on January 9, 2021 (podcast). In February, he agreed on following up on the discussed topics in an interview with Ralf Ruckus. Here is a slightly edited version of the interview:
“People’s War Against Terror”
RR: The CCP regime has justified the increasing surveillance and other repressive measures in Xinjiang as a necessary part of its “people’s war on terror.” How did it get there?
DB: Following large-scale Uyghur street protests, police violence and rioting in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region Xinjiang, in 2009, the local authorities introduced militarized “hard-strike” campaigns across the region. This led to the disappearance of several thousand Uyghurs—and more resentment around police brutality and state control. At the same time, land seizures increased across Southern Xinjiang as the state incentivized Han settlement in Uyghur majority areas—another major source of tension.
These increased forms of control and legalized land theft were the primary causes of increased Uyghur protest and violence directed at state actors. Many such incidents were described by state media as “terrorism.” However it is important to note that often the majority of the people killed or hurt in these incidents were Uyghur perpetrators themselves. They typically were unarmed or had improvised weapons and were killed or injured by the automatic weapons of the police. While conducting field research in the region in 2014 and 2015 I interviewed several Uyghur and Han civilians who had directly witnessed such events. One had himself been struck by a bullet in the leg.
Along with the rise in police violence and Uyghur protest the arrival in 2011 of smart phone-based internet services began to shape Uyghur religious practice in new ways. Many Uyghurs used WeChat to discuss their place in the Muslim world. The less regulated private-public sphere of Uyghur digital speech precipitated a flourishing in Uyghur religious instruction. Many became more pious in their practice as Muslims, something that my research shows was, one, a form of protection from the increasing pressure rising Han settlement in Uyghur majority areas and, two, a form of escape from state control of movement, education, and economic success. Those I interviewed said they became pious “because it gave them hope.”
In late 2013 and early 2014 there was also a rise of violent attacks carried out by Uyghur civilians that directly targeted Han civilians. Several incidents in urban centers such as Beijing, Kunming and Urumqi stand out in this regard. These coordinated, planned attacks utilized knives, vehicles and explosive devices are distinctive relative to many other so-called terrorist attacks which were often spontaneous and targeted state representatives. The “People’s War on Terror” was declared in response to these attacks.
However, the “hard-strike” campaign of the “People’s War on Terror” targeted far more than the criminals who carried out attacks and those that supported them. Instead it precipitated a criminalization of religious practice and Uyghur ethnic affiliation. Initially it was only religious leaders who were sent to camps, but by 2017 the state began to assess the entire Muslim adult population. It was not simply about preventing terrorism. It became a program of preventing Uyghurs from being Muslim and, to a certain extent, from being Uyghur.
The measures of counter-insurgency, repression, and surveillance used by the CCP regime in Xinjiang show some similarity with those used by the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan. How are they connected and what are the differences?
Counter-insurgency theory or COIN is premised on three elements: full spectrum intelligence of insurgent, neutral and counter-insurgent populations, fracturing the social network of those identified as insurgent, and “winning the hearts and minds” of the remaining populations. Soon after the Petraeus Doctrine of COIN, an army manual written by U.S. General David Petraeus which describes these three elements, was introduced in Iraq and Afghanistan in the late 2000s, policing and military theorists in China began to discuss ways how it could be applied in China.
They also began to consider how so-called preventative policing programs in Europe and North America—often called Countering Violent Extremism or CVE—could be used among Muslim populations in China. Scholars of critical terrorism studies such as Arun Kundnani have shown how these programs center on the fallacy that pious Islamic practice necessarily leads to violent action. They can also be used to institutionalize Islamophobia in social institutions.
As the People’s War on Terror unfolded in 2014, police academies across China and in Xinjiang in particular began to combine both of these models and apply them to Chinese counter-terror strategy. In China, counter-terrorism really only applies to Turkic Muslims and primarily the Uyghurs, so in essence this new body of theory and application was being used to target Uyghurs. The Xinjiang Public Security Bureau adopted these frameworks to normalize and systematize intelligence operations and their assessments of the population.
Even the use of camps mimics the way the U.S. military invented the category of “pre-criminal” detainee in Iraq. What made the camp system in Xinjiang unique, though, was the way it emphasized “thought reform” or transformation of detainees. Here they were building on a Maoist legacy of reeducation camps. In the U.S. case in Iraq, “winning the hearts and minds” of the nation the U.S. army had just destroyed (killing vast numbers of people) and whose land it had occupied was not thought to instill an ideological program through coercion. Instead it was presented more as a freely given gift and instituted by allied leaders in the Muslim population itself.
