Casey Michael on China’s mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang:
In China’s remote western province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has begun constructing a series of internment camps larger than anything the world currently knows.
Meant to house upwards of a million — and potentially more — of the region’s indigenous Muslim minority, known as Uyghurs, the camps, according to one U.S. commission studying the region, present the “largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
And they’re only just beginning.
Because China is a sovereign state, it’s easy to forget that Beijing has been actively pursuing settler colonialism in Xinjiang and Tibet for years. When we talk about informal empires—political systems structured like empires but that eschew the label—we tend to think about the most coercive dimensions of American hegemony. For example, the invasion and occupation of Iraq established an imperial relationship. But most contemporary examples of imperial logics of political order are found within states. But here, structural similarities with imperial systems is only part of the story.
Xinjiang, now under the thumb of party chief Chen Quanguo — who had previously stamped any dissent in Tibet — has become “a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid,” Rian Thum, an associate history professor at Loyola University, recently wrote.
One professor at Australian National University described Xinjiang, an area approximately half the size of India, as the testing ground for China’s looming “neo-totalitarian” model. And Adrien Zenz, a researcher with the European School of Culture and Theology, has estimated that the police density in Xinjiang has now likely surpassed what was seen in late East Germany.
“What’s striking about this is that [Chinese authorities] manage to marry the kinds of methods which North Korea uses, which are based on a lot of manpower, a lot of ordinary people on the ground who are ready and willing to inform on you, and a bureaucratic architecture to process all that,” Thum told ThinkProgress. “And when you put those two things together, it leaves Uyghurs feeling that their only private place left is the inside of their head.”
There’s an argument floating around that the evils of American hegemonic practice, especially during the Cold War, means that we should not be concerned about Trump’s efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of US power. There are a number of problems with this claim. First, there are different ways to transition away from American hegemony. Washington can pursue a policy of judicious retrenchment. It can seek a more progressive, multilateral order to address global commons problems and reduce the chances of great-power conflict. These, and other strategies for managing hegemonic decline are going to be much more difficult if Trump continues on his current path. A second, and related, problem also lies in the specifics of where Trumpism aims to take the United States: ethnonationalism, support for authoritarian regimes, and the like. America’s current human-rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers are indicative of a shift toward “illiberal hegemony“: one less concerned with generating international goods, trying to reduce civilian casualties during military operations, and so forth. You don’t have to have a pollyannaish view of American international affairs to recognize that US foreign policy can get much, much worse. We’ve been there and done that.
Why am I talking about this? Because we need to also consider the alternatives. If domestic practice is any guide—and we have reasons to think that it is—then the wane of liberal order is unlikely to usher in a more benign world. It’s not only the concentration camps in the United States that should worry us.