The Red Priests of Power, Part 2: Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, Ideological Purity, and Ethnoreligious Erasure
In the last installment of this series, I never explained why I chose to name this series “The Red Priests of Power.” Before I write on the greatest human rights violation taking place today, I’d like to explain.
The term “priests of power” originates from George Orwell’s novel "1984," which astonishingly forecasted the structure of governance on the Chinese mainland in the modern age.
The book takes place in Oceania, a dystopian nation that includes Britain, in which one Party rules and carefully monitors every aspect of society through methods of mass surveillance. The everlasting image of the Party is the stern, omniscient face of Big Brother. Order is enforced through repressive practices like the Ministry of Truth, in which the main character, Winston, works. His job is to go through newspapers and history texts and modify certain things in accordance with the Party’s present values. In solitary, he owns an illegal diary where he writes down certain thoughts that would be deemed “thoughtcrime.” He has already accepted that eventually, he’ll be caught and punished for it.
Eventually, Winston is captured for thinking against the standard of thought enforced by the regime (by entertaining the manifesto of the rebellion group that seeks to undermine the Party) and placed into a reintegration program. His former Party associate, O’Brien, who initially baited him into slipping up, gives the following speech:
We are the priests of power. God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual … Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.
There is an ideological ruling class governing China’s collective thinking, enforced by a party of leaders sworn to self-preservation and hostility toward dissent. The country’s constitution changes at breakneck speed, and its text is only legitimate depending on who is at the head of the dragon. Its leaders are not perceived as servants of the people, but rather as near-mythical models of Chinese beings. Two years ago, the Chinese Constitution saw an important addition to its preamble: Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, or in Chinese: 习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想. Branded as the philosophy of a soft-spoken zealot, they consist of personal values and political principles that are increasingly mandatory in primary, secondary, and university classrooms. Chinese political thought isn’t simply a small component of a broader consideration of ethnic and economic values; it guides and informs those ethnic and economic values.
Through a constantly changing constitutional text, not only is Xi Jinping equated to People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong—whose image hangs on the wall or front door of nearly every house and apartment in China—he is also equated to Confucious, the ancient, everlasting figure of spiritualism, wisdom, and honor. In Chinese culture, Confucious is the one that says “treat others the way you wish to be treated,” not Jesus Christ. In Chinese fables, Confucius is the main character, drawing aphorisms from life’s banality in the Aesopian spirit. And now, that character has inhibited the warm, broad-cheeked visage of Xi Jinping, your friendly uncle who has also OK’d the mass jailing of Uyghur Muslims into internment camps in the Northwest region of Xinjiang. The Communist Party has designated itself a core element of China’s national and historical identity. If you oppose the Party, you oppose your own country. Your own people. Your own people’s history. It’s a clever way to vilify dissent, to effect a culturally and historically informed groupthink.
From the "1984" quote I mentioned earlier: “The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual … But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.” Mao Zedong has done just that, with his most recent successor, Xi Jinping, aligning himself with this dynamic in the name of Chinese ideological and ethnoreligious purity. As the culturally infused narrative that arms today’s CCP, most of mainland China is okay with the mass internment camps in Xinjiang.
The People’s Republic’s relationship with facts and history is strikingly similar to the practices of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The most resonant example of this is how the CCP has addressed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. According to leaked documents from a meeting protecting then-President Deng Xiaoping during the event, Foreign Affairs magazine reported in detail the “lessons party leaders drew from the Tiananmen crisis: first, that the Chinese Communist Party is under permanent siege from enemies at home colluding with enemies abroad; second, that economic reform must take a back seat to ideological discipline and social control; and third, that the party will fall to its enemies if it allows itself to be internally divided.”
Eminent Domain Over Muslim Bodies
Here are some fast facts about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s geography, demographics, and history. Today, the sprawling northwestern province is made up of 10 million Uyghurs and 9 million ethnic Han Chinese. The Han Chinese live mainly in the region of Dzungaria, north of the Tianshan Mountains near Ürümqi, the provincial capital. Uyghurs are concentrated in the south, in the Tarim Basin, which is poorer and less developed; the Economist magazine refers to these arid, rural Uyghur communities as “oasis towns.” The two regions are separated by the Taklimakan desert.
