LATE last week, China’s President Xi Jinping was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying at a two-day conference: “Viewed overall, Xinjiang is enjoying a favourable setting of social stability with the people living in peace and contentment. The facts have abundantly demonstrated that our national minority work has been a success.” The Communist Party’s policies were “totally correct” and efforts to plant the national identity “deep in the souls” of Uighurs and other minorities “must be held to for the long term”.
The same week, fresh evidence emerged of what that “national minority work” entails, with analysis of satellite imagery by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) revealing that 380 detention facilities have either been built or expanded since 2017. “We don’t believe we have found them all,” says the ASPI’s Nathan Ruser. “The largest is more than 300 acres in size. That is more than three and a half Disneylands.”
It is estimated that about 10pc of Xinjiang’s Uighur and Kazakh minorities have involuntarily been enrolled in what are officially described as vocational re-education institutes. By most accounts, trades are indeed taught in these facilities, but that is only part of the purpose. Much effort is focused on indoctrination, both cultural and ideological.
The campaign is not restricted to Xinjiang. There have lately been reports of a similar “mass labour programme” in Tibet, apparently aimed at turning rural agricultural labourers into factory workers. In Inner Mongolia, meanwhile, protests erupted last month against a policy to gradually replace Mongolian with Chinese as the medium of instruction in schools.
The largest detention camp is 300 acres plus.
Such measures are sometimes officially depicted as part of Xi Jinping’s campaign to eradicate poverty by the end of this year. How could that possibly be construed as an undesirable goal?
On the face of it, the intent is welcome. On the other hand, the very fact that poverty still exists in China more than 70 years after the communist revolution seems like an indictment of much that has occurred in the interim. The failure is even more stark if one compares the ostentatious wealth of Shanghai with the deprivation in the vast countryside. China boasts the second highest number of billionaires after the United States, yet half its population subsists on an annual income of about $1,500, roughly equivalent to the price of a Chinese-manufactured iPhone.
President Xi has himself approvingly cited the scholarship of Thomas Piketty in the context of inequality in the US, but the publication of the French economist’s latest book, Capital and Ideology, was nonetheless held up in China because the author refused to agree to the excision of segments referring to economic disparities in China, notably the fact that wealth distribution between the top 10pc and bottom 50pc is “only slightly less inegalitarian than the United States and significantly more so than Europe”.
China can perhaps justifiably boast of many achievements in the past few decades, during which it has insinuated itself into the global economy by becoming the world’s leading manufacturer, albeit largely on the strength of an underpaid and overworked workforce without recourse to the organising options available to labour, to some extent, in most capitalist societies.
Its response to the Covid-19 pandemic has also been remarkable, despite egregious initial slip-ups, at least if the official figures are to be taken at face value. Its economy has by some accounts roared back into life while much of the rest of the world is still struggling with a range of restrictions. China’s apparent strategy, as in many other countries, is to henceforth rely more on the domestic market.
However, the impressive ability to construct a hospital in Wuhan within a week or so also extends to the rapid erection of detention centres elsewhere.
If Xi Jinping does not particularly stand out among the international rogues’ gallery of dilettantes running the world, it’s largely because his attentions are focused locally. There are indications, but no conclusive evidence, that there is substantial opposition to him within the Communist Party. Which is hardly surprising, given that critics and dissidents face extended incarceration or worse, and it is never easy to tell whether those incarcerated or executed for graft or corruption are actually guilty.
The cultural genocide unfolding in Xinjiang has lately begun to provoke some pushback, both economic and political, although there is cause to suspect it is more directly related to other aspects of Beijing’s belligerence on the economic and geopolitical fronts. Were Xi to kowtow to the usual capitalist deities, the outrages in Urumqi and Kashgar would probably soon be forgotten.
But China’s largely facetious claim to socialist ideals deserves a sceptical eye-roll, and the idea that “Xi Jinping Thought” is “21st-century Marxism” hardly bears scrutiny, yet it will be important to keep a close eye on China’s future trajectory, in respect of both its formidable achievements and its egregious — and often repellent — excesses.
Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2020