The Uyghurs and the Fate of China

Dr Azeem Ibrahim

More than 1 million Muslim Uyghurs in their native Xinjiang province, China, are believed to have been interned in ‘re-education camps’ by the Chinese authorities. A further 2 million still on the outside are living in one of the world’s most heavy-handed surveillance regimes. The Uyghurs in China live in constant fear of arbitrary detention, and can expect swift retribution for any expression of Turkic of Muslim identity—to the absurd extent that giving your child a traditional Muslim name is illegal.

This has naturally caused a great deal of concern in the international community of humanitarians for the fate of the Uyghurs. Thankfully, it seems that China’s policy is not the mass killing of this people, but it most certainly is trying to erase their distinct identity. The Uyghurs may live, but only if they stop being so… Uyghur.

I have written at length elsewhere about the humanitarian dimension of the crisis, of the failure of Muslim countries to plead with China on behalf of their fellow Muslims, and of the worrying precedent this sets for minority groups throughout China’s expanding sphere of influence. But it is worth taking a minute to consider what this says about China, and the future of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s policy in Xinjiang, a policy of sinification, is a naked attempt at ‘nation-building’ in an area where the Chinese authorities apparently believe they do not have clear moral authority to govern—very much like their approach in Tibet. Unlike in Tibet, however, yes, there is a small Uyghur separatist movement in Xinjiang, but this never posed any realistic threat of secession. Ironically, by elevating the loose rhetoric of a minority of political activists to the status of existential threat to the authority of Beijing, the Chinese state is amplifying their message and giving it the weight it could never have had before.

But for either side, the Uyghur separatists or the Beijing hardliners, to claim that the Uyghurs of Xinjiang are somehow incompatible with or a threat to the very idea of China as it exists today is an ahistorical absurdity. The people of modern Xinjiang, the people who would eventually crystallise in the Uyghur identity, have for millennia been the gatekeepers to China along the ancient Silk Road. Kashgar the western-most major city in Xinjiang has served as the gate to the East, to the lands of the Chinese civilisation, from before the Current Era.

If the Communist Party in Beijing feels it needs to resort to this kind of cultural vandalism to erase Xinjiang’s unique culture and history, Muslim as it may be, in order to maintain “social harmony” this portends very badly indeed for harmony in the Chinese state. Because Xinjiang’s history and culture have been pivotal to the historical development of “proper” Chinese culture, and the emergence of China as a ‘Civilisation State’. In seeking to erase the cultural legacy of Xinjiang, the Communist Party in Beijing is seeking to erase their own history. And in a country like China, that is both impossible, and also an extremely dangerous thing to try and do. A Civilisation State like China is built upon shared history and a capacity to absorb cultural diversity to produce a civilisation greater than the sum of its parts.

This is something that successive Chinese dynasties have done with some degree of success for over 22 centuries, in accordance to Confucian principles. If this latest Chinese dynasty, the Communist Party, feels itself unable to do the same, this is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of alarming weakness.

But to understand why, one must also understand the Chinese mindset. The Chinese state, the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ is not a naturally stable institutional arrangement. It has emerged from a long history internecine war. The imperial state emerged periodically from bitter regional and dynastic wars, as a means to impose peace on the land under a unified authority with a claim to the monopoly of force. Without the Emperor, or its secularised version of central state administration under the Communist Party, the different cultural, regional, linguistic and ethnic groups in China have historically been as likely to engage in war with each other as the countries of Europe have. And every time the land descended in all out civil war, which happens every 200-300 years or so, those wars have killed more people than any conflict in history up to that point.

Beijing’s obsession with social harmony is informed by this history and indeed, very much their moral duty. If the state loses control of the social order, we should expect that the ensuing civil war would be the greatest human tragedy in the history of the world—now with nuclear weapons.

And this is precisely why this heavy-handed approach to Xinjiang is so alarming. By their policy of forced sinification of the Uyghurs, Beijing is demonstrating it proper obsession with social harmony, yes, but also shows that it does not have the confidence in its own authority to allow any degree of criticism, nor indeed the confidence in its own ‘Mandate of Heaven’ to allow for the kind of cultural diversity that is inevitable in a country of 1.4 billion people. By using the methods of Stalinist ‘re-education’ as opposed to the methods of cultural leadership by example proper to ascendant civilisations, Beijing is signalling their belief that they are approaching the very edge of their power to govern domestically.

To make matters worse, this heavy-handed approach to domestic control is not helping stem back the tides of social resistance. It may suppress surface manifestations of it, at most. But underneath, those tensions simmer, the questions over Beijing’s moral authority to govern amplify, and in the medium to long term, the Communist Party is compounding their domestic problems.

In a very real sense, by seeking to crush and destroy Uyghur culture, China is destroying part of its history, and part of its soul as a civilisation. But in pursuing such a policy the Communist Party may also endanger their own future. This is not something to be celebrated. It is not certain whether the rest of the world could cope with a breakdown of the Chinese state, especially given how important Beijing has become to the global system. It is therefore as friends to China, to the people of China, and as well-meaning partners to Beijing, that we must voice our concerns about their approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, indeed their approach to Tibet, and urge them to build their state, and the necessary social harmony not on exclusionary Han-supremacism, but on the rock-solid foundation of cultural pluralism, and the strength that derives from diversity.


Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and author of the Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide (Hurst: 2016)