In the context of Xinjiang there is a punitive and strongly coercive aspect to the program and it is instituted by non-Muslim state authorities and their proxies. In the policing literature, Chinese theorists refer to this aspect of the preventative policing program as its “Chinese characteristics.” While an older Mao era mass revolution logic does play an organizational role, it is important to remember that Xinjiang is an internal settler colony of China. “Thought reform” implemented by Han colonizers on colonized Muslims turns revolutionary struggle and the “winning the hearts and minds” of COIN into a colonial struggle. In this sense then the colonial relationship between China toward Xinjiang and the imperial relationship of U.S. toward Iraq is somewhat different.
What important measures has the CCP taken in Xinjiang in terms of surveillance, control, and exploitation?
It is important to understand that surveillance fostered and implemented by Xinjiang Public Security Bureaus and built and maintained by private technology firms extends beyond controlling Muslim labor and migration—what appear to be the primary goals of the system—to the capture of Uyghur and Kazakh social institutions such as mosques, schools, sacred landscapes, ritual life and family life. This is what makes the system properly colonial rather than simply capitalist accumulation through dispossession.
Settler colonization requires that native social institutions be captured in order to fully occupy native society and establish a relationship of domination over native life. The surveillance systems accelerate these processes and extend the power of state authorities and state proxies assuring that the criminalization of religious practice and the outlawing of Uyghur and Kazakh speech in schools is enforced. By restricting travel it also assures large scale family separation through residential boarding schools for children and assigned labor in factories.
Of course there are still many gaps in the surveillance system which require human surveillance. This is why the state has mobilized over one million civil servants to “adopt” Muslim families and monitor their activities. These “sent down” employees of urban companies and institutions perform a program that resonates with older Mao-era campaigns that sent urban citizens to the countryside to learn from the masses or in other campaigns to act as educators and health care providers. In this context, the rural Uyghur and Kazakh masses are to learn from their adopting “relatives.”
There is also an ethno-racial and gendered component to the campaign. Nearly all of the urban “relatives” are non-Muslim Han and many are male. Both elements result in stigmatization for families who receive them, particularly families who have a detained male family member. In some cases, it appears that overt sexual violence by male visitors toward female hosts also occurs.
Neighborhood watch committees and approximately 90,000 police assistants also assure that marriages, funerals meet mainstream non-religious standards, that the ban on circumcisions and fasting during Ramadan is observed, and that unveiling and facial hair requirements are met.
Again this is more than simply an ideological campaign. By eating into the reproduction of Muslim social life itself the policing system produces a wide array of data, jobs and investment, and, ultimately, a productive workforce stripped of its last remaining forms of autonomy. It is Uyghurs and Kazakhs, and to a lesser extent the low level police and civil servants, who bear the costs of the development of the system.
In what way are women* or men* especially targeted or hit?
Between two-thirds and three-fourths of the Uyghurs and Kazakhs who have been detained are men between the ages of 18 and 55. This means that a significant percentage of the adult male population—the primary farming and wage earner populations—are missing. The state has provided some limited subsidies to the remaining family members—mostly in the form of basic staples such as rice and oil—and at times a small stipend. But in general these families appear to be further impoverished by the detentions. This has in turn produced greater dependence on the state. One response to this greater dependence has been the forced job placement program.
Some reports indicate though that a significant number of partners of detainees have divorced their husbands as a way of escaping stigma and finding a new marriage partner. It appears that in some cases, these women have remarried Han “relatives” who have been sent to monitor the communities. Other families have arranged for marriageable daughters to marry Han men.
Based on my research and that of others it is unclear what the scale is of such marriages. However, there are reports from numerous communities of the payments given to couples who are married in this manner. It is also unclear how direct the coercion is in such marriages. Yet it remains undeniable that the political atmosphere and pressure from local authorities plays a direct role in these marriages.
Another element of the system is an extremely rigorous enforcement of family planning laws across the region. Regular citizens are given rewards for informing on violations of family planning laws and many Muslims that violated family planning laws in the past were sent to the camps and prison. There is also clear evidence in government documents of surge in funding for systematic gynecological exams, IUD insertions, and surgical sterilization.
Because these new programs target Uyghur and Kazakh women in particular while at the same time the same measures were being rolled back among Han women, it appears clear that this constitutes a type of eugenics program similar to public health initiatives that targeted Black and Native American women in the United States until the 1960s. The dramatic decrease in new births among Muslims in Xinjiang—as reported in Chinese state statistics—is at least partially a reflection of this system. Endemic family separation through the camp and factory system may play an even larger role in the retraction in Uyghur and Kazakh social reproduction.
