Australia and Xinjiang: How to deal with the new ‘Unfreedom’

By Dr Michael Clarke

Xinjiang, China 2018

Xinjiang, China 2018. Image: sj liew/Flickr

An effective response to the Xinjiang Unfreedom requires clarity of global messaging, coalition-building and cooperation between governments, corporations and universities.

A video uploaded to YouTube on in September showing hundreds of Uyghur men shackled and blindfolded has reignited international concern regarding human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s far north-west.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne described it as “deeply disturbing” and said: “We have consistently called for China to cease the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups” and “have raised these concerns… both bilaterally and in relevant international meetings”.

The tepidity of such a response appears especially glaring in light of what is known about events in Xinjiang.

Researchers estimate that up to 1.5 million of the region’s Turkic Muslim population is detained in what the Chinese government now defines as “vocational training internment centres” (VTICs).

The existence of such facilities is cause enough for grave concerns for the human rights of those detained, bringing to mind the grim precedents of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps or the Soviet gulag. And this is for good reason.

The fragments of information that we have about what occurs within the re-education system and the ideology that underpins it is consistent with just such an understanding. Yet the re-education centres themselves are but the most glaring manifestation of the fact that Xinjiang is now a domain of 'unfreedom' characterised by the technologically-enabled penetration, control and exploitation of Uyghur (and other Turkic Muslim) society.

The ultimate purpose of this architecture of unfreedom appears to be an inherently colonial one: the dissolution of Uyghur identity and its reconstitution as a 'domesticated' vestige of its former self.

As such it arguably constitutes a form of cultural genocide-in-process.

Only by recognising and naming what is occurring in Xinjiang for what it is can we hope to develop a targeted and coherent response.

The architecture of Unfreedom

Evidence for the existence of China’s re-education centres in Xinjiang has been gathered by many researchers since 2016.

Adrian Zenz, for instance, used the Chinese government’s own procurement contracts for construction of these facilities and public security budget expenditures to track the development of the re-education system, while analysts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute used Google Earth satellite imaging to locate and map 28 (out of an estimated 180) large, prison-like facilities. One of the largest detention centres, Dabancheng near the regional capital Ürümqi, is estimated to have a capacity to hold up to 130,000 people.

The hardened security features of many of these facilities - including CCTV surveillance, heavily armed security personnel, watchtowers and razor wire – belie Chinese government assertions that many “trainees” undergoing “vocational training” in them are in fact there voluntarily.

It is now also apparent that VTICs are in fact only one of at least eight different types of facility that fall under the umbrella term “re-education institutions” in Chinese documents. These institutions encompass a range of functions from those focussed on educating “trainees” in Mandarin and Chinese law through to more coercive and punitive “de-extremification.”

Those who resist or do not make satisfactory progress risk solitary confinement, food deprivation, being forced to stand against a wall for extended periods, being shackled to a wall or bolted by wrists and ankles into a rigid ‘tiger chair’, and possibly waterboarding and electric shocks.

All of these facilities are underpinned by the logic of “transformation through re-education” - a concept whose lineage blends elements of traditional Chinese statecraft, state socialism of the Leninist-Stalinist and Maoist variants with the CCP’s more recent racialised politics of exclusion.

In the first instance, as James Leibold notes, both traditional Chinese statecraft and the major variants of state socialism have long held a “paternalistic approach that pathologises deviant thought and behaviour, and then tries to forcefully transform them”.

Once the CCP achieved power, it instituted a system of extra-judicial “remolding through labor” and “re-education through labor” camps where the goal was to “transform” the prisoner and achieve their “reform and rehabilitation”. By the late 1990s the CCP drew on these precedents to develop the concept of “transformation through re-education” in response to a series of new political and social challenges such as the rise of Falun Gong spiritual movement and drug addiction.

The key elements of this discourse of “transformation through re-education” have been markedly intensified in Xinjiang.

Of particular note is how the language of pathology has now thoroughly permeated “transformation through re-education” in Xinjiang. From government officials describing Uyghur “extremism and terrorism” as a “tumour” to be excised from society to equating religious observance to an “illness”.

There is now clear evidence beyond the re-education centres themselves that CCP policy is consistent with the two key elements of cultural genocide as described by Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide: the “destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group” and “the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”.

Not only has the CCP extra-judicially detained up to 1.5 million of the region’s Turkic Muslim population to “transform” them, but it has in parallel also prohibited the use of Uyghur language, script, and signage, imposed new legal restrictions on religious practice, razed mosques and other religious sites and shrines, encouraged inter-ethnic marriage via monetary inducements, and instituted the concerted persecution of the Uyghur intelligentsia.