Since 2016, the Chinese government has been detaining Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang based on a list of “politically incorrect” behaviors, which the state has labeled “75 signs of religious extremism.” The justification for such low-bar standards, according to Chinese public officials, is to stop terrorist activity before it occurs. Such signs include ridiculously specific and banal observations: how far someone’s legs are while they pray, what color their hair is dyed, if they wear religious clothing during Ramadan, wearing trousers that are “too short,” and wearing watches on their right wrist. “We talk with whoever exhibits any of the signs and ask them to correct their behavior,” an anonymous local village secretary in Hotan told Radio Free Asia in 2017. “If they refuse to cooperate, we send them for re-education in order to liberate their thoughts and minds.”
Beijing calls these detention centers the “Vocational Education and Training Centers for the People’s Republic of China.” Sans newspeak, these are internment camps for Muslim Turks. “The internment program aims to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities,” reported the Associated Press in May of 2018. “The camps have expanded rapidly over the past year, with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork.” Another article headlined “Inside the camps where China tries to brainwash Muslims until they love the party and hate their own culture” reports that “Detainees who most vigorously criticize the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings, and food deprivation.”
China has justified its treatment of Muslims in resource-rich Xinjiang by touting it as a crackdown on separatism and extremism, as part of the global struggle against Islamic terrorism, and a response to various attacks took place in Europe which the CCP suggests were enabled by flimsy immigration laws and naively accepting cultures. “Look at Belgium, look at Paris, look at some other European countries,” said Li Xiaojun, the publicity director at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office. “You have failed.”
“The Uyghur people adopted Islam, not of their own volition … but had it forced upon them by religious wars and the ruling class,” claims the State Council’s public information office. The State Council is functionally similar to the U.S. President’s Cabinet. The paper from which I drew this quote constitutes the latest effort to advance this anti-terrorist narrative, with a focus on how its “hard-hitting” approach has helped thwart terror attacks by simply arresting and detaining Muslims en masse. It goes to state that “since 2014, [Xinjiang’s government] has destroyed 1,588 terrorist groups, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, investigated and punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials.” But it did not state how many people had been detained in the re-education camps, which it said were purposed toward eradicating the influence of “terrorism and extremism” on people who had either carried out minor offenses or openly expressed their religious beliefs and traditions in a public sphere.
“What we are seeing now in East Turkestan is more than just repression: it is an intentional campaign of assimilation by the Chinese government targeting the Uygur identity,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the exiled World Uyghur Congress. Uyghur burial grounds are being purposefully destroyed. Footage from September 2019 shows hundreds of shackled and blindfolded Uyghurs in one of these “re-education camps.” In 2014, China began confiscating all Uyghurs’ passports to prevent them from leaving the country. Uyghur babies are being forcefully aborted and newborns are being killed. Uyghur women are being raped and impregnated through eugenics programs put on by the CCP.
On June 4, 2018, Ayturson Eli, a Deputy Director of the Hua’An Tourist Agency in Xinjiang’s Kashgar city, schooled in tourism and Japanese studies, was summoned to the local police station to be questioned about her recent business trip to Dubai, a Muslim-majority country. On June 9, five days later, Eli’s mother, Patigul Yasin, answered her front door to see two police officials asking about her daughter’s medical fitness before her trip. Yasin asked them if Eli had fallen ill. The officials took Yasin and her husband to Kashgar’s Yuandong hospital, where a doctor informed the family that Eli had died, and an autopsy was to be performed.
According to a recording of an interview that was obtained by the International Uyghur Human Rights & Democracy Foundation, “after [Yasin] panicked, two men grabbed her again and informed her that if she refrained from crying, they would allow her to receive Eli’s body at her home before they buried her. She was only able to see Aytursun's face before being taken away from the room.” Eli experienced a medical condition that led her to feel extreme stress in her heart, Yasin said, and could not have survived a violent police encounter.
After signing some documents and being sent on their way, Yasin’s husband later received a death certificate saying that Ayturson Eli, 34, was an “uneducated farmer who had been suffering from four different heart conditions, including arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy.” Eli’s body was delivered to their home, but Yasin nor any member of her Eli’s family was allowed to see her or attend a private burial conducted by officials in secret. Police reportedly handed Yasin 49,000 yuan, or around $7,125, which were said to have included Eli’s pension and what was called, verbatim from the officers, a “death payment.” This may seem like a unique case, but it is wholly illustrative of the brutality of the Xinjiang government and its discretion in exercising it. This constitutes eminent domain over Muslim bodies.