Colonialism and Exploitation
Xinjiang is an important producer of cotton and other agricultural crops as well as oil and minerals. What role does this play for the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang?
It is important to understand that as a developmental state, Chinese central authorities place a strong emphasis on strategic investments. This means that they are interested in long-term returns on investment and the security of the national economy rather than immediate profits. One of their priorities is having domestic sources of raw materials necessary for a thriving industrial economy. The oil, natural gas, coal and mineral resources in Xinjiang are a key aspect of China’s energy independence. Likewise cotton and tomatoes grown in Xinjiang—both around 20-25 percent of the world’s supply—are key raw materials used in export-oriented production.
Since the 1990s, as China became the “factory of the world,” these commodity sectors have become the pillars of the Xinjiang economy. They were what drew Han settlers to the region, first to build the resource extraction infrastructure and then supporting industries and service sectors. Over the past three decades Xinjiang has come to serve as a classic peripheral colony—serving the needs of the metropoles in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The main source of friction in fully capturing the economic wealth of the region has been the region’s geography and the claims of its native people.
Xinjiang is a “frontier” for the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) and serves as a transport hub and site of new infrastructure. How important is Xinjiang for the CCP’s development strategy in Western China and in the context of the BRI? In what way is the repression of Uyghurs and other groups related to the economical role of the region?
Xinjiang is, in fact, an important hub for Chinese economic and political development in South Asia and Central Asia. It provides access to significant infrastructure developments in Pakistan and potential future developments in Afghanistan. It is probably even more important strategically as a source of oil and natural gas itself (it has around 20 percent of China’s proven reserves), but it also is a transit point of eastbound pipelines from the Caspian and Kazakhstan natural gas and oil fields.
In the early 2010s, it appeared as though Xinjiang was poised to become the commercial center of Central Asia. The state built several special economic zones in the border cities while at the same time it introduced new policies to immobilize Uyghurs. Since these new zones largely excluded Uyghur labor and investment, and were associated with new forms of control, they actually had a strongly negative effect on Uyghurs.
The new strategy appears to have incentivized Han-owned businesses to force Uyghurs to work. They utilize policing, local government agreements, surveillance infrastructure and the threat of the camps to hold Uyghurs in place. This, they hope, will turn Xinjiang into a center of production in Central Asia while at the same time forcibly assimilating Uyghurs into the Chinese economy.
The CCP regime has described the detention centers for Uyghurs and other groups as “vocational schools,” thereby suggesting that its measures are a form of fighting poverty and promoting development. Is that plausible? And how does it fit into previous Xinjiang policies to “develop” the whole region?
Clearly a developmental discourse plays a central role in the state policies regarding the region. In fact, this is how many Chinese citizens understand the goals of the project. In popular discourse among Han people in Xinjiang and throughout the country, Xinjiang is portrayed as “backward” and the Uyghurs in particular are seen as “uncivilized” because of their lack of Chinese language education and their attachment to Islam. Development is seen as something that must be done to them (rather than by them).
Clearly there is a great deal of “job creation” going on in Xinjiang as part of this campaign. The thinking appears to be that if Uyghurs are forced to learn Chinese and taught self-discipline as industrial workers they will become productive workers and perhaps eventually see the benefits of being part of mainstream Chinese society.
What is unstated and unexamined in this framing is the role of surveillance and colonial or epistemic violence. As the scholar Jennifer Pan has shown in a recent book titled Welfare for Autocrats. How Socials Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers [Oxford University Press, 2020], Chinese “poverty alleviation” programs have been used to manage and control problematic populations ranging from petitioners, to drug addicts to religious minorities.
In addition to providing jobs, such systems also foster forms of surveillance, labor exploitation and dependence on state programs. Xinjiang is a limit case for the way the economic development of “poverty alleviation” masks pernicious forms of super exploitation—like through the “off shoring” of production to locations where labor is devalued.
Today’s CCP regime uses a modernization discourse it calls socialist which aims for the “development” of indigenous people’s areas. Do you see parallels with Christian missionary or Western capitalist discourses of such development?
I would be careful to call the programs being put in place in Xinjiang “socialist.” Because the rights of workers are so diminished by the colonial relation and racialized through ethnic policy in this context, I think it is perhaps better to refer to them as state capitalist or colonial capitalist programs.
