‘Ethnic extinction’ in northwest China

Society & Culture

State policies in education are forcing Uyghur children to grow up in non-Muslim, Mandarin-speaking environments. Uyghur culture is being lost as a result.

Uyghur ethnic extermination - illustration by Alex Santafe
Illustration by Alex Santafé

“That’s right. Since I’m from Southern Xinjiang I know that I’ll never be able to find a job,” Kaiser told the Han taxi driver in Mandarin. “If you don’t have connections, you won’t even be considered for jobs. This country doesn’t serve the needs of the ‘common people.’”

Kaiser used the term “lǎobǎixìng 老百姓” — or “old 100 names” — to refer to the predicament of the common people. Of course, the surnames that belong to these “old 100” — Wang, Li, Xi and so on — do not include the names of Uyghurs. Turkic Muslim Uyghurs don’t use family names as surnames; instead, the given names of their fathers become their surname.

Nonetheless, the Han driver accepted Kaiser’s claim to “laobaixing” identity without batting an eye. The middle-aged man with a crew-cut replied, “That’s right. The other day, when I was at this intersection here at Solidarity Road” — he gestured out the window — “there was some sort of motorcade up to the governor’s residence. We just had to sit here waiting for 30 minutes until they passed. That’s the kind of country we live in. This country is just for the leaders and their friends. It is the sort of thing where if they say ‘one,’ you can’t say ‘two.’” He shook his head in disgust.

At this point in the conversation, I laughed a bit, which made the driver laugh a bit too, in a bitter kind of way. He was surprised to find out that the person scribbling notes in the backseat was an American anthropologist. I told him I had been doing research in Ürümchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for most of 2014, that is why I spoke Chinese and Uyghur. He laughed. He had thought he was just venting to two Uyghur college students in the back seat of his unauthorized taxi. When we got out, it felt as though we were old friends.

As I walked with Kaiser, we talked about the ride. “That was what it sounds like when a Han guy says what he really thinks,” he said. “Here at school in our political education classes, the teachers just talk about how just and fair the country is and how much everything is improving and developing, but none of us Uyghurs believe this. It doesn’t feel real to us, so how could we believe it? That guy knows this too.”

The next day I brought up this conversation with a couple of Uyghurs who I had gotten to know over the past months. I said that it felt like we had experienced a kind of “ethnic solidarity” (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) — the euphemism that was so commonly used to describe the way Uyghurs should welcome Chinese colonial Xinjiang policy. Both of them visibly grimaced.

“I hate the term solidarity,” one of them told me. “You know they use other terms too, like ‘harmony’ (和谐 héxié) or ‘fusion’ (融合 rónghé). I like those terms better because we can at least argue that it means that we are different. Like if you think about strings on a dutar (a traditional Uyghur two-stringed lute), it sounds better when the different strings are played together. I know this isn’t really what they mean, but I like to imagine that this is what harmony might mean. Mutual respect, not shared identity.” For them, “solidarity” in achieving the revolution Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 called for or a vague China Dream as Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 imagined felt like giving up too much.

Looking back at all that has transpired in Xinjiang since these 2014 conversations, it is clear that neither “ethnic solidarity” nor “harmony” is considered a possibility. In 2018, the former governor of Ürümchi, Nur Bekri, the same man that the taxi driver had complained about, was arrested along with hundreds of other Uyghur cultural leaders, and sentenced to life in prison. One of the young men who told me they hated the term “solidarity” disappeared into a camp. Kaiser’s brother was sent to a reeducation camp because he had listened to Islamic teachings with a friend outside of the mosque. In Xinjiang, ethnic solidarity appears to be giving way to ethnic extinction.

“Ethnic extinction”

As the Chinese political theory scholar David Tobin has shown in a recent book, the term “ethnic extinction” — or mínzú xiāowáng 民族消亡 — first appeared as a state-promoted social project following large-scale violence in 2009 in the Uyghur region. In the summer nearly exactly 12 years ago in a factory in eastern China, around a half-dozen Uyghur migrant workers were bludgeoned to death by Han migrant workers in front of jeering crowds and smartphones. Uyghur protesters demanded justice and protections for Uyghur workers, who the government had recruited in a project to proletarianize rural farmers. Lynch mobs formed on the streets of Ürümchi. Many Han and Uyghur citizens were killed with knives, clubs, and paving bricks, but some witnesses indicate that state authorities supported Han vigilantes who hunted Uyghurs and that the military police used automatic weapons to target Uyghur protesters. One Han participant told Tobin proudly, “We battered the Uyghurs.”