In this manner the CCP is seeking to destroy what Lemkin termed the “shrines of the soul” of the Uyghur nation (i.e. its language, traditions, monuments, archives, libraries, and places of worship) so that it may impose its conception of Chinese culture and civilisation. As such it is a quintessentially colonial project.

Chinese officials, however, much like officials of other states that have used concentration camps, have also used the language of “prevention” and “uplift” to justify the removal and exclusion of Uyghurs (and other Turkic Muslim minorities) into the various forms of re-education centres constructed throughout the region.

A key element in the Party’s “preventative” toolkit here is the attempted “proletarianisation” of Uyghurs  into a “docile yet productive lumpen class” through linking the re-education system to what can only be described forms of forced labour. Here, detainees are either compelled to work as low-skilled labour in factories directly connected to re-education centres or, upon their “release”, in closely proximate industrial parks where Chinese companies have been incentivised to relocate to.

Individuals, as Adrian Zenz has described, may find themselves caught in this process via three major tracks: (i) detainees are placed in factories in or adjacent to camps or to newly built factories in adjacent industrial parks; (ii) some industrial park factories host a mix of workers from detainee and ex-detainee populations as well as rural surplus laborers; and (iii) others (especially women with children) are assigned to factories with attached day-care facilities. All of these tracks are coercive, result in family separations and place Turkic Muslims in Chinese-speaking environments.

The final element of this domain of unfreedom concerns the surveillance apparatus implemented in the region since 2014 which has combined long-standing practices of collective, face-to-face supervision with technological innovation. In an example of the former the “Becoming Family” campaign has seen thousands of Han Chinese CCP cadres go to live with and “visit” their Uyghur “relatives” to monitor and note behaviour, inculcate Chinese cultural norms and promulgate CCP ideology.  Meanwhile technological innovation such as the use of facial recognition and iris scanners at checkpoints, train stations and petrol stations, collection of biometric data for passports, and mandatory apps to cleanse smartphones of subversive material has become a fact of everyday life. The data collected is then aggregated by an app used by security personnel, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), to report “on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious".

Taken as a whole, the system of re-education and pervasive surveillance fixes Uyghurs and others in place, makes them “transparent” and “known” to the gaze of the state and hence eminently controllable.

The international response to Unfreedom

So far the international response to what is occurring in Xinjiang has amounted to little more than a combination of well-intentioned hand-wringing, rhetorical posturing, supine acquiescence and complicity.

The response of the Australian government and political class sits squarely in the former category, with numerous statements by government and non-government MPs  as well as senior officials over the past two years recognising and expressing “concern” for the gross human rights violations.

The Trump administration’s response, in turn, has been until very recently high on 'principled' rhetoric but low on policy substance.

The US legislative branch has been active, with the US Senate passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (UHRPA) on September 11, 2019. The act called on the executive to explore “the applicability of existing authorities” to impose targeted sanctions on CCP officials and other entities responsible for the re-education camps. The passing of UHRPA has informed the US Commerce Department’s placing of 28 Chinese companies and government bodies involved in Xinjiang on the “Entity List” which bars them from purchasing products from US companies without federal government approval.

This unilateral US action has now squarely incorporated the Xinjiang issue into the broader rhetorical narrative of an emergent “new Cold War” between Washington and Beijing.

As such the “re-education” camps have simply become yet another rhetorical cudgel with which to beat Beijing and one that the Trump administration appears willing to drop in pursuit of a broader deal with Beijing.

The Muslim world, in turn, has in some cases been circumspect and in others positively supine in its acquiescence. This has been due to a combination of historical, geopolitical and economic factors such as Xinjiang’s relative isolation from the rest of the Muslim world for much of the 20th century and China’s successful positioning of itself as a voice of the developing world.

Beijing has been able to leverage these factors in defence of its policies not only with relatively weak states dependent on Chinese support, such as Pakistan, but also with states with established records of at least rhetorical support for oppressed Muslim populations.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman said in Beijing in February, “China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.”

Turkey, which has in the past expressed sympathy for the plight of the Uyghur people, has become more circumspect as China has emerged as the country’s third-biggest trading partner and second-largest source of imports and source of investment under the BRI.

Most significantly, Beijing has been able to parlay its influence with such states in multilateral contexts to defend and justify its policies in Xinjiang.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has acquiesced to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang by stating in March this year that it “commended” the “efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens”.