This story comes from two sources. The second source is this article, which I found by attempting to verify some details from the first source: the Xinjiang Victims Database, an activist project built using data submitted by “testifiers'' who submit information and profile data on Uyghur detainees—in most cases, family members—that seek to track individuals within the Xinjiang detention system. I found Ayturson Eli’s case on a list of deaths this year. You can view prisoners by region, by name, and by testimony (involving specific prisons, camps, factories, etc.).
A key submission to the Victims Database came from a Uyghur who has now disappeared. According to The Guardian, 30-year-old Turpan tour guide, Abdurahman Memet, was jailed for leaking letters from his parents and his brother in a concentration camp rumored to be holding over 1.5 million Muslim detainees and putting them online. They were some of the first letters to come out of a camp. In less than a week, Memet vanished.
Alimjan Emet, a 22-year-old from Ermudan Township, who worked as a security guard at and lived next to Zhangquan Park, was detained for praying in secret—he denied doing so. A source told Radio Free Asia that after he failed to go to university, he found reconciliation in his Islamic faith. The database says he was tortured to death in an internment camp, and his body was buried “under close police supervision” behind the park. This is a lynching, clear and simple. It is the type of thing the Ku Klux Klan would do if the Klan were also in charge of the national government. It is the archetypal image of hate and violence levied upon an oppressed religious group by a bigoted racial majority, bolstered by the full force of an equally bigoted governing force. And with all the dead Uyghur burials, there comes a team of Chinese authorities with checks on hand, tasked with making sure it doesn’t cause a stir.
Many Uyghurs are detained for “unknown” reasons or simply “unclear” ones. “None given” or “none stated” are common labels. If you are a religious figure within Islam, you are dangerous. If you have traveled to an Islamic country—most, if not all, of which the Chinese government deems a hotspot region for extremism—you are dangerous. If you attempt to use the Internet to get in touch with other Muslims, you are dangerous. If you pray the Muslim way, you are dangerous. If you have Islamic content on your phones or online social media profiles, you are dangerous. If you’re interested in Hajj—the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca—or if you had once embarked on the trip twenty years ago, you are dangerous.
Exet Memet, 38 years old, is currently held in a Hejing County prison. He was a former student at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, became a religious leader, and had founded a state-sponsored Hajj pilgrimage group. First detained in April of 2017 for sending money to a jailed businessman, Memet was accused of aiding and abetting terrorist activities. His brother testified to Memet’s innocence, stating that Memet had never attended a political event and that the ten-year sentence slapped on him by the Chinese government had left five children fatherless.
Enwer Tursun, an Uzbek of around 40 years old from Ghulja City, was detained simply for visiting a family member in Turkey and for having once traveled to Mecca in 1999, seven years before China initiated its detention policy in 2006. His testimony on the victims’ database was submitted by his brother, Marhaba, who currently lives in Norway. Tursun was detained in the Spring of 2018. On October 11, 2019, he was given a long-term prison sentence.
The site also collects data on deaths accounted for. Mamutjan Raman, 49 years old from Kashgar City, is one of these victims, detained sometime between 2016 and 2017 for using WeChat in an attempt to contact his grandson, Najmidin, who was and is still living in the Netherlands. Najmidin writes, “His father Raman Idris’s assets were frozen and [he] passed away in a camp located in Kashgar, it’s also possible that Mamut’s assets were also confiscated by the Chinese government officials. In 2015 he was sent from Kashgar to Aksu City to serve his one year prison time. As contact lost don’t know if he was released. [sic]”
In March of 2019, Najmidin received second-hand knowledge of his grandfather’s death in an internment camp and called the Chinese consulate in The Hague to clarify, but the consulate refused to assist him. He reports that he called local police in the region on the matter simply to confirm whether his grandfather was alive. Police reportedly refused to comment and hung up on him multiple times. The final sentence of Nahmidin’s testimony in the Victims Database reads: “Maybe I don’t want to believe that he’s dead and don’t want to let it go.”
Omiruzaq Maqan, a Kazakh living in the Barkol region of Kumul Prefecture—a county that makes up a section of the border between China and Mongolia—was reportedly beaten to death by police in their custody after he had walked into a station asking about the detention and whereabouts of his two younger brothers, who had disappeared. Maqan walked into the station on September 1, 2017, and died the same day. His family was warned not to speak of the incident.
Rizalat Hadablit, as reported by her son Aqil Shemshi, was a Uyghur from Toksun county in the Turpan prefecture in east Xinjiang. She was also diabetic and died three months in a re-education camp after she and her husband had been detained in early 2018. “The officials ordered the burial immediately, with no funeral ceremony,” Shemshi writes, “despite rumors that there was a suspicious bruise on her chest.” When Aqil visited his mother’s grave a couple of months after her death, he was closely monitored by two Chinese policemen who reportedly checked his ID, the content on his phone, and urged him to return to the mainland.
