Dr. James Millward on the Uyghur Crisis in Xinjiang

Dr. James Millward on the Uyghur Crisis in Xinjiang

On March 19, the Georgetown University Muslim Students Association welcomed Dr. James Millward, Professor of Inter-societal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, for a discussion of human rights in the modern world centered on the Uyghur Crisis in Xinjiang. Following the event, Dialogues sat down with Professor Millward to learn more about the true conditions in Xinjiang, and the role of free press and the international community in addressing these issues.


GJIA: What do you believe are the most important reasons and motivations that led the Chinese government to create the reeducation camps in Xinjiang?

JM: In a way, it goes all the way back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused a lot of anxiety in China about the minzu nationality system that they have been using since the 1950s. In more recent years, there have been concerns that the system of 56 minzu, which allocates resources and supports different ethnicities, may actually be bolstering nationalist sentiments and preventing the emergence of a homogenous national ethnicity (called a zhonghua minzu, which is a political identity). Those concerns were heightened by the fact that separatist issues in Xinjiang and Tibet didn't seem to be going away. In 2008, there were riots in Tibet; in 2009, the same happened in Xinjiang. Around that time, and through the early 2010s, there was debate about whether there should be a second generation, di er dai minzu jiang che, in China. The debate was surprisingly open given how deeply entrenched the whole minzu system is in China: it's part of the government infrastructure, and there are political units, counties, prefectures, and province-sized units and regions dedicated to certain titular minzu. Some people support that system, while others, concerned about separatism, argue that it should be overturned. In any case, it seems one of the things that Xi Jingping had on his agenda when he came to power was addressing these sorts of issues; in 2013 and 2014, a few prominent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, carried out by Uyghurs, stimulated a reconsideration of it all. At a Central Work Conference in 2014, Xi Jingping basically admitted that raising standards of living through economic development alone was not going to change people’s understanding of ethnicity or eliminate the separatist problem. In addition to material concerns, ethnic problems also needed to take into account spiritual and psychological ones. Soon thereafter, there was a campaign launched around the “Sinicization of religion,” aimed not just at Islam but also at other religions. We've since witnessed government crackdowns on certain aspects of religious expression, particularly religious architecture, halal, and other things which have become part of China's landscape in past few years. The Communist Party’s restructuring of how the state deals with ethnicity and multiculturalism set the stage for what has happened; for example, in 2016, a new Communist Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, was transferred to Xinjiang from Tibet, where he was seen as successful in quelling unrest in the aftermath of the 2008 riots. He is seen as a “fixer”, and was apparently given something like a blank check by the Chinese government to implement a lot of changes in Xinjiang, which is what he did.


China has used “counter-terrorism” as a justification for creating re-education camps. Is that a legitimate claim? If China does face some legitimate security concerns, what other measures could the government take to address them other than re-education?

Since 9/11, it's easy to identify the conscious effort made to link up separatist issues in Xinjiang with the idea of a global war on terror. China was not the only state to take advantage of this new rubric of foreign policy that George Bush announced, but they did do so quite seriously, and this meant changing the terminology they used to discuss these issues. It also meant changing the diagnosis of the problem. China had always blamed foreigners for instigating and being involved with some of the separatist problems, and ignored or denied that domestic policies might have been part of the problem. Now, however, they can point to an evil ideology of extremism, terrorism, and jihadism, diagnosing the problem as outside influences entering the country; that allows the state to frame the solution as one of trying to extirpate that problem from peoples' minds by limiting entrance to the country, preventing foreign contacts, and so on. Since they had diagnosed the issue as an ideological virus, that led easily to a solution which is broadly based on a deep-rooted idea in Chinese culture, that education and ritual training can shape the human spirit and mind. In the Maoist period, the use of labor reform camps and re-education prisons against Falun Gong was also implemented. Given this history, once the Chinese government diagnosed the problem as an ideological virus, it was easy for reeducation to emerge as a viable solution. The difference this time is that under Chen Quanguo in Xinjiang, the whole region is undergoing a massive securitization, with all the high tech innovations: facial recognition cameras, DNA scans, and iris scans have been implemented, in addition to a massive scaling up of the reeducation idea which led to the creation of huge facilities built in the desert which can hold thousands of people.

Chinese propaganda and official media coverage have implied that before the camps were built, there was a huge problem with terrorism. They're actually exaggerating the problem from a couple years ago, and the talk of terrorism now is much worse than it was then. They're claiming life was a living hell until they built these camps for a million people. It’s true that there were some very prominent terrorist acts; there was also a pretty constant level of unrest, whether or not Western observers would call it terrorism, with attacks on police stations and official compounds. But there was no existential threat to Chinese control in the area. Implementing these camps on such a large scale is both excessive and indiscriminate because it’s targeting an entire population, not just the people who are instigating violence. The question is, what else could have been done to combat terrorism? The state could have simply continued the security measures which were already quite strong in Xinjiang. There really hasn't been much evidence of organized terrorist groups; most of the attacks we've seen are either villagers driven to extremes by local policies, or lone wolf or small group incidents that don't seem to have had any outside connections. The current policies are certainly limiting the problem, but if the state wanted to attempt anti-extremist or de-radicalization programs, there are lots of examples of those in other countries. Those other examples have had mixed success, but there are certainly ways to approach it that don't involve locking up 10-11% of the entire Uyghur population as they're doing now.


The international community has condemned the “re-education” camps, but has yet to take any concrete action. Why do you think that is, and what do you think would be a proper response from the international community? 

