Saying ‘Not This’ to the Colonization of the Uyghurs9 min read

Darren Byler reviews The War on the Uyghurs by Sean Roberts

In his recent book The War on the Uyghurs, Sean Roberts, a scholar of Chinese and Central Asian politics at George Washington University, describes how Uyghur responses to state violence have often been officially misrecognized as “terrorism” – and the way this has provided cover for a pernicious contemporary colonial project. The history of the “terrifying” of the Uyghurs is relatively recent: just nineteen short years. It was exactly four weeks after September 11 2001 that the word “terrorism” was first used by Chinese authorities to describe Uyghurs whom they deemed a threat to Chinese national security.

Prior to the US declaration of the Global War on Terror, Uyghurs were described occasionally as “counterrevolutionaries” or as “separatists”, but never as terrorists. Working in concert with Chinese state security in a Beijing-based investigation, in the early 2000s US intelligence officials took up this rhetoric at least in part as a way of building stronger bilateral ties between the two nations. For example, Roberts notes that in internal briefings “the FBI characterized Uyghurs as a potential ‘terrorist threat’ to the US”. They also began to describe a shadowy, Pakistan-based Uyghur diaspora group that called itself the East Turkestan Islamic Movement “a clear part of the Al-Qaeda network”. While Roberts shows there is scant evidence that the group had much capacity beyond video production, this threat credibility bolstered by the US designation nevertheless provided the Chinese state with cover to begin increased “hard-strike” campaigns in the Uyghur homeland, which began in the 1990s but took on a new intensity in the 2000s, particularly after the protests and violence in Urumqi on July 5, 2009.

By January 2002, the Chinese State Council Information Office had issued a public report that revised the history of Uyghur civil protest and political violence by changing the label of “separatism” to that of “terrorism” – as illustrated by the scholar Gardner Bovingdon in an encyclopedic appendix in his book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (2009). Over the next two decades, like many Muslims around the world, the Uyghurs have been “terrified.” When the Xi administration formally declared the so-called “People’s War on Terror” and in 2014 told local authorities to show “absolutely no mercy”, it turned Uyghurs into a dehumanized other. In state discourse Uyghurs have been represented as demons and rats, in an echo of rhetoric that accompanied concentration camps in both European and North American contexts, for Jews and Japanese-Americans respectively. To be clear, Roberts is not dismissing or denying violent actions carried out by Uyghurs toward the Chinese state (and, in a handful of instances, toward regular non-Muslim citizens). He does, however, demonstrate that the criminal actions carried out by Uyghurs are radically disproportionate to the punishments the state and state proxies (civilian ‘volunteers’, technology companies, factory owners) have imposed on them.

This raises the question: if Uyghur terrorism is a false narrative, as the evidence demonstrates, what are the underlying causes of the Chinese state campaign in Xinjiang and associated camp and workhouse systems? To answer it, Roberts turns to a framework of settler colonialism, and underlying historical and material conditions that produced the antagonism between Uyghurs, the Chinese state and the radically increased Han population in the Uyghur majority areas of Southern Xinjiang. What emerges is a narrative of occupation, dispossession and domination driven by a need to develop and extract resources such as cotton and natural gas, as well as to solidify state power and investment opportunities as Xinjiang became a frontier of global China. Roberts shows how over the past three decades Uyghur institutions, ranging from education and financial systems to more basic religious spaces, and finally the domain of the Uyghur family structure itself, have been targeted by the state in the form of new government leaders and Han settlers.

What emerges is a narrative of occupation, dispossession and domination driven by a need to develop and extract resources such as cotton and natural gas, as well as to solidify state power”