Looking through the Xinjiang Victims’ Database in Excel spreadsheet form is horrifying, maddening, and shocking all at once, but it must be viewed by the rest of the world. I highly recommend visiting the website and reading in full some of the outrageous stories put up there by family members of the disappeared, kidnapped, jailed, killed, quietly buried, or all of the above.
Outside of the database, one of the more developed stories that struck me came from an op-ed written by Uyghur Nur Iman in Foreign Policy magazine. She described herself as someone who followed the path the CCP had laid out for Uyghurs to follow, but after leaving the country to study in Turkey, her entire family disappeared quickly and Chinese officials had been threatening her to get her to come home.
The last time I spoke to [my parents] was on June 18, 2017, when I called them from Turkey. After we talked on the phone, I was speaking with my niece when the line went dead. I was fearful because there were already stories circulating of the police warning people against receiving international phone calls.
I had been calling them every day. When I tried them again, on June 20, my father’s number was dead. I tried my brother’s—the same. Finally, I tried my mother. The phone rang, but no one answered. I kept calling.
Eventually, I reached my uncle’s family. They warned me not to call again—the police were already coming round threatening people who received international calls, more severely this time. By July, I learned, through roundabout means, that my brothers and my father had been taken to a detention center in the village. It became harder and harder to reach anyone in Xinjiang, and information became scarcer. It wasn’t until February 2018 that I was able to confirm that there was nobody left in my house. My father, mother, and brothers had all been taken to the camps.
Furthermore—and this may be more speculative given that these processes have been shrouded in secrecy despite desperate attempts by activists and journalists to spread the word—the Chinese state practice of forced organ harvesting from bodies of deviating ideologies is well known and documented. China has admitted this but said it has not happened since 2015, but secret footage from a family’s hidden camera of a meeting between Chinese authorities and the family of a prisoner in a concentration camp has captured this practice alive and well- through sadistic methods of coercion, confirming recent reports filed by an accredited human rights lawyer. I haven’t read anything nor have I seen any hidden video suggesting this was a case of forced organ harvesting of a Uyghur, but the circumstances are suspiciously similar to the video I have linked: an unseen death, high discretion over the body, an autopsy, coercion of the family, false details about the victim and her medical circumstances.
Turkic Autonomy and Xi Jinping’s Father
In 1949, the churning Cultural Revolution led by Marxist revolutionaries occupied the region of Xinjiang following a bloody civil war that coincided with and followed an arduous defense of the mainland from Imperial Japanese forces. Mostly populated by Uyghur, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims, then-East Turkestan saw a stream of ethnic Han Chinese into the region. Communist officials tasked with controlling the ensuing culture conflict led by current Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, applied a brutal, high-casualty approach to what was dubbed by the Chinese government the “ethnic issue.”
In 1949, Zhongxun said, “If it can be said that the Northwest has a defining characteristic, that defining characteristic is ethnic work.” Those opposing Communist rule united under the call for a united and independent East Turkestan. According to an article by The Diplomat on Zhongxun’s work, 90 thousand Turkics were slaughtered and prominent Kazakh leader Osman Batur was dramatically executed. In the ensuing years, insurrections sprouted across central and northwest China, most significantly in the Gansu province in May of 1950. The Chinese responded with heightened surveillance, more stringent oversight, and mass arrests based on flimsy observations—similar to the ones we are seeing today.
The intense friction convinced Zhongxun that there was another way to incorporate Muslim leaders into the Chinese fabric. “How could there be so many bad people?” he asked of mass arrests, in criticism of the standing policies coming out of Beijing in response to protests and uprisings. “What is the logic for treating minority women wearing the veil and wearing a dress or men growing a beard as feudal things?” In 1981, he explicitly forbade local officials from using violent means to address protests brewing in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar. While the province is called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the vast majority of those in positions of power are Han Chinese, and the region could hardly be called “Uyghur Autonomous.” Zhongxun had suggested, after studying the Soviet Union’s approach to conquering its own minorities, that Muslim leaders should take up leadership posts. The CCP disagreed.
According to that same article from The Diplomat, Zhongxun’s approach to the “ethnic issue” in the 1980s consisted of “addressing local grievances, co-opting leading local figures through united front work, patriotic education, and economic development”—a strategy that peculiarly mirrors China’s modern-day focus on building soft power in what is perceived in the west to be its quest for global hegemony.
