The China Dream and the Pursuit of Chineseness – Xinjiang “Re-Education” Camps and Cultural Erasure

On January 23, the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy hosted an event titled “The Xinjiang Crisis: Domestic and International Reactions.” The talk featured presentations and panel discussion on the situation that has been unfolding in Xinjiang, from speakers Gerry Shih and Dr. Darren Byler. Shih serves as a China correspondent for the Washington Post, and Byler conducts research on Uyghur dispossession and “terror capitalism” in the city of Ürümqi. Both have extensive field experience in Xinjiang and have followed the past years’ developments closely. Rachel Lietzow reflects on the event and offers her own perspective here for China Focus.  


The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an arid province located in far northwestern China, is home to a total population of over 20 million people. According to the 2010 census, the Uyghurs—a Turkic speaking, largely Muslim ethnic minority—accounted for 45.8% of Xinjiang’s population. With a separate linguistic system, religion, traditions, and community, the Uyghurs historically existed on the periphery of China; this lack of assimilation and sporadic terrorist incidents have threatened the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of attaining a “harmonious society” (和諧社會). 

Following the violent mass riot of 2009 in Urumqi—which left nearly 200 people dead—and Xi Jinping’s rise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set domestic security as a main priority for the nation in pursuit of the “Chinese Dream”. This vision involves national rejuvenation, where China ascends to the position of global leader and simultaneously builds a strong cultural identity. The Chinese government hopes to establish a collective “Chineseness.” A dangerous byproduct of Xi’s vision concerns the Chinese government’s waning tolerance towards religion and ethnic minorities.

In 2016, Chen Quanguo replaced Zhang Chunxian as party chief of Xinjiang. International scholars suspect that Chen “won Xi’s [Jinping] trust and confidence” and was handpicked due to his previous harsh treatment of minorities and eradication of religious freedoms. Chen Quanguo previously served as Tibet’s top party official for five years, where he established a reputation for hardline treatment of Tibetan Buddhists. He is now the brain behind Xinjiang’s notorious re-education camps that are suspected to have held one million or more Uyghurs and Kazakhs against their will. 

Reflection from the Panel Talk

Speakers Gerry Shih and Dr. Darren Byler presented a disturbing picture of Xinjiang’s camps through a combination of Kazakhstan detainees’ stories and salvaged photos of Urumqi’s heavily surveilled streets and barb wired camps. I personally found their commentary on cultural genocide to provide the most fascinating insight.

Shih’s presentation discussed the recent ethnic-policy reform ideas that may have influenced the CCP to move forward with the re-education camps. Describing the drum of the current campaign, he named policy advisers Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, who advocated policies that would “attenuate ethnic identity” while strengthening a “single shared national/racial identity”. The Chinese government’s primary argument in favor of this policy direction claims that assimilating the Uyghurs into Han Chinese culture would reinforce stability in China’s western regions. However, Shih and Byler both agreed that in response to forced cultural assimilation in the re-education camps, the Uyghur minority population when released back into society would feel an increased level of dissent and anger. 

An interesting point of comparison used by Shih showed that even non-militant ethnic minorities’ existence in China was perceived as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s goals. This weakens the CCP’s argument that a much-needed anti-terrorism policy led to these drastic measures. Shih notes that the Hui minority, with no history of extremism or militancy, likewise experiences cultural and religious discrimination. Photos taken during his time in the region depicted the erasure of words in Arabic, entry into buildings requiring removal of skull caps, and the covering of Islamic arches. All photos were indicative of Sinicization and the confining definition of “Chineseness” that clearly excludes non-Han populations. 

Byler followed up with his 2014 fieldwork findings, which indicated cultural erasure in not only the re-education camps, but the remainder of the region as well. He specifically noted that the removal of key leaders in Uyghur society, as well as the halting of Uyghur language education, have contributed to eliminating their ethnic identity. Those not taken into camps face separation from family members and a dampened economy. A weakened sense of community—partially due to the sheer loss of individuals to the camps, as well as tight government control over group gatherings—risks causing gradual cultural and linguistic disassociation. 

A less covered point speaks of Uyghurs’ response to the camps and heavy surveillance that intrudes into their daily lives: the common story only victimizes the Uyghur, yet fails to discuss the survivors. As the CCP installed approved religious leaders and heavily controlled Xinjiang’s mosques, Uyghurs found ways to bypass these limits. Byler mentions that restaurants near the mosques had prayer rooms where true Islam was taught, not heavily monitored by Chinese authorities as the mosques. Perhaps equally interesting was that none of his fieldwork subjects who had experienced the camps felt successfully “re-educated” or brainwashed. Some would joke of no particular Mandarin improvement with the exception for 22 memorized patriotic songs; others added that oftentimes their mandatory weekly self-criticisms were borrowed work from other classmates.  

More somber recollections from survivors of this government program include detainees isolated in jail-like cells, spending extensive time spent sitting on small plastic stools, hands shackled, and faces hooded. The critical question remains: do the “re-education” camps even accomplish the intended goals of terrorism prevention and cultural assimilation?

Audience Q&A 

When asked by an audience member whether Xinjiang’s camps have been a success from the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, Gerry Shih and Dr. Darren Byler agreed that aside from the human rights violations, the camps have two critical issues. First, the drastic “counterterrorism” campaign will likely lead to increased backlash from the historically marginalized Uyghur minority. Secondly, the camps are unsustainable in the long run. They saw the system as overextended and already facing blowback from outside the government and even within it—as evidenced from the release of the Xinjiang Papers

Further conversation followed when a UC San Diego graduate student called upon the speakers to be more clear in their phrasing and “call the situation what it is—genocide”. Byler was sympathetic to her argument and agreed that the situation was in fact akin to a cultural genocide. A discussion followed relating to cultural imperialism and whether or not there were echoes of the United States’ own policy in the Middle East seen in Xinjiang. 

Another UC San Diego student, a Han Chinese citizen of Xinjiang, noted that while she perceived the necessity of a program to combat terrorism, she thought the re-education camps had gone too far and had caused suffering throughout the region as markets were left empty, businesses decimated and an aura of fear settled over the region. Byler pushed back at the idea of “necessity,” but agreed that the entire region has experienced the negative repercussions of the camps.

The talk was a great opportunity for the school and wider community to engage in open dialogue about the dire situation in Xinjiang. 

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Rachel Lietzow

Rachel is a Master of Chinese Economic and Political Affairs student at UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy. Her research interests include Hong Kong-China relations, the intersection of cultural and political identity, and challenges of Chinese sustainable growth.

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