They have a great deal in common with the capitalist land possession programs that sent white settlers to places like Oklahoma, California, and Oregon to claim native lands and as their own. The missionary programs that followed along behind to pacify the “savages” who were upset by the dispossession and occupation of their lands set out to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” [Richard Henry Pratt].
There is a similar logic in the state documents describing the poverty alleviation and reeducation programs in Xinjiang. They reference teaching spiritual and cultural “quality” (in Chinese this is referred to as suzhi) to Uyghurs, and rescuing them from the “disease” of “extremist Islam” – which they use to describe normative Muslim practice such as mosque attendance, prayer, studying the Quran, and fasting during Ramadan. Factory work is valorized as non-religious and modern, while farm work and Uyghur cultural practices are devalued as non-productive or “surplus.” Mainstream Han festivals and life rituals are taught to Muslims as “normal” while many Uyghur traditional practices are described in state documents as “abnormal” or signs of extremism.
In what way do Han supremacy, references to superior Chinese cultural history, or active attempts of sinicization of ethnic minorities play a role? How has the CCP’s policy towards “minorities” changed?
Over the course of the 2010s the central Chinese government has shifted its ethnic policy from one that recognizes distinct nationalities to one that emphasizes the primacy of a Chinese national identity. This meant that groups such as the Uyghurs and Kazakhs, as well as Mongols and Tibetans, who have rich native language and literary traditions have been forced to move from educations systems in their own languages to Chinese language systems.
Because the ancestral lands of these peoples comprise vast amounts of Chinese territory, and became internal colonies of the modern Chinese nation state only through an imperial inheritance, this is not an assimilationist policy which targets immigrants as in Euro-American locations. Rather it should be thought of as a program to eliminate and replace the native languages of indigenous minorities, something similar to genocidal programs used in North America toward Native Americans.
It is unclear why the Chinese state has embarked on this campaign to more fully colonize these minorities. One important element of this has to do with growing domestic economic pressure in China. Another, has to do with its growing power on the global stage, which means Chinese leaders are less afraid of international condemnation. A third important element, that the Kashmiri British scholar Nitasha Kaul has identified in a recent article in the Made in China Journal, is China’s past history as a victim of Euro-American and Japanese colonization. This “moral wound” has produced an impulse to colonize others as a way of proving the strength of the Chinese nation.
What does the term “terror capitalism” describe? Which forms of “terror” are you referring to, and how are they linked to a particular form of capitalism in Xinjiang?
The term “terror” in this conceptual frame names the way Uyghurs and other Muslim citizens from Xinjiang have been deemed an irrational other and intrinsic threat to the “civilized” majority. Naming them as “terrorists”—a socially acceptable way of talking about “savages” or “barbarians”—opens up a state of exception to the normal rule of law. Once someone has been named a terrorist or a pre-terrorist normal civil protections no longer apply. The threat aspect of the term also allows the state to justify placing the nation and citizens from the majority population on a war footing. This state of emergency means that private industry and citizens can be mobilized as proxies for the state.
So far what I’ve described is a particular kind of contemporary military or security industrial complex. My argument goes a bit further to consider what sort of capital is actually produced by this complex and how it fits in the global economy.
The first sort of capital that is produced alongside the intellectual property inherent in new surveillance and policing infrastructure systems themselves is data. The war space of Xinjiang has created a data-intensive environment that allows some of China’s largest private and state-managed technology companies to develop new tools in digital forensics, image and face recognition, and language recognition. This was facilitated by data collection programs that provided the companies with a base dataset that is unprecedented in its scale and fidelity. The harvested data is also being used for secondary, commercial applications.
The second form of capital is in the unfree human labor that is facilitated by the digital enclosure system. Since 2018 the state development authority has begun to describe the camp and reeducation system as a “carrier of the economy” at the same scale as the old oil, natural gas, cotton, and tomato resources.
Now the state documents suggest Uyghur and Kazakh “surplus labor” has become an additional resource in the Xinjiang economy because it has incentivized so many private companies from Eastern China to relocate aspects of their production to Xinjiang. The digital enclosure system—smart phone tracking, checkpoints, face scans and so on—along with the fear of arbitrary detention—a form of state terror—holds Uyghurs and Kazakhs in place and creates endemic conditions of unfreedom.
