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‘Correcting Poisoned Minds’: The Apparatus of Surveillance, Repression and Re-Education in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Kashgar, Xinjiang – Photo credit: David Stanley © (Flickr)

By Aki Elborzi (SOAS China Institute) in conversation with Professor Rachel Harris

In September 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement calling on the Chinese government to release over a million detainees in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. From around April 2017 onward, China has been engaging in a vast campaign of ‘political re-education’ aimed primarily at the region’s Turkic Muslim populations, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs. It is now estimated that up to 1.5 million people have spent some time in these detention facilities. Some have never left.

Although they first denied the existence of the detention centers, the Chinese authorities have since acknowledged a widespread campaign in Xinjiang, apparently to root out what it calls the “Three Evils” of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”, and to spur economic growth through what it has dubbed ‘Vocational Education and Training Centers’. According to Chinese authorities, the ‘training centers’ are intended to combat extremist Islamic ideology, which is said by Beijing to have been imported into Xinjiang from the Middle East and conflict zones such as Afghanistan, and has ‘poisoned’ the minds of people.

Global awareness of the situation in Xinjiang has risen significantly in the past two years. But is it enough? I spoke to Rachel Harris, who teaches in the School of Arts at SOAS, and is an expert on the culture, music and history of the Uyghurs, and one the key organizers of the upcoming conference Surveillance and Repression of Muslim Minorities: Xinjiang and Beyond on Saturday 07 March 2020, about the current situation.

(Aki Elborzi): Global media attention to state repression and Beijing’s assimilation policies towards the non-Han ethnic groups in Xinjiang has been increasing since late 2017. Has a campaign of forced assimilation towards the Uyghurs been consistent since the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 or is this a more recent phenomenon?

(Rachel Harris): This is really a recent phenomenon. China’s treatment of its minority peoples has definitely been uneven, to say the least, over the