Tobin shows that following the 2009 violence, a plan to erase ethnic difference through a program of cultural elimination began to emerge. This forcible campaign stood in contrast to an older incentive-based “ethnic assimilation” policy that held that a combination of Han settlement and economic development would gradually erode Uyghur ethnic distinctiveness. Now the Xinjiang Education Bureau called for the “transcendent ethnicity” of the Han to fuse with the “backward” Uyghur identity, pulling it into the “highest stage” of its development: “extinction.” And replacing it with a new “higher level” identification with the Chinese nation and a Chinese ethnicity. In fact, they were calling for an identity that was dominated by Han norms and Chinese language.

This rhetoric did not stay in Xinjiang policy documents. Instead, it was taken up by a so-called second generation of Beijing-based ethnic studies scholars and policymakers, who were Han, who envisioned a strong Chinese identity centered around a Han ethno-nation. While they advocated the continued limited use of minority languages in the Chinese education system in the short-term, over time they envisioned a “modern” Chinese identity, figured as inevitable and value-neutral, that would eliminate minority ethnicity language use. This, they thought, would help to build the universal value of Mandarin Chinese as a spoken language of global power.

One of these scholars, Mǎ Róng 马 戎, who received his PhD in sociology from Brown University before returning to China, advocated that minority ethnicities should be stripped of formal political recognition and their schools become monolingual like the education system of the United States. He did not appear to recognize that the lack of educational autonomy protections for Native Americans, the social position that most closely resembles the Uyghurs, especially the “residential school” system, contributed to the erasure of Native American identities. Instead, as the anthropologist Timothy Grose has shown in another recent book, Ma and others advocated for a school system that closely resembled the colonial education system used in the United States and Canada.

The “reeducation camps” and associated factories that were built by the Xinjiang Public Security Bureaus across the region beginning in 2015 should be seen as a direct result of this education policy. Like reform schools and workhouses that incarcerated Native Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S., the ostensible goals of the camps are to teach detainees language skills, belief systems, and industrial discipline.

The education policy of inevitable “ethnic extinction” moved beyond the camps, factories, and prisons into the Uyghur villages and homes themselves. In March of 2019, Kaiser began to observe that his sister, who was just about to enter high school, started to add Chinese words into their Uyghur conversations. When he asked her about this, she said that it was the only language she spoke every day, so it was hard to switch back to Uyghur. When she was 12 she had been forced to leave home and live in a boarding school around an hour from their village. Since her parents did not have a car or permission to travel, it was impossible for her to see them except on planned visits, when she was allowed to take the bus home for a day or two on the weekend.

Kaiser’s sister, like Uyghur children across the region, was immersed in a “bilingual” education system that sets out to eliminate local native languages and traditions, with focused teaching of Mandarin.

This part of the “ethnic extinction” process was enforced by removing children from their homes. First, nearly all schools above eighth grade became residential schools, where students are held behind walls except on weekend home visits. Then, beginning in 2017, many elementary schools and nurseries also became residential schools. In this way, Uyghur children of all ages were increasingly separated from their parents. At the same time, as documented in thousands of job advertisements posted by Social Security Bureaus across Xinjiang, the teachers in Uyghur schools were replaced with newly hired Han elementary school teachers and daycare workers from other parts of China. The basic requirements for these jobs, aside from Mandarin fluency, was “support for the Party’s line, guidelines, and policies, conscientiously safeguarding the unity of the motherland, ethnic solidarity and social stability, while adamantly opposing ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities, and not believing in religion or participating in religious activities.”