In this context freely chosen work contracts are an impossibility for most Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Instead, jobs are assigned. There is also no space to negotiate wages or protest wage garnishments—which appear to be widespread throughout the system. In many cases then, people are “free” to choose to work in low-wage assigned jobs far from their families or “free” to be interned. This false freedom—a condition that goes beyond mere dependence on the “free” market—is what I mean when I use the term “unfree labor.” Importantly, many of the products produced in this system are produced either directly or indirectly for export to countries in the Global North. Therefore, Uyghur unfree labor is a frontier of global capitalism.
So to summarize, terror capitalism uses the rhetoric of “terror” to justify state and private capital investment in data and labor intensive industries. Like sequences of racialized capitalism in other locations, the alleged threat of Uyghur and Kazakh bodies and sociality allows their land, data, and labor to be legally expropriated, or stolen, creating a new frontier in global capitalism.
In my book Terror Capitalism. Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City [Duke University Press, December 2021] I elaborate on the way colonial projects act as frontiers of capitalist expansion, making the argument that colonialism and capitalism are co-constitutive. My current work engages the work of North America based scholars to examine the way the category of the “terrorist” and associated illegalized populations produce new capitalist frontiers in other locations such as Southeast Asia and the United States.
Western Critique, Sanctions, and Silence
Western media and politicians frame the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a human rights issue. What legitimizes them to do so, and what about Western countries’ own record regarding human rights?
While it is important that civil and human rights of all people be protected, many nations such as the United States, have used this legal and discursive framework as part of geopolitical competition while at the same time ignoring domestic abuses of such rights. In order to be taken seriously as advocates for human rights, or more precisely, antiracism and decolonization, the U.S. and other nations must take active steps to facilitate such programs within the space of their own nations. The U.S. in particular must take responsibility for the Global War on Terror which has displaced tens of millions of people and provided a discursive and operational framing of China’s campaign in Xinjiang.
Furthermore, while human rights is an important legal framework that can provide institutional protections for marginalized peoples, it should be thought of primarily as a baseline for protections. If it becomes the only analytic through which colonial violence is evaluated, the economic and political drivers of structural violence will be missed. It also has the effect of indexing western nations as superior to nations in the Global South which are thought to be the domain of human rights abuses. In doing so it elides the fact that the economic successes of western nations depend on the exploitation of the labor markets and resources of less wealthy nations.
Western media and politicians also use the terms genocide, cultural genocide, or ethnocide. Are these terms appropriate?
The term genocide implies similar problems as the narrowness of the human rights framing of the Xinjiang system. Although the legal definition of genocide is much broader than an event-based mass killing, the common understanding of genocide is primarily this.
And even in its broadest definition, genocide legal framings deemphasize the structural issues involved in a genocidal system. That is to say, genocide studies is largely delinked from studies of capitalist frontier making and colonialism. Instead it focuses more closely on ethno-racial hatred, which I see as secondary to a more fundamental system of economic dispossession, colonial domination, and occupation.
Colonial projects often contain genocidal violence within them, but they are much larger than this. It is for these reasons that I prefer to avoid debates around terms and instead describe systems that are being built and their effects. Whether or not what is occurring is a genocide, or more broadly crimes against humanity (my reading is that it meets the legal standards of both), is a bit beside the point from my perspective.
Can we expect a different approach of the Biden government towards China and regarding Xinjiang than that of the previous government under Trump?
I hope that the U.S. will strive to reverse the Islamophobic policies of the previous administration and begin to build stronger coalitions with Muslim majority nations as it takes more responsibility for the cost of the Global War on Terror. This type of good faith effort as well as systematic and transparent investigations of what is happening on the ground in Xinjiang is necessary. The latter will help to act in multilateral ways for the support of Uyghurs in diaspora, the examination of supply chains affected by forced labor, and the evaluation of U.S. complicity in ethno-racialized surveillance systems.
The US government has imposed sanctions against economic and political forces in connection with the repression in Xinjiang? What is their impact?
The U.S. has applied targeted sanctions on key leaders and state-owned institutions in the Xinjiang system, they have also barred U.S. companies from selling products and services to a number of Chinese tech firms involved in surveillance, and more recently they have banned the import of cotton products from Xinjiang.
These measures have had a significant effect on private and state-managed companies complicit in the Xinjiang system. More should be reported by the state, or even better, an independent multilateral commission, on why these companies are complicit. This would have the effect of, first, assessing whether these measures are motivated primarily by geopolitical interests or social justice concerns, and, second, making a case for other nations to join in such campaigns.
