The Communist Party (CCP) regime claims that its network of prison camps are “voluntary” and offer the predominantly Muslim Uyghur education to tackle “extremism” and “terrorism”.
But leaked documents show a programme of imprisonment and indoctrination.
They include one memo telling camp officials to “ensure full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”, “never allow escapes” and “increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations” for those who try.
The camps are part of a racist crackdown that began in 2017.
An aim of the Chinese state is to suppress the Uyghur language, traditional culture and any claims to national self-determination. And, tellingly, the memo calls on officials to “make remedial Mandarin language studies the top priority”.
Other measures have included a ban on “extremist” Muslim names, such as Medina and Saddam. Children with those names can’t be registered, meaning they’re denied healthcare and education.
This horror is just the latest chapter in 100 years of Uyghur oppression at the hands of the Chinese state. Its roots lie in how the state came to rely on nationalism in the 20th century.
Right up until the 19th century there was no concept of a “Chinese nation”. This changed in response to European and Japanese imperialism. A section of the middle class began to see nationalism as a way of mobilising support to throw off foreign domination.
They talked about how all the peoples of the Chinese Empire had become one through a “great fusion”.
In 1911 a series of popular uprisings forced out the Qing monarchy. The new Republic of China was led by the nationalist Kuomintang party. It battled to forge a modern Chinese state out of the chaos of provincial warlords.
Meanwhile large swathes of Uyghur people were drawn to Turkic nationalism led by the “Jadids”. They were an Islamic reform movement that talked of modern development and unity among Turkic peoples of central Asia.
The warlords and Muslim leaders in charge of Xinjiang saw it as a direct threat and began to suppress it.
Throughout the 1930s China was torn apart by a civil war between the Kuomintang and the CCP.
The Communists officially accepted the peoples’ right to national self-determination. The Uyghur rose up and set up a Republic of Turkestan in 1933 and then again between 1944 and 1949.
When the CCP came to power in the Chinese Revolution in 1949, talk of self-determination was swiftly dropped.
The revolution was not a socialist one where the working class takes power, but a nationalist one against feudalism and imperial domination.
To build a modern state, it relied on a mix of fake Marxist rhetoric and Chinese nationalism. As the CCP regime opened up to global capitalism during the 1980s, it has relied more and more on nationalism.
Alongside impressive growth, there is growing discontent over inequality. Rapid industrialisation has given birth to a large working class—a social force that could threaten CCP rule.
The Chinese state has responded with a drive for centralisation and that’s included clamping down on separate national and ethnic identities.
Western countries—led by Donald Trump—have hypocritically criticised China over the treatment of the Uyghur.
But Trump and other Western governments are just as guilty of vicious racism and backing repressive regimes.
The real alternative lies in the Chinese working class fighting against the regime—and recognising the right of Uyghur self-determination as part of that broader struggle for social change.