Jacobin - April 29, 2021
The Uyghurs — a predominantly Muslim people who inhabit China’s northwestern Xinjiang province and consider the region their homeland — have long had a tumultuous relationship with the various iterations of the Chinese state that have governed them since the mid-eighteenth century.
In 2017, that relationship entered a new and more terrifying phase as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — eyeing the region’s economic potential and drawing on Islamophobic, “War on Terror” rhetoric — began to construct a series of mass internment camps that, according to a 2018 study, are believed to hold over a million people in arbitrary detention.
The CCP has built a repressive apparatus that includes a panopticon of digital surveillance, family separation, forced birth control, and the physical destruction of Uyghur communities. As scholar David Brophy wrote in Jacobin in 2018, “More than at any point since its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang today resembles occupied territory, and the party’s policies reveal an all-encompassing view of the Uyghurs as an internal enemy.”
Meanwhile, tensions have been steadily escalating between Washington and Beijing, with US hawks increasingly — and cynically — using the anti-Uyghur repression as just another means to saber-rattle. It is vitally important for the US left to understand the scale of the catastrophe being visited upon the Uyghurs — and doing what we can to stop it — while also refusing to play handmaiden to an ultra-hawkish turn in US foreign policy toward China.
Sean R. Roberts — a cultural anthropologist who has studied the Uyghur region for over three decades — has written a new book on the crisis, The War on the Uyghurs, which places its origins both in the Chinese state’s colonial relationship with the Uyghur people and the global War on Terror launched by the United States in 2001. Roberts talked to Jacobin contributor Matthew Byrd about those origins, why he considers the situation similar to the United States’ destruction of its indigenous populations, and what means might be used to end the crisis. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Read full interview at Jacobin