An Analysis of Evidence for State Oppression in Xinjiang, China

Pinellas DSA
14 min readAug 3, 2023

Member Bryce Springfield

During my first semester at Princeton, I, like many students, decided to look into student organizations that I could get involved with going forward. Apart from wishing to satisfy my “speedcubing” hobby with the Cube Club, I also looked into left-wing organizations to which I could contribute, as I had been a committed socialist for several years at that point.

While several left-wing organizations had gone dormant, one that caught my interest was The Prog. A quick glance at the description made The Prog seem like a great fit for me: it is Princeton’s only left-wing campus newspaper written by and for students. However, after taking a look at The Prog’s website, one piece raised a lot of questions for me: “OPINION: What’s Really Happening in Xinjiang?” by an anonymous author. As I read the article, I found myself disappointed with the article’s arguments, which sounded similar to points I had heard from some Marxist-Leninists and even the Chinese government’s own public comments.

My first thought was this: the Left is meant to question the status quo and its institutions. Considering the pervasiveness of capitalist institutions in China’s economy and authoritarian bureaucracy, one should think that a minimization of the Chinese government’s oppression of minority groups should be something that leftists radically reject. However, I did not find this article to follow that ideal.

In its introduction, the author of “What’s Really Happening in Xinjiang” rightly points out that the United States has utilized unfounded claims and racist propaganda to justify its imperialist ambitions. Most visibly, this is what happened after the September 11 terrorist attacks as President George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” in response. Many Muslim Americans were targeted and discriminated against by individuals and the government, which has had lasting repercussions until today. Even in recent years, nearly half of Americans see Muslims as a group more inclined to violence than others, and Muslims are the least approved-of religious group in the United States, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center.

The War on Terror gained widespread legitimacy and support through the construction of an Islamic “threat” that justified US-backed wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other regions, leading to at least 37 million displacements, mass food insecurity, and the deaths of 897,000 to 929,000 people.

Yet, alongside vague references to “CIA front groups, defense contractors, and Western government sources” fabricating empirical support for key claims regarding the genocide, the author resorts to suspiciously familiar fearmongering about the “increasing radicalization of some of [Xinjiang’s] Islamic citizens” — referring to a few notable cases of terrorism — as, seemingly, a mitigating factor for the oppression that the Chinese government commits against an entire population. Though I applaud the author for at least acknowledging officials’ “eager[ness] to surveil, arrest, and racially profile Uyghurs,” some parts of the article appear to me to question whether key claims of atrocities in Xinjiang are true or imply an alternative framing of “vocational schools.”

In this article, I hope to demonstrate compelling evidence from the Chinese government itself and other openly available sources to emphasize the state oppression of Uyghur Muslims in the majority-minority Xinjiang province, particularly from 2017 to 2019. Then, I will discuss how leftists can reconcile legitimate claims of atrocities with anti-imperialism and international solidarity against statist and capitalist systems that profit off of oppressed groups.

Genocide

Of course, “genocide” is often a loaded term used to overcharacterize a wide range of atrocities, as the author of the opinion piece points out. For the sake of using this word in line with international standards, I will compare the United Nations’ definition of genocide with what I believe is occurring in Xinjiang based solely on the information presented in this article.

In Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, or simply the Genocide Convention, ratified or acceded to by 149 countries, including China, the following definition was approved:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Most people likely immediately only think of part (a), but this excerpt demonstrates that genocide also includes other sorts of atrocities while maintaining clear, defined bounds. In the case of Xinjiang since at least 2017, I would argue that, with the points made in this article, at least (b) through (d) likely apply due to mandatory “re-education” for Muslim practices and especially forced birth prevention. Therefore, I will use the term “Uyghur genocide” to refer to the state oppression particularly against Muslims in Xinjiang, but that may also target others in Xinjiang.

For the purposes of this article, in addition to mentioning a few things about forced cultural assimilation (which some refer to as “cultural genocide”), I will primarily focus on the genocidal aspects of oppression in Xinjiang according to the UN definition, although there is also much to be said about surveillance and repression of free expression in Xinjiang for the sake of “stability,” including against activists pushing for — and this is of particular interest to the Left — environmental protections.