However, Beijing has arguably been most effective in the human rights arena where its efforts in the UN Human Rights Council have developed a loose coalition of states that seek to push-back against what they perceive to be a western-led human rights agenda.

We should not however limit our criticism solely to governments.

The corporate world and the higher education sectors, particularly in advanced liberal democracies, must be called to account for their complicity by both commission and omission in enabling and profiting from the domain of unfreedom in Xinjiang.

There are 53 American Fortune 500 companies doing business either directly or indirectly in Xinjiang. These include Coca Cola, Amazon, Nike, KFC, Heinz, Campbell’s Soups and Hilton.

But it is lesser known science and technology companies for which there is the clearest evidence of complicity. On February 21, 2019  Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for example, released a statement that it would no longer be supplying genetic sequencing technology to entities in Xinjiang after Human Rights Watch drew attention to the central role of DNA testing and biometric data collection in the Xinjiang surveillance apparatus.

More disturbingly a range of American entities from university endowments, foundations and retirement funds have invested millions of dollars in two Chinese facial recognition companies, SenseTime (based in Hong Kong) and Megvii (based in Beijing) that are known to supply some of the technology that animates the surveillance state.

A range of universities in the United States (MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon) and Australia (University of Technology Sydney and Curtin University) have engaged in research collaboration with a variety of Chinese entities that are involved in supplying and perfecting the surveillance apparatus.

In Australia, both UTS and Curtin University have partnered with Chinese entities or accepted Chinese funding linked to research on key elements of the surveillance. In 2017 UTS joined a $10 million partnership with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) – a state-owned military contractor – in developing the IJOP app used by public security personnel in Xinjiang.

A Curtin University researcher, Associate Professor Liu Wan-Quan, reportedly undertook “Chinese government-funded research on the faces of Uyghurs, looking for ways to improve the identification of their facial features in facial scanning”.

Sixty eight European companies, including Volkswagon, Siemens, Unilever, and Adidas, are also involved either directly or indirectly in Xinjiang. Siemens has partnered in Xinjiang with CETC to work on automation and digitisation.

Corporate complicity is not limited to the technology sector. As noted in the lists of US and European companies cited above, clothing and apparel companies – including Australian companies - also run clear risks of complicity in the domain of unfreedom in Xinjiang.

How to respond to Unfreedom in the 21st century

As demonstrated by the complexity of connections between the actions in Xinjiang and global geopolitics and supply chains, responding to it effectively will be difficult. However here are some practical and significant steps.

First, the international community must recognise and name what is occurring in Xinjiang for what it is: cultural genocide. Recognition of this fundamental point would provide governments, international institutions, universities and corporations with clarity regarding the levels of risk associated with engaging either directly in Xinjiang or with Chinese entities known to be engaged in the attempted erasure of the Uyghur people.

Calling the CCP’s policies what they are should also contribute to a broader understanding that the outrages in Xinjiang are but one of many examples of the detention, repression, exploitation and state-sanctioned violence against particular populations from the Rohingya to Manus Island and Nauru.

Second, the Australian government must recognise that in order to achieve meaningful international action on Xinjiang a broad coalition of states is required. This cannot simply be a US or even Western-led effort because, as we have already seen, it is too easy for Beijing to rebut and deflect such efforts and criticism as evidence of Western double-standards.

Rather, Canberra should focus diplomatic energy on the development of a broad-based coalition of states from the developed and developing worlds. Australia can draw on the precedent of its leading role in the sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. While there are clear distinctions in terms of the relative strength and interconnectedness of the target state, there is also a major similarity: the centrality of a racialised politics of exclusion that lay at the heart of apartheid and that now lies at the heart of unfreedom in Xinjiang.

Third, the Australian government must pursue policy options that are within its immediate power to achieve. These include: (i) continued representations to Beijing on individual cases of detained Uyghur-Australians; (ii) commit to the protection of the Uyghur-Australian population, for instance via establishing a coordinated reporting mechanism for incidents of Chinese government harassment or coercion; and (iii) follow through on last year’s foreign interference legislation to enable the potential prosecution of acts of intimidation by Chinese actors.

Finally, what all of this underlines is that what is happening in Xinjiang is not simply of concern for governments, corporations and universities but for citizens around the globe. It falls upon citizens, especially those in free  societies, to pressure our governments, elected representatives, universities, and corporations for greater due diligence and oversight lest they become complicit – either by omission or commission – in the cultural genocide of the Uyghur people.


Dr Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.

Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).

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