Review: The War on the Uyghurs

The War on the Uyghurs, Sean R. Roberts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the People’s Republic of China’s suppression of the Uyghur minority within its borders, including its use of the U.S.-initiated Global War on Terror to pursue religious and political persecution, re-education, internment camps, and intermarriage to effect what the author calls “cultural genocide.

The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim people of the Turkic linguistic family. The largest portion of the population lives in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the western part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There are also Uyghur populations in several other Central Asian countries as well as a refugee community in Turkey. Since 2001 they have undergone increasingly repressive treatment. They have a long history in this part of the world, first becoming subject to China under the Qing dynasty.

Sean R. Roberts has spent the last several decades studying this people, first for his doctoral work. He has interviewed people both inside the XUAR, when this did not put them at risk, and lived in homes of Uyghurs in surrounding countries. In this work he recounts their history and describes the growth of increasing repressive treatment of the PRC’s Uyghur population in what amounts to what he calls “cultural genocide.” He begins by describing early colonial efforts of Qing and Han dynasties, rising nationalist hopes during the 1940’s under Soviet control, the early accommodation under Mao, with increasing efforts at assimilation during the Cultural Revolution. The 1980’s represented the last breath of accommodation before growing settler colonialism and efforts at integrating the XUAR into the rest of the PRC.

After disturbances in Baren in 1990 and Ghulja in 1997, resisting government policies, the PRC responded with increasing security crackdowns. Then 2001 came and with it, the U.S. led Global War on Terror (GWOT). Roberts traces how China used GWOT to designated a tiny group, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement as a Uyghur terrorist organization, one operating outside its national boundaries but intent on terrorist acts within the country, with the aid of indigenous Uyghur populations. A good part of the book examines this claim, showing that the group and its successors typically consisted of 5 to 25 individuals more adept at creating threatening videos than any actual terrorist acts. Yet this justified further crackdowns on the PRC’s Uyghur population. Threats around the Beijing Olympics in 2008 including a bus bombing in Shanghai and a 2009 riot in Urumqi, within XUAR, served as further proof of “terrorist” threats.

All of this justified PRC’s efforts at settler colonialism to dilute Uyghur influence and counterterrorism efforts that involved increased surveillance, bans on religious practices, state-run schools, and the suppression of the Uyghur language. Much of this took place between 2002 and 2012.The next several years were a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Uyghur resistance rose in recognition that their cultural identity was under attack. Then came brutal measures from 2017 on to wipe out the Uyghur identity in what would become simply Xinjiang. Some were able to flee, Many men were sent to internment camps. Uyghur settlements were destroyed and replaced with apartment blocks settled by Han settlers. Due to male internment and “one child” policies among the Han, there were many “forced” intermarriages of Uyghur women to Han men. Internees were dispersed throughout China as factory workers.

Roberts’ account depends on two key concepts: his definition of terror as acts that are “violent, politically motivated, and deliberately target civilians” and his use of the idea of “cultural genocide” which is the cultural if not bodily destruction of a people. As to the first, he argues that there is scant evidence of a real Uyghur terrorist threat with only a few isolated incidents that are not a part of a premeditated scheme. Furthermore, almost none of the indigenous Uyghur population could in any way be associated with this threat, yet China’s use of the GWOT served as pretext for its campaign against this Muslim minority. “Cultural genocide” argues that there are more ways to eliminate people than mass killings and that the systematic campaign of settler colonialism, educational assimilation, interment, forced intermarriage, dispersion, and religious suppression is also genocidal even if there are few dead Uyghurs as a result.

Roberts’ conclusion is chilling. He argues that indifference to the fate of the Uyghurs gives permission for others to do the same. Where will it end? He points to three concerning global trends 1) the eclipse of privacy with the rise of electronic surveillance ubiquitous among all of us, 2) the decline of respect for human rights, a decline that during the GWOT includes the U.S., and 3) the re-emergence of settler colonialism and nationalism, justifying the suppression and assimilation of minorities. Do we really want a situation where it may be said, “First they came for the Uyghurs…”?