The sanctions are effective in introducing a moral and economic cost to the systems of oppression in Xinjiang. They are likely less effective in providing an adequate solution to the issue. They should be viewed primarily as a measure to avoid complicity in the system. As a leftist, my primary commitment is not building further state centered responses, but rather grass roots labor rights and decolonial coalitions that build solidarity with Uyghurs.
Other Muslim-majority countries as well as many countries in the UN have not criticized the CCP government or even supported it in the UN. What is their motivation?
China is the second largest economy in the world. It is also the largest foreign actor in the economies of many of the UN member states which have sided with China on this issue. China also represents a countervailing power to the hegemony of the United States. For many nations the economic and political costs are simply too high to stand up to China on this issue.
Additionally, many governments also abuse ethnic minorities in their own countries and are opposed to UN interventions on such issues. In some cases, Chinese media has also been effective in distorting the facts of what is happening and portraying accounts of the camps as simply U.S. government misinformation.
Yet despite the inaction of their governments, in many Muslim majority spaces regular people strongly support calls for solidarity with Uyghurs. For instance, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh there have been large solidarity marches. A large-scale survey conducted in Palestine indicate that more than 80 percent of Palestinians believe media and research reports regarding the scale and violence of the camps and stand in solidarity with Uyghurs.
Pressure from Below?
What role do Uyghur diaspora organizations play in the public critique of China?
Uyghurs in diaspora are scattered in a number of different locations around the world. They are a quite small population, and until recently the majority were too frightened of what would happen to their family members in China to speak openly about the forms of discrimination they had experienced. Furthermore many Uyghurs in diaspora speak Uyghur and Chinese as their primary languages and lack training in the political and cultural systems of their host countries. This means it is difficult for them to have much influence in their host countries.
Unfortunately due to a lack of action among Leftists who are often focused on other, often domestic, issues, those with power in western nations that have listened to Uyghur voices have often come from right-wing nationalist positions. This has made their case open to manipulation by politicians who already harbor xenophobic and anti-Chinese views. Some Uyghurs in diaspora have come to see an imagined East Turkestan ethno-state as the primary solution to the issue.
I’ve found that this view was less prevalent among Uyghurs I met in Xinjiang in 2014 and 2015 who were primarily interested in greater autonomy within China as promised by the Chinese constitution. They wanted to be able to travel, work freely and provide better futures for their families. Only a dramatic reversal in Chinese policies in Xinjiang would make such a future imaginable today.
What possibilities and directions do you see for a left-wing strategy of critique and support?
It is only in the last several years that a second generation of Uyghur scholars, students, and young professionals have begun to take a more nuanced perspective on the situation that confronts them. These young leftists are interested in building solidarity with other movements for economic justice and autonomy such as those in Hong Kong, Kashmir, and older struggles such as the Palestinian liberation, and anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
All Leftists should stand in solidarity with these emergent group of Xinjiang leftists and recognize that what is happening in Xinjiang is a form of colonization that is linked to global capitalism. Leftists should recognize and oppose state power, processes of ethnic domination, and the super exploitation of multinational corporations everywhere.
And they must certainly oppose the colonization of native peoples – whether or not that colonization is being carried out by European powers. Cornel West put it well in an interview where he was speaking about China and other spaces. To paraphrase, he said, in order to be consistent in decolonial struggle you have to be improvisational. By which he meant, first, that a commitment to anti-racism and decolonization means standing with the oppressed wherever they are. Second, that this standing means improvising a stance against all forms of imperialism simultaneously. This in turn can lead to internationalism that centers and amplifies the voices of the oppressed.
To what extent has the critique of the CCP government had any impact? Has it adapted its strategies in any way?
My sense is that the Chinese state has responded to international pressure by retracting some of the most obvious forms of surveillance and repression in Xinjiang. They have also released some detainees to less restrictive forms of confinement due to direct pressure. Many others though have been sent to prison from the camps and still others to forms of forced labor.
So I think it is inaccurate to say that the attention to this issue has had no effect, it has just not yet been enough. Most of the response has been to hide aspects of the system more effectively and to attempt to provide counternarratives. That is not to say that more fundamental changes might not yet come.
As a colleague of mine, Eli Friedman, has pointed out, often the Chinese state changes policies in a delayed manner—isolating the state response from protests as a way of preserving an image of state power. It may be too soon to tell how the Chinese state will respond, particularly if pressure is maintained on this issue. In general, the reputational damage that has come from the Xinjiang system has not yet been fully felt in China. As an aspiring global power, it is important that China cultivate an image that other nations want to emulate. This ultimately is where the cost of Xinjiang will be felt across the Chinese body politic.