By all means, Zhongxun should not be remembered as a benevolent figure. He oversaw a more peaceful method of integrating Turkics under Communist Chinese rule, but also oversaw the same violence committed against Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims he would criticize in later years. His criticism was widely appalled within the National People’s Congress, and he was disregarded after he stepped down in the last decade of the 1900s. His legacy is virtually nonexistent in modern-day China, which has proven its unabashed tendency to repeat its own sins as a result of state-sanctioned amnesia. “[The] CCP has adopted radically different policies toward its ethnic minorities over time,” writes Joseph Torigian, a professor in the School of International Relations at AU. “Coincidentally, the man most associated with a softer approach is the father of the man who is taking Xinjiang in a much different direction.”
Rural Rebellion: China’s Heart and Spirit
Beginning with the Manchu takeover in the 1600s and crystallized by its Republican period, starting in the early 1900s with Sun Yat-sen, influenced by interactions with the West and intimacy with Stalinism, China has found its modern society to be fairly secular. While it has separated gray reality from the mythical Han diaspora, the romanticized spirit of rebellion is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese fabric, through ancient era storytelling. Among the most legendary pieces of Chinese literature I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in my younger years was Shui Fu Zhuan (水浒传, translated as “Outlaws of the Marsh”). It is a mostly fictitious tale based on the An Lushan Rebellion of AD 755 -763 telling of a major military uprising of several hundred warriors—all rural monks, farmers, merchants, and villagers—in the Eastern Capital of Luoyang that exiles itself to an encampment in the mountains during the Tang Dynasty. I wasn’t literate enough to read the text, but the TV show was gripping, inspirational, and completely antithetical to the modern-day Chinese ethic. As an adolescent, I drew much of my ethnic pride from one of the characters, an alcoholic monk who wielded a halberd, with whom I shared a surname.
Across the 1800s, several very real insurgencies rattled a conflicted China split by the erasure of traditional Han values by a European economic and militaristic presence. The Taiping, Nian, and Boxer Rebellions of the early 1900s sprouted as a result of this friction. However, post-1949, the country has drifted away from this recurring dynamic as Chairman Mao Zedong’s government aggressively inculcated his unique repository of Stalinist-Marxist values, bolstered by the personality cult ethos that put him in power, into the Han and Tang tradition of ethnic collectivism for generations to come. A journal article on the Chinese rebellion spirit published The China Quarterly by Elizabeth J. Perry, a Sino historian at Harvard University, correctly notes that “although we have a number of illuminating studies of peasant revolt in pre-liberation China, the subject of rural violence in the People’s Republic is as yet uncharted terrain.”
China has been jailing Muslims since 2016, as far as we know. Its actions constitute a brutally organized, institutional effort to erase the Turk identity—cultural, religious, and ethnic—from a region that the CCP believes should only be populated by Han Chinese values. This effort is just one arm of current president Xi Jinping’s socialism-for-a-new-era brand to Make China Great Again. The Xinjiang mass internment centers are the most populated concentration camps since the Holocaust, shrouded in the same mystery as was Dachau and Auschwitz. Torture, brainwashing, and deprivation take place in these re-education centers. Uyghurs abroad are seeing their family members back home disappear one by one, their phone calls monitored, tracked, and recorded. Uyghurs living in the Northwest have had their passports confiscated, their babies aborted, their children raped through eugenics programs, and their family members leave home and never return. Many of them have documented incidents where police show up at their door with a death check and a threat to either remain silent or never see the body of their loved ones.
As it turns out, modern-day China serves an influential economic and diplomatic presence in almost every sphere of the planet, and is utilizing that presence as a means of keeping its actions in Xinjiang under wraps and off of any negotiating table. This is one of the great human rights violations of our era and demands the rigorous attention of the international community. The Uyghurs are not a bargaining chip. Yet, the international community, including the United States, has largely accepted China’s actions. Not through words, but through economic negotiations, military ties, and technological cooperation.
In the age where international relations analysts are debating on whether China is seeking to take the throne of global hegemony from the U.S., and as countries around the world are seeking diplomatic relations with an increasingly influential nation that is culturally, finally, and ideologically conflicted with the West, the religious and ethnic minorities of the mainland are coming closer and closer to becoming forgotten.
We must not forget the Uyghurs.
Mark Lu is a senior double-majoring in Political Science and Economics. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Agora.
Artwork by Mila Sviderskaya