There have been some minor actions taken. For example, there's a clothing manufacturer, Badger Sportswear, whose clothes are often sold in college bookstores in the US; it was eventually discovered that the clothes were actually being made in Xinjiang in some of these labor camps, and the political atmosphere is such outside of China that bookstores immediately pulled all the clothes from the shelves. It's a minimal thing, but there's been quite a lot of attention on the issue in Western media, and the media's been pretty good in reporting about this, including sending people to Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. Insofar as that makes more people aware and creates reputational costs for China, I think the publicity surrounding this issue does have an impact. The European governments and the United States have various officials who have spoken about it; there's also been a mild statement coming from Pakistan, a much more pointed statement from Malaysia, a very sharp and direct denunciation of the camps from the Foreign Minister of Turkey, and presumably quiet démarches on the part of diplomats from various places in their individual conversations with Chinese interlocutors. As far as actions countries could take, I think it’s important to have continued scrutiny of what kind of international businesses are doing business in Xinjiang. Boycotts are probably not going to work, and it's very difficult to figure out what exactly is coming from Xinjiang; but certainly, scrutiny as to what items are coming from camps themselves—electric ware, electronic assembly, clothing, food processing, and stuff like that—would be important. On a larger scale, there is now a bill with bipartisan support in the US Congress which would call for sanctions under the global Magnitsky Act, to be implemented by the Treasury Department and the Foreign Ministry. It doesn't single out individual Chinese officials yet, but that would be left up to the Treasury and State Department. Another important aspect of that action is that it calls for the FBI to investigate Chinese intimidation of Uyghurs and others outside of China, and also intimidation and threats to their families. That would provide a lot of useful information about what's going on. Of course, by targeting individual Chinese officials, the sanctions would also have a strong symbolic effect, and certainly China does not want to be targeted by these. Russia has been subjected to these kinds of sanctions, and it's been a big source of concern. I read the bill myself, and from what I can tell it says the right things. The threat of sanctions may be just as effective as if the bill were actually being passed, so I'm not particularly concerned about whether it passes soon. There's a process for this kind of action, and it serves a function even to have the idea there.  

There is also a broader question about what one should do about China in general. We've seen back and forth with issues like trade talks and exchanging tariffs and so on, and it's not immediately effective in changing China's behavior, because China is at a point where it doesn't particularly want its behavior changed at the whims of the United States or anyone else. Of course, given China's economic clout internationally, it's not an easy thing to do. Besides public shaming and constant attention, there don't seem to be a lot of obvious actions the international community can do. I wouldn't want to minimize the importance of the shaming, however. China is very concerned about its international reputation right now. The Belt and Road Initiative has kind of a signature brand for foreign policy, and it’s Xi Jingping's big initiative. The camps in Xinjiang, and the assimilation efforts targeted at Uyghurs and other groups there, really runs contrary to the ideology and pretty pictures of people dancing in native costumes used as propaganda for the Belt and Road. The image of China as a modern, forward-looking, high-tech, harmony purveyor is not helped by barbed wire and concentration camps. In addition to international publicity and shaming, the rest of world could appeal to the common sense understanding that pointing out that China is better as a diverse, multicultural place, with its own ways of dealing with diversity and a vast array of multicultural historical resources. I think that is a useful message to bring across to China's leaders.


Given the extent of government control over information coming in and out of Xinjiang, to what extent do you believe people living elsewhere in China are aware of these issues, and do people living in countries with free press have an obligation to make the conditions of these camps more widely known?

I do think people know about the existence of the camps; most people in China probably think they are a kind of de-radicalization, de-extremization program based on education, because that's been the thrust of the propaganda efforts. There was even a China Central Television (CCTV) documentary about it. People might take CCTV propaganda with a grain of salt, but they're probably unaware of the scale and the types of people who are interned in the camps. It's not just uneducated peasants; it's also elites, artists, intellectuals, university professors, university presidents, and other people like that. I think that fact is probably not very well known. It’s hard to make this issue known inside China–you have to be careful about sending this information through WeChat, emails, and other similar platforms, because the government is watching really closely there—but if you know people and can talk about it safely through other channels of communication, I think that’s important. My experience giving talks to audiences including students from China has generally been quite positive, in that if you explain the situation and give the evidence, people are quite shocked and ask why it’s happening. There's been a lot of concern that Muslim countries need to step up and denounce the detainment more openly; I think it depends on which countries you're talking about, however, as many other countries have their own human rights issues, so it's not clear that public statements from them will be forthcoming. Private statements made behind closed doors would also be helpful. It really is an appalling issue. When people find out about it, they can't believe that there are concentration camps in the 21st century. Obviously, one can draw parallels to the Nazis and Stalinism, as well as to US internment of Japanese Americans. The statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry called it an embarrassment that in the 21st century, we’re still witnessing something like this; I think that kind of framing is important because it will have an impact. China wants to take a leading role in the world; it does not want to be an embarrassment in the 21st century.


Disclaimer: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


James A. Millward is a Professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service teaching Chinese, Central Asian history, and world history. His specialties include the Qing empire, the Silk Road, Eurasian lutes and music in history, and historical and contemporary Xinjiang. He edits the ''Silk Roads'' series for University of Chicago Press, and writes articles and op-eds on contemporary China for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. Professor Millward is also an affiliated professor in the Máster Oficial en Estudios de Asia Oriental at the University of Granada, Spain. In the past, Millward has served on the boards of the Association for Asian Studies (China and Inner Asia Council) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society, for which he served as president in 2010. He received his B.A. from Harvard University, his M.A. from the University of London, and his Ph.D. from Stanford University.