A group of nearly 90,000 newly hired avowedly non-Muslim educators pushed existing state-employed Uyghur educators to the side. In a 2020 conversation, a Uyghur woman now living in North America told me she asked her mother, a former school teacher, about the conditions of the elementary school near Kaiser’s village. “She told me, ‘None of our people are teachers anymore. Those that are older, like me, have retired. The younger ones now work as cleaners in the school.’” In order to remain in teaching positions, Uyghurs had to prove they could speak and teach Chinese language with near-native fluency and have spotless family backgrounds. For most Uyghur educators, this was simply impossible.

Uyghur children across the region are now effectively raised in a non-Muslim, Mandarin-speaking environment. Beginning on September 1, 2017, primary schools across the region began to change their “bilingual” curriculum to a Chinese-only “mode 2” program. An announcement published by the education department of Bortala County, a county in a prefecture near Kaiser’s home, noted, “In the end, only Chinese will be taught.”

The comfort of state rule

For Uyghurs and Kazakhs on watchlists, primarily those who are the relatives of prisoners and detainees, the reeducation campaign is even more intensive. The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs has assigned civil servants to serve as monitors for this targeted population. These 1.1 million civil servants are instructed to describe themselves as “relatives” of the Muslim families to which they are assigned. The manuals they use tell them to make sure that the families are not practicing Islam, that they profess their loyalty to the government, and that their children are learning Chinese. They also tell them to “comfort” the families during the difficulty of the campaign. But often these exercises in comfort amount to sessions where Uyghurs are told what to think and feel. They appear to be efforts to reaffirm Party doctrine and make Han people feel good about all they have done to “save” Muslims.

On July 8, 2020, the “relatives” assigned to Uyghur families in a southern precinct of Ürümchi took their Muslim neighbors on a tour of the newly renovated museum located at the former residence of Mao Zedong’s younger brother, Máo Zémín 毛泽民. The most famous Communist Party martyr in Xinjiang, Mao Zemin was executed in 1943 by the Chinese Nationalist governor of the region, Shèng Shìcái 盛世才, before Sheng fled to Taiwan. The younger Mao had come to Xinjiang in hopes of seeking medical treatment for a chronic illness in the Soviet Union, and stayed on in the borderland to serve as the eyes and ears of the Communist Party.

In the museum, the tour guides showed Uyghur “relatives” how Mao Zemin strove to achieve the “liberation of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.” As they moved through the exhibition, they came across a section that presented in ghoulish detail the way Mao was tortured on a “tiger chair” — his hands and feet strapped down — while he was beaten in ways that exacted the greatest amount of pain without passing out. The dark cavernous space is a scene of horror.

A reconstructed torture chamber in the Mao Zemin museum.

It is hard not to imagine that for the Uyghur relatives of detainees, the exhibition must have evoked an unintended personalized fear. Among Uyghurs, most know that detainees — the family members and friends of the Uyghurs at the museum that day — have also been tortured in “tiger chairs” since the mass internment and state comfort campaign began. Nevertheless, the Uyghurs knew the right things to tell state media. One of them said that the exhibition showed him “our beautiful life was achieved through the sacrifice of countless revolutionary martyrs. I want to tell everyone what I have seen and heard today. My family and friends will listen and tell everyone to cherish the good life we have now and resolutely fight those who try to destroy our good life to the end.” By saying “our beautiful life,” he strove to show that he identified with Mao Zemin’s pain, as a member of “the common people,” even while he was not permitted to grieve what had happened to his own friends and family.

The exhibition also featured an entire section on the way Mao Zemin “established rules and regulations to comfort ‘the people’” prior to his death. The museum now stands as a monument to the “blood and soil” sacrifices made by Chinese authorities in colonizing Uyghur lands. As the Turkic Muslim gender studies scholar, who writes under the pseudonym Yi Xiaocuo puts it, a principle of “blood lineage is a powerful symbol used by the Party-state to envision and sometimes cleanse its political and national body.”

The museum, as a centerpiece of current Xinjiang policy, asks Uyghurs to be grateful for the Han blood that was spilled in their colonization and to reimagine it as their own blood. And, in the rhetoric of the exhibition, the Xinjiang mandate of the Chinese Communist Party appears not to change in nearly 80 years. The state workers are still supposed to be “comforting” Uyghurs by teaching them the rules that apply to “the people,” even as they take their children and family members away from them.

