Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The violent suppression 10 years ago on July 5 of a protest march in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China, was a pivotal moment in the struggle of the Uighur people to defend their rights. For the Uighurs, the crackdown meant the end of any hope that the Chinese authorities might heed their call to redress mounting grievances over economic marginalization and political and cultural repression. And for the Chinese government, it signaled the urgent need to intensify repression of the Muslim Uighur minority, which it justifies in the name of fighting terrorism.
The stepped-up repression is being carried out through a series of military, political, economic and surveillance programs that constitute the most comprehensive system of population control and oppression anywhere in the world today. It has not just subjugated the Uighur people but also now threatens their very survival.
One instrument of repression is the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps , or Bingtuan, which was established by Mao Zedong in 1954, soon after China annexed East Turkestan, as the Central Asian region was then called. Administered independently of the regional government and originally settled by 170,000 Chinese soldiers, the Bingtuan has had two purposes: It colonizes the region with Han Chinese who work and live on lands largely confiscated from Uighurs. And it controls the local Uighur population, which was considered to be dangerously untrustworthy because of its Turkic Muslim character.
Today the Bingtuan commands a population of almost 3 million Han Chinese and runs thousands of enterprises that produce 17 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. But in the aftermath of the 2009 crackdown in Urumqi, its main purpose is security. It maintains 14 divisions that correspond to the prefecture-level administrative units of Xinjiang, and its militias are scattered throughout the province. According to a State Council white paper produced shortly after President Xi Jinping visited the region in 2014 and called for building up the corps as “a stabilizing force,” the Bingtuan militias are effective because they surround Uighur population centers and can strike swiftly if there is trouble anywhere. They patrolled Urumqi after the violence and have a system that “combines production, training, duty performance, and emergency response.” About 100,000 employees in Bingtuan enterprises are members of the militias, and one of them said recently that each militia-run farm is in the mode of “preparing for war to maintain stability.”
Another instrument of repression is the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism that was launched in 2014. It made any peaceful expression of Muslim identity, such as having a long beard or wearing a veil, grounds for arrest on suspicion of disloyalty. The campaign’s ability to identify “untrustworthy” Uighurs was vastly expanded by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, a system of digital surveillance that involves the compulsory mass collection of biometric data (voice samples, for example, and iris scans) and other personal information, as well as the use of artificial intelligence and big data to track all Uighurs and flag anyone who might be problematic.
Using this increased surveillance capability, party secretary Chen Quanguo, who was transferred to Xinjiang from Tibet in 2016, has created a system of extrajudicial internment camps for the confinement and political indoctrination of all suspect Uighurs. Possibly as many as 3 million Uighurs — more than a quarter of the Uighur population — are being held in these camps today, according to Pentagon official Randall Schriver, and reports of deaths have raised concerns about torture and other harsh punishments.
The conditions for Uighurs who are not in the camps are almost as harsh since the regime, under the Unite as One Family program, has mobilized more than 1 million civilians, most of them Han Chinese, to occupy Uighur homes and undertake programs of indoctrination and surveillance. The intruders present themselves as elder siblings who are bringing Han civilization to Uighur society.
There are obviously important differences between what the Chinese regime is doing today to the Uighurs and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. The regime’s program is not extermination, but there is no question that it is determined to destroy the Uighur religion and identity. In place of bullets and gas, it is using comprehensive digital surveillance and asphyxiating physical and social controls, and its plan has a longer time frame. But postmodern genocide is genocide nonetheless. The goal is the same.
There is also much more known about what is happening to the Uighurs today than the world knew during the Holocaust. This is not a “terrible secret,” the title of Walter Laqueur’s account of how little the world knew about the Final Solution when it occurred.
Today the world knows about what is happening in the Uighur homeland. If the “Never Again!” pledge is to have any meaning, it should be a rallying cry to save the Uighur people.