We can’t say we didn’t know.
Reports of the repression of Muslims living in northwestern China have been leaking out for years in drips and drabs. Satellite photos picked up the construction of massive prison facilities in the Xinjiang province. The BBC was even invited into one of the “thought transformation camps,” from which inmates are released a few hours a week, to see the program of patriotic re-education. Inmates were frank with the Beeb’s reporters that religious activity — including prayer — was banned inside the building.
Now, in the last week, a more complete picture of Beijing’s repression campaign has emerged. Leaked memos have revealed some of the details of China’s modernized and tech-supported religious persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang. These are the first Venona cables of our generation. They make certain what sharp observers must have guessed: China uses cutting-edge technology to identify, classify, and detain Muslims for re-education in the old-school argot of totalitarian Communism. President Xi Jinping has instructed the party members and public officials involved in this repression to show “absolutely no mercy” and make ample use of the “organs of dictatorship” to accomplish their mission.
The leaked memos include lines that will be cited as exculpatory in the future — they show Xi counseling against proposals to “eradicate” Islam entirely. But the larger picture painted by the documents is one of state apparatus mobilized in the service of repression, aiming to make up for lost time in which Uighurs and Kazaks were allowed to worship, practice, and believe as they pleased. “The weapons of the people’s democratic dictatorship must be wielded without any hesitation or wavering,” Xi is quoted as saying.
Distressingly, Xi could occasionally sound like some of the West’s “New Atheists” when talking about his fellow citizens. “People who are captured by religious extremism — male or female, old or young — have their consciences destroyed,” he says. They “lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.”
There really isn’t any mistaking the strategy here: The ethnic balance of southern Xinjiang is to be transformed through the state-aided resettlement of Han Chinese in the region. While there are token concessions to the idea of allowing Uighurs to retain their religion, the use of Turkic languages has been discouraged. China is attempting to deprive Uighurs of their ethnolinguistic identity, the very rudiments of their nationality. These efforts have unsurprisingly inspired intermittent riots and violence in recent years, which have in turn been used to justify the expansion of the re-education camps.
The most chilling aspect of this repression is the use of information technology. An incredible, Orwellian surveillance system is used to monitor the movements of Xinjiang’s people. The cameras are placed prominently throughout cities such as Kashgar and surrounding towns to remind people that they are being watched. Algorithms are deployed to facilitate the classification and selection of Uighurs for the camps.
It’s a tyranny that we have helped to enable. China’s prosperity and technological progress, generated in no small part by its ability to trade in such high volume with the United States, have empowered its government to do this. Our desire to keep trading with China obliges the president of the United States to remain silent about this barbarity.
In short, the leaked documents make clear that the West desperately needs to recover its ability to privilege political and moral aims over the immediate exigencies of the market, which can tolerate even this kind of repression and in fact may operate more smoothly alongside it. The power of China’s tyranny grows in parallel with our fatalism about it, and our determination to be consoled by its economic upside. But enough is enough.