Yet as much as Han control has always been a central element of the People’s Republic of China, the unabashed push for Han dominance has become much more explicit under the Xi Jinping administration. As Tobin shows in his book, during Mao Zemin’s time, “ethnic extinction” was a solely negative project associated with the Chinese Nationalists who would later flee to Taiwan and Western imperial colonial projects. Mao Zemin’s older brother, Mao Zedong, warned against Han ethnocentrism, something he referred to as Han chauvinism. As he put it in a 1953 Party directive, “We must go to the root and criticize the Han chauvinist ideas which exist to a serious degree among many Party members and cadres.” Instead, the Chinese Communists must strive, he argued, to help other nationalities achieve their own communist autonomy.

A Chinese ethno-state

The multiethnic stance of the early period of the PRC has now been openly reversed. In December 2020, a Han official was placed in charge of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission for the first time in 66 years. This legal body was set up explicitly to defend the rights of minorities. In 2019, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper on Uyghur history that stated directly that Uyghurs are not a Turkic people, that Islam is not their “natural” religion, and that maintaining normative halal standards was anti-civilization. It appears now as though an unapologetically Chinese ethno-state is here to stay.

It is also clear that proclamations of the “foreignness” of non-Han indigenous identities in China are not limited to the Uyghurs. In 2020 national education administrators outlawed the bilingual education policy that allowed Mongols to study primarily in their own language. Instead, they are now forced to study in Mandarin. There are also strong indications that state authorities will institute a similar policy at a national level regarding Tibetan language education. In summary, all ethnic minorities who speak their own language as their first language appear to be on the verge of being subsumed by Han-centric Chinese language education.

The harms of Chinese ethnonationalism are most sharply felt in Xinjiang. Not only has the new Han chauvinism produced mass imprisonment of as many as 1 in 10 Uyghur men, family separation that results from internment and residential boarding schools has become endemic. Back in Uyghur villages the education policy combined with the broader “de-extremification” campaign has targeted the basic material forms of Uyghur history. In a 2020 article, Grose shows how local officials have demanded that Uyghurs redesign their housing interiors to reflect “modern” Chinese norms. This requires them to eliminate communal platforms and replace them with cheap sofas. They have also plastered over Islamic architectural features on their walls. In another article, he shows how Uyghur marriages and funerals are now officiated by state workers. A historian of Uyghur material culture, Rian Thum, has also shown that the Chinese government has bulldozed over 100 graveyards across the region as part of a state project to “standardize” burial practices. Thum argues that “the desecration of shrines, the forced reordering of household space, and the demolition of cities in the name of modernity, civilization, and development have all been common tactics of conquering empires and, especially, settler colonial projects around the world.”

For Uyghurs, ethnic identity is built from the place where they are born and their ancestors are buried. The priorness of being rooted in a place, and all of the claims to self-determination that such a position entails, is what makes it a primary target of elimination by the “reeducation” system in the Uyghur region. Drawing on examples ranging from North America to Australia, the historian Patrick Wolfe notes that “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” Ethnic extinction is not just about desecration, it is also about making something new. Through this process, Uyghur land is remade into Chinese property, and Uyghur behavior is controlled and ordered by the state. The standardization of Uyghur funeral practices is a way of reclaiming Uyghur cemetery space for real estate development, “happiness” park construction, and parking lots, and, in some cases, simply blank space. Bulldozed graveyards are a physical manifestation of ethnic extinction.

In a 2018 interview, a Han government official told a reporter that what is happening to the Uyghurs was specific to them. “They just don’t have human rights,” he said. Ethnic extinction is often framed as a kind of dissipation, a disappearance of a minority into the majority group. But, because Uyghurs like Kaiser have now been marked as undeserving of the protections of the common people — the laobaixing — ethnic extinction, at least for many, is a process of demolition. This in turn is destroying the space of class-based solidarity between Han and Uyghurs. The space of dissonant fusion where ethnic difference is recognized and protected is likewise on the brink of extinction.


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