Roberts also provides an authoritative account of how as many as 10,000 Uyghurs fled state violence through the porous Yunnan border with Myanmar, where they joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing for Malaysia and beyond. His book offers a sharp corrective to investigative journalists such as Seymour Hersh, who described the Uyghur escape path as a “rat-line” to Syria and the Islamic State. By echoing Xi Jinping’s dehumanizing rhetoric and referring to Uyghur refugee escape paths as a “rat-line” Hersh participates in an Islamophobic rhetoric that denies Uyghurs basic protections. In his framing, the sole motivating factors of dehumanized Uyghurs in taking this extremely perilous journey was to join a global jihad. As other reporting has shown, some Uyghur refugees were recruited to fight in Turkey’s proxy war in Syria, though most in opposition to the Islamic State. Yet as Roberts shows there is little evidence to suggest that they fled their homeland for this express purpose. Indeed, as an American anthropologist who lived in Xinjiang in the years following Hersh’s writing, I found I often had more knowledge of the Islamic State than most of my Uyghur interviewees. The deeply flawed Islamophobic rhetoric – supported by US intelligence services and amplified by journalists such as Hersh as well as China scholars and political scientists based outside China – provided additional legitimation for China to engage in its mass internment campaign.

The War on the Uyghurs shows that in China, as in the United States, violent acts carried out by Muslims are read as acts of “terrorism” while mass killing of civilians carried out by members of the majority population are explained as derangement and mental illness. Ultimately, the book asks readers to consider the cost of embracing the rhetoric of the “terrorist” (a socially acceptable reframing of the word “savage” or “barbarian”) and what it means to live a secure life. Roberts turns to the work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to think through the way terrorism rhetoric introduces a state of exception in civil and human rights protections. Agamben, who builds a genealogy of criminal justice systems from the ancient Greeks to the Holocaust, argues that such states of exception have been a constant feature in western society. Throughout that history, the bodies of slaves and of minority ethno-racial groups have been deemed to be undeserving of the rights and protections of those in power – and so can be killed or locked away without a moral cost. He argues that the “good life” enjoyed by the majority is in fact premised on this category of exception, and how it allows protected citizens to forget that the success of their societies are built on systems of structural inequality.

Thinking about this framing, I was struck by similarities between this “state of exception” and a short story by the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. In ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, Le Guin describes how the happiness of the citizens of the utopian town of Omelas (Salem, O. – capital of Le Guin’s home state of Oregon – backward, which also means “peace” in Arabic) is dependent on the misery of a small child who has been beaten and locked away in a broom closet. She describes how the majority of the inhabitants try to put knowledge of the child’s suffering out of mind by saying it is necessary and that nothing can be done, or that the child is so deeply damaged already that it will be impossible for her to rejoin society if she is rehabilitated. Still, a minority of them walk away from their happy position in the city, into places unknown. This act of walking away is something the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli reads as a profound declaration of “not this.”

Not this is a declaration that “never again” has in fact “always been.” As Andrea Pitzer has shown in her masterful global history of concentration camps, One Long Night, while the scale and suffering of the death camps of Germany was unprecedented, the exceptional space of such camps – from “enemy alien” camps, to workhouses, to refugee camps – have existed throughout modern history. The genocidal violence toward the Jewish people was not even the last North Atlantic instance of ethno-racialized mass killing. Albanians too were lined up and systemically killed, in crimes against humanity carried out in Kosovo by Serbian forces in the 1990s. But most of this type of violence has happened in the global South – from Rwanda to Myanmar to the US-led war in Iraq and its aftermath. Not this is a call to radical action, not only to stop genocidal events, but to transform social structures that keep peoples locked away in broom closets. Not this demands that people give up a measure of their happiness, protected by their social privilege. Acting in response to China’s war on the Uyghurs means reevaluating products made with Uyghur forced labor and technology systems which disproportionately harm vulnerable populations, but it also means uplifting the voices of those whose family members have disappeared, and standing beside them in solidarity. Not this means seeing Uyghurs, and all Muslims, not as extremists or potential terrorists, but as living communities of caring families, with vibrant histories and dreams of a secure future. It means standing up, wherever you are, and saying that this is not the world you want to live in. ∎

Sean Roberts, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (Princeton University Press, September 2020).
Header: “‘The Three Forces’ Are Rats in the Street; Together We Will Chase Them Down”, a propaganda mural in Xinjiang (courtesy of the Xinjiang Documentation Project).
Works Cited
Agamben, G., Homo sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998)
Bovingdon, G., The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (Columbia University Press, 2010)
Pitzer, A., One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (Hachette UK, 2017)
Povinelli, Elizabeth. A., Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2017)