Until age six, I lived in a guarded compound on the fringes of Urumuqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. My parents had moved to Xinjiang from China’s interior in the mid-1970s as part of the “Support the Border Territories” (支援边疆) movement, which sent patriotic Han Chinese youths to colonize the border provinces: Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjiang.
Every morning at nine o’clock, two loudspeakers posted atop wooden poles at the far end of our compound played “March of the Volunteers,” China’s national anthem. Immediately following was “The East is Red,” which compared Chairman Mao to the sun, rising from the east, bringing freedom and prosperity to all of China. It had been one of the most popular songs during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s last great spasm of violent turmoil before his death in 1976. I would sit on the windowsill of our apartment, feeling the sun warm my skin, my heart swelling with pride as the music crescendoed to its passionate coda. Breakfast was coming soon.
At the time I was fitting my mornings around it, “The East Is Red” was already a remnant of the past, celebrating an outmoded iteration of Chinese Communism. By 1979, Deng Xiaoping had changed course from bloody, egalitarian purges to “letting some people get rich first.” The Cultural Revolution was a massacre masquerading as political reform; its manifold cruelties spared no one. In the 1980s, only a child could listen to, let alone sing, “The East is Red” unironically, as if Chairman Mao were still the savior.
I had always believed our daily reveille of patriotic anthems was intended for those of us who lived inside the compound. But in a recent conversation with my mother about our life in Xinjiang, she told me that the songs were meant for the Uyghur Muslim farmers who lived outside the compound’s walls. When I asked her how she came to this conclusion, my mother reminded me of the position of the loudspeakers. If the songs had been meant for us, then the speakers would have been at the compound’s center. Instead, they were next to the outer walls, facing the planted fields beyond. It just so happened that we lived in the building closest to the outer wall, so the music was the loudest for us.
“After a while, I stopped hearing it,” my mother said. “We were so busy trying to get you ready and then go to work to listen. Besides, we knew those songs by heart.”
When I told my parents that I wanted to write about our life in Xinjiang, they didn’t want to answer my questions on the record. My mother would not say much more about it. To my questions about what jobs she and my father had held, “communications” was as specific as she ever got. As for how exactly they both ended up in Xinjiang—my mother being from Shaanxi Province and my father from Jiangsu—neither of my parents wanted to go into details either. “We were young and wanted to help our country,” my father finally said.
I don’t fault my parents for their hesitation to speak on the record about Xinjiang. By 1989, they had moved from Urumqi to Xi’an, never to return. Despite the patriotic anthems and waves of Han migrants from elsewhere, Xinjiang has remained less than assimilated. But in the course of the past decade, the effort to assimilate it—by driving out Muslim religion and culture—has become ever more heavy-handed, a blend of high-technology lockdown surveillance with old-fashioned total ideological control.
As the situation in Xinjiang continues to worsen, my parents—green-card holders who have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years—feel the pressure of credible reports that the Chinese government retaliates against dissent.
But I am also frustrated by my parents’ non-answers. I see their refusal to speak honestly about our shared past as a shirking of responsibilities. Xinjiang was my first home. It is more than a setting for my most precious and indelible memories. It is the reason I remember any of them at all. I cannot separate the sensation of washing my hands in the bone-chilling water that ran in the canals of Turpan, replenished by ice melt flowing down from the Tianshan mountains, from the intense sweetness of my first taste of grapes, a famed Turpan variety called “mare teats,” so named for their elegant shape.
As I have sought out answers on my own, I have come to see that the idyllic life I led was entangled in Chinese government’s struggle for control over Xinjiang’s land and its people. Whatever my parents are willing to say or not to say, it remains a fact that we were there as part of a plan to put land, resources, and power in the hands of the Han Chinese. We had participated, half-wittingly, in a colonization scheme that is the direct precursor to the atrocities now happening in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to more than 12 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui—ethnic groups that practice various forms of Islam and whose members the People’s Republic of China considers to be its citizens. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who practice a path of Sufism with a strong Sunni orientation. For centuries, they have lived in the oasis towns surrounding the Tarim Basin, a region also known as Altishahr. Ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, totaling about two million, live in the grassy steppe lands north of the Tianshan mountain range. The Hui, ethnic Chinese who practice Islam and have long been a buffer between Xinjiang Muslims and Han settlers, are clustered in the bigger cities.
Crossed by three snow-capped mountain ranges and dominated by a shifting-sand desert the size of modern Germany, Xinjiang has been successively claimed by the Qing Empire, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and finally the People’s Republic of China. Through it all, Xinjiang and its people lived largely on their own terms, repelling repeated attempts to control or restrict its independent, local identity. Xinjiang’s scholars, writers, singers, and religious leaders preserved what they could of centuries-old traditions, all the while generating new, contemporary culture.