Internment Camps

The most well-reported aspect of the Uyghur genocide is perhaps its internment camps, described by the Chinese government as “vocational education and training centers” or “re-education camps.” According to Chinese government officials, there is an “urgent need” for these camps in order to fight the “Three Evil Forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism that have threatened Chinese territorial and civil stability “[b]etween 1990 and the end of 2016.”

Shortly after this policy realignment, the creation of internment camps was first observed in 2017. In 2018, Xinjiang officials responded by either denying the camps’ existence or justifying them as agents of social stability and economic growth. What is interesting is that in 2015, a few years before this major policy shift, Chinese government officials claimed that they had already been extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks, indicating that the new policies in Xinjiang were not in response to heightened terrorist activity.

Since then, Chinese government sources have shifted toward acknowledging the re-education camps and have even invited Western journalists to observe them under highly restrictive conditions, presenting them as bona fide educational facilities. However, an analysis of the birth rates and arrest rates in Xinjiang suggests something more nefarious.

Crude birth rates and incarceration rates

One does not need to rely on Western researchers or on testimonials to find drastic irregularities that cannot reasonably be explained by normal demographic or developmental trends. In fact, we only need to look at the Chinese government’s own annual statistical reports, the China Statistical Yearbooks, which it publishes online and in print. Unfortunately, the Yearbooks do not report on ethnic breakdowns. Regardless, an analysis of the provided data points to abnormal trends in Xinjiang, which is mostly populated by minority groups and nearly half Uyghur, that are not observed in other regions in the same time frame.

The first piece of evidence that should raise serious concern is Xinjiang’s change in birth rates over the last few years. Although the Chinese government began omitting regional birth rates from the 2020 statistics, the data up to 2019 is clearly unusual.

My analysis begins with recent regional birth rate data from 2013 through 2019 provided by the China Statistical Yearbooks. Below are a couple of graphs I constructed to visualize the data. In the first, we see a significant drop of 49% in the annual birth rate in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019, which is a much faster drop than that of China as a whole. This brings the regional birth rates significantly below that of the country, which is all the more concerning given that Xinjiang’s historical birth rates had been notably higher than that of the national average.

Birth rates by year in Xinjiang, compared to China as a whole; annual birth rates per 1,000. Highlighted are the 2017 Xinjiang and 2019 Xinjiang datapoints, 15.9 and 8.1, respectively, while the national statistics in China showed a substantially more modest decline.

To compare this to other regions in China, below is a histogram showing Xinjiang as the lowest instance of birth rates from 2017, when the “vocational camps” opened, to 2019. One thing to note is that with the rescinding of the One Child Policy in 2015 and 2016, according to many Chinese demographers, we should see an immediate increase in birth rates followed by decreases over this period — due to “two-child policies” — to a greater extent than natural changes. Given that Xinjiang was exempted from having one-child restrictions as mentioned in the article, meaning it should not have experienced shocks from this, it should be concerning that it is an extreme outlier even compared to other Chinese provinces that were expected to experience significant changes.

A list of all provinces in China, and China as a whole, in order from least to greatest birth rate change from 2017 to 2019. Xinjiang’s statistic was -49%, the lowest of all and much lower than the next lowest, -33% in Shandong, and the national statistic of -16%.

The only comparable drop in reported birth rates since 1950 that I am aware of is that of Greenland from mass sterilization under Danish colonial rule, which is a fitting comparison. Even this, however, was over the course of nearly a decade rather than two years.

We see unusual changes in official contraceptive data in 2018 in Xinjiang, as well. In the China Health Statistical Yearbooks, we see rapid increases in the national proportion of sterilizations — which include vasectomies and “tube tying” — in Xinjiang especially in 2018. The author of the original article correctly notes that Adrian Zenz, a far-right fundamentalist and senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation widely cited for claims about the Uyghur genocide, performed serious errors in his calculations of sterilizations in Xinjiang, but the data displayed below demonstrates the point to be generally correct, despite his obvious biases and propensity to exaggerate.

Sterilizations in Xinjiang as a percentage of the national total by year from 2013 to 2020. Highlighted are 2016 and the peak in  2018, at 1.3% and 13.2%, respectively.

In addition to information on birth rates and birth control, we can look at incarceration rates reported by government officials in various work reports. Analyzing the official work reports of the Xinjiang provincial government and the Chinese national government, I produced the graph below to represent the percentage of arrests in China as a whole that were in Xinjiang. Clear abnormalities are present from 2017 to 2019, and provincial reports are notably missing from 2022, when national arrests exploded from the White Paper Protests, where protestors sang “The Internationale” and other socialist messaging against authoritarian suppression, particularly aggravated by the Ürümqi fire in Xinjiang. Incidentally, while the arrest reports mention the regulation of monopolies and fraud, their defense of capital is evident in their talk of promoting the “deep integration of party building and business,” “serving private enterprises,” and highlighting the punishment of “crimes against the legitimate rights and interests of private enterprises.” This is a topic I will return to later.

Arrests in Xinjiang as a percentage of total arrests in China, by year from 2013 to 2021. Highlighted are 2016 and 2017, 3.3% and 21.2%, respectively. There is a baseline shown representing the Xinjiang population as a portion of the total population in China, remaining below arrest rates every year except 2013.

Despite Xinjiang being just 1.5% of the national population, it quickly went from making up less than 5% of national arrests to more than 20% after 2017, and arrests remained quite high in the following years. Considering that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang did not more than quadruple between 2016 and 2017, this should suggest that a campaign against a more vast swath of the population had been coordinated.

Razing of cultural sites

Beyond statistical data on reproduction and incarceration, it is also important to look at the cultural effects of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which may also help us think about why China chose to ramp up repression in the region despite declining terrorist incidents. Evidence from publicly available satellite imagery has been studied to look at how religious and cultural sites in Xinjiang have been affected. Systematic studies have demonstrated an unusual 32% of mosques in Xinjiang having been destroyed and another 28% significantly damaged between 2017 and 2020. One of the more visible examples of this was the erasure of the ancient Imam Asim Shrine, where thousands of Muslim pilgrims regularly prayed and tied flags just a decade ago before its apparent destruction.

Islamophobic legislation

Next, I will examine the policies and prevailing ideas that may be driving Uyghur persecution in Xinjiang. For this, I closely read the 2017 “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-Extremification,” hosted on the Xinjiang regional government’s website. While I used a browser extension to translate the document, which could lead to misinterpretation, others have performed their own translations, which read similarly to my computer translation. Revisions to the law in 2018 see nearly identical restrictions.

Beginning in Chapter I, article 3 of the legislation, the definition of “extremification” is left very broad. Specifically, it notes that “[e]xtremification … refers to speech and actions under the influence of extremism, that spread radical religious ideology, and reject and interfere with normal production and livelihood.” Extremism refers to ideas and behaviors that “incite hatred and discrimination, and advocate violence by distorting religious teaching and other methods.”

What is inciting hatred and discrimination, or violence? What is “radical religious ideology”? What is considered an interference “with normal production and livelihood”? These questions are not answered in the document and these terms are left open to interpretation so that any idea one may find challenging could be a “violent” thought and any behavior deemed atypical could be “radical” and interfere with “normal production.” This enables the document to provide sweeping powers to the government to persecute Muslims in Xinjiang who adopt more visibly Islamic clothing, speech, traditions, and political and religious thought.

The legislation specifically prohibits “irregular beards or name selection,” the wearing of “burqas with face coverings,” or other “symbols of extremification” in Chapter II. The former two restrictions are common presentations and behaviors of Muslims worldwide, and the latter can describe anything the government deems as “extreme,” leaving ample room for arbitrary discrimination.

In Chapter III, the legislation reveals the main objective of these strict regulations: “De-extremification shall persist in the correct political orientation and direction of public opinion” (Article 12) and “shall do a good job of … combining ideological education, psychological counseling, behavioral corrections, and skills training [emphases added]” (Article 14). From this 2017 legislation, the pervading theme seems to be the Chinese and Xinjiang governments’ interest in forcing cultural and political conformity and the “correct political orientation” of Xi Jinping onto the Uyghur and Muslim populations of Xinjiang.

Global imperialist and capitalist intersections

As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, it is important to recognize that the justifications given by Chinese officials for increased control of the Uyghur population is a continuation of the global “War on Terror” proliferated by the United States. After the September 11 attacks, Chinese state rhetoric on the Uyghur population shifted toward dubiously connecting Uyghur organizations and jihadist groups rather than emphasizing “pan-Turkic separatism.” In fact, some of the United States’ current foreign policies in Central Asia may actually bolster the deportation of Uyghur Muslims to China, as the US subsidizes security systems and massive hauls of military equipment for authoritarian regimes in the region who are themselves supportive of the crackdowns in Xinjiang or who find some of their own Uyghur citizens too disruptive.

It should be mentioned that the Chinese government stands to benefit from oil deposits and other economic opportunities through its grip on Xinjiang and by employing War on Terror-esque justifications against the majority Muslim peoples that populate much of the province.

In addition, while labor conditions in China as a whole are quite squalid, oppression and surveillance in Xinjiang have been particularly beneficial to global capitalism’s exploitation of workers for endless profit. Regardless of concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang, companies like Nike and Tesla benefit from the province’s cotton and polysilicon production supported by forced laborers and actively try to water down labor laws related to it; and billions have been invested in public-private security technology partnerships, drastically higher than in previous years. Meanwhile, as hinted in the section on incarceration, the Chinese Communist Party’s deep defense of private interests is clear in its own rhetoric and overt actions, even incorporating capitalist CEOs and business leaders as a major part of the National People’s Congress and as a core piece of the Party itself.

* * *

There is far more to be said about the complexities of state oppression in Xinjiang, including the silencing of left-wing activists, anti-LGBTQ laws, the government leaks of mass surveillance data, the heavily restricted conditions of foreign inspections, and more. Alas, there is only so much that can fit in one piece.

Of course, several aspects of what has been documented in Xinjiang have been committed by Western governments, particularly toward indigenous and Black populations. However, this does not mean that the Uyghur genocide is any less troubling because other countries do the same. It does indicate that the working class has multiple competing enemies sustaining the same system of globalized state capitalism. To this day, state oppression in Xinjiang benefits global capitalism, including Western firms, through its securitization and production of materials under poor conditions. We must find ways to liberate the oppressed in Xinjiang, regardless of the atrocities of either “side.”

We should always question government and corporate media narratives as well as their motives. However, we can look at concrete data and other public information to substantiate at least some claims espoused by agenda setters. Perhaps exaggerated conclusions and the history of US imperialism rightly result in a higher degree of skepticism, but, in this case, we have convincing primary source evidence available, free from the manipulation of US propaganda outlets, Adrian Zenz, or any other potentially biased Western source.

As leftists, we should respond to the clear motives that some interest groups and US officials have regarding the expansion of US imperialism not by trying to dismiss or mitigate claims of atrocities as only “in service of a larger imperial project” or by giving credibility to government-constructed visits or other authoritarian governments’ representatives and ambassadors, but by educating our peers about what war hawks wish to do with information of atrocities. US statements and policies acknowledging the Uyghur genocide are not the problem; the problem is the imperialist tendencies of the United States and the influence that pro-interventionist interest groups have over our government.

It is not easy to provide a simple solution to end and provide restitution for the oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, but surely most leftists can agree that putting American boots in China or attempting to externally change the country’s regime aren’t viable options if we want to reduce violence and promote freedom across the world. Part of the solution will need to involve teaching international solidarity for the liberation of all working class people, including for Chinese Uyghurs potentially seeking refuge. This is what many in the Muslim world have already demonstrated through mass demonstrations in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Indonesia, just to name a few, and through polls in Palestine. It may also involve accepting refugees, and independent socialist groups developing alternative media and support infrastructure to aid those potentially suffering from oppression or organizing for liberation.

Neither the US’s democratic capitalism nor China’s capitalism with Marxist–Leninist aesthetics will save us. Only the working class can save itself through building solidarity and, in this case, critically assessing claims of atrocities without lending fallacious credibility to either imperialist or denialist tendencies.

This piece was originally published in The Princeton Progressive.

--

--

Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America