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The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority

The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority by Sean R. Roberts. Princeton University Press, 2020, 328 pp.

Sean Roberts has written an insightful and methodically researched study of the Uyghurs of China, which is likely to emerge as a definitive study on these people for years to come. The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language and have come to the attention of the world because of Chinese repression and policies for their forced assimilation. They call their homeland “Eastern Turkistan,” although China and much of the rest of the world calls it Xinjiang (New Territory). There are about 11,300,000 people in this Chinese territorial backwater. In examining the history of the Uyghurs and their current tragedy, Roberts’s work is informed by his knowledge of the Uyghur language and frequent visits to Xinjiang until China began forbidding Western scholars to travel there, most recently claiming this policy was a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roberts states that traditional Chinese policy was to treat the Uyghur region as a “frontier colony” valued for resource extraction. Xinjiang existed mostly on the margins of Chinese society, and Chinese government officials did not worry much about its demography or culture. Later, in the 1950s, he contends that China began implementing a “settler colony” approach to the region with Han Chinese settlers displacing indigenous Uyghurs and Uyghur culture autonomy subjected to increasing government restrictions. While this approach began under Mao, it escalated into an actual set of systematized policies in the late 1980s, after some accommodation in the earlier part of that decade. The settler colonization of the Uyghur region steadily intensified during the 1990s and incrementally developed into policies for complete integration of Xinjiang with the Chinese heartland. By this time, the Chinese government had discarded any interest in an ethnic autonomy model partially due to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and especially the Soviet Union. As Chinese constraints began to pervade all aspects of life, repression correspondingly increased to enforce these policies.

Roberts maintains that after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Chinese government attempted to portray the Uyghurs as actual or potential terrorists, often sympathetic to al-Qaeda. He suggests that efforts to portray the Uyghurs as pro-terrorist were often extremely effective and helped to justify further Chinese repression as part of the “global war on terrorism.” Roberts acknowledges the existence of some armed resistance to Chinese policies but suggests it was often spontaneous and poorly organized. He notes the existence of radical Uyghur exile groups in Afghanistan, but suggests these groups were small and mostly made propaganda videos rather than engaging in combat. Nevertheless, Roberts concurs that Uyghur activity in Syria is a different case, and there may be as many as 3,000–5,000 Uyghurs currently fighting in the Syrian civil war. Many of these people were recruited from the large Uyghur exile community in Turkey by unscrupulous jihadi recruiters. These recruiters seek out Uyghur exiles who arrived in Turkey penniless (often due to the predations of human traffickers) and are denied Turkish work permits, leaving them few options.

The Chinese grip on the Xinjiang was further tightened under the authoritarian rule of President Xi Jinping and his vision of a culturally homogenous PRC animated by Chinese nationalism. The culmination of Chinese programs to eradicate the Uyghur identity seems to have come after 2017, when several policies combined to perform an interlocking program for social control and forced assimilation. New de-extremism regulations in spring 2017 laid the basis for a massive internment system, which has led to the detention of up to one million Uyghurs. Roberts cites refugee Uyghur accounts of the brutal nature of life in these camps. Those living outside of the camps are subjected to close monitoring and understand that they could be sent to such institutions based on vague and arbitrary laws that potentially criminalize any behavior the government dislikes. Any overt signs of religious belief are particularly dangerous. Moreover, actions that seriously irritated the government could easily result in the perpetrator being sent to actual prison.

Roberts attempts to inject a few notes of hope into his otherwise pessimistic study by suggesting that the Uyghurs might have a slim chance of avoiding their culture and language being eradicated by Chinese policies. He suggests that the actions of Uyghurs in exile might have an impact on Chinese policies and that ideally activists abroad could create a global political undertaking modeled on the anti-apartheid movement. Roberts acknowledges that these possibilities are farfetched but appears unwilling to surrender to the idea that the Uyghurs are without hope. Roberts also chillingly suggests that Chinese policies in the Uyghur areas have now created a new model for a strikingly efficient police state, which uses modern technology for surveillance and organizing information to eliminate all potential for dissent or resistance. He maintains that a variety of other nations have shown a strong interest in purchasing Chinese monitoring and information technology to shore up their own efforts to control protest and dissent. Thus, Roberts presents an important moral challenge to be considered regarding not only the Uyghurs but also new threats to democratic aspirations throughout the world.

Dr. W. Andrew Terrill
Professor Emeritus
US Army War College





"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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