China holds contradictory ideas about unity and diversity—it considers itself a nation defined by a particular heritage, centered on the Han Chinese and continuous through thousands of years, while also presenting itself as an expansive and inclusive empire, boasting to the world about its dozens of distinct and colorful minority cultures. On its colonial frontiers, though, the government has come down harshly on the side of unity, in what amounts to a program of cultural genocide.
The present crackdown in Xinjiang began in 2009, officially for the sake of controlling what China—in the spirit of the United States’ Global War on Terror—called extremist violence by Islamist separatists. For most of those years, there was hope that the identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim people would survive and be passed on to future generations.
Now, though, it’s clear the extent of the campaign against Xinjiang Muslims has exceeded everyone’s fears. Reports of mass reeducation camps have been confirmed by satellite images and government procurement announcements. The most recent estimates, from January, place nearly one million people, about 10 percent of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, in heavily guarded compounds that have been compared to concentration camps.
Researchers have confirmed the construction of at least 73 such camps throughout Xinjiang, and believe there could be as many as 180. The Chinese government disavows the terms “re-education camps”, “concentration camps” and “internment camps,” but its own public web postings have praised so-called “job skills education training camps” for Uyghurs and set guidelines for the ongoing “de-extremification campaign” of Chinese Muslims living in Xinjiang.
Chen Quanguo, Party Secretary of Xinjiang and the man responsible for the mass imprisonment, honed his particular skills for ethnic suppression in Tibet, where from 2011 to 2016 he implemented a vast system of surveillance and control. In Xinjiang, Chen has used the same tactics, establishing police checkpoints at set intervals along major thoroughfares in all the cities, and perfecting the so-called “grid-style social management” that posts “grid administrators” in residential areas, each responsible for the surveillance of about 500 people.
The combination of these two systems has made the mass detention possible. Targeting Muslim males between the ages of 20 to 50, those with contacts abroad, and basically anyone who is a practicing Muslim, the authorities first send them summonses with no particular cause. Anyone who refuses, who manages to escape, does so knowing they are proving their disobedience, so that their family members will be interned in their stead.
The camps have been described as a combination of prison and re-education. Putonghua dialect, Communist Party discourse, and China’s national anthem are mandatory courses. Punishment is common and cruel. Accounts by ex-detainees say that people have been subjected to waterboarding, shackling, and being kept awake for days. The lengths of detention are never clear. The result is an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that indeed has quelled the population.
The speed at which China is constructing the camps, the increasing length of internment, and the extreme secrecy with which China has treated the camps, including censorship of foreign media, have raised alarm that the worst is still to come. And the Uyghurs, because of their large population and relative dominance in the region, have become the focus of Chinese enforcement priorities. In August, at a meeting of United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the panel of experts concluded as credible the “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried.”
In response, the Chinese government has claimed that its actions in Xinjiang are counterterrorism operations, and more insidiously, that it is following international norms. It is true that back in August 2002, seeking China’s cooperation and to reassure its leadership that Operation Enduring Freedom was not counter to China’s interests, the Bush Administration agreed to designate the Uyghur independence movement, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization.
But since then, the Chinese government has blamed Islamist separatists for every incident and conflict between Uyghurs and Han, regardless of where it happens, or what disagreement had in fact provoked the confrontations. For its part, with a few exceptions, the U.S. has largely stayed out of China’s way when it comes to Xinjiang. China’s successful manipulation of America’s favorite buzzwords since 9/11—national security, sovereignty, antiterrorism—has given sufficient cover, if not legitimation, to the brutality of its policies in Xinjiang.
Even in this genuine moment of emergency, it’s hard to rally the liberal democracies in the West to defend religious freedom for Muslims. Under the Trump Administration, the United States has exhibited an intense Islamophobia and xenophobia. Internationally, an increasing number of governments have decided it is necessary to regulate the dress, speech, movement, and association of Muslims. A cynic would even look at the current U.S. trade war against China and see Xinjiang as just another bargaining chip, a useful point of political criticism to extract economic concessions.
When I told my mother about the re-education camps, the pointless daily lessons on Communist doctrine, the forced separation of children from parents, and the documented deaths, she tried to deny the facts at first. Even if it was true, she told me, the Uyghurs weren’t the first to experience it.
“These are the same things that we went through,” she said. “And we had to go to places really far from home.”
“Places like Xinjiang,” she added.
The Chinese government is punishing the Uyghurs as it has punished all of its citizens deemed insubordinate. Writing in the days after the Tiananmen Massacre, the Sinologist Simon Leys stated plainly that the Communist Party’s operating imperative means that “in any circumstance and at any cost, political power must be retained in its totality.”
Religious belief is inherently opposed to this totality of control, because for the faithful, a political party can never supplant the legitimacy of the divine. When faith is the enemy of the state, the national interest requires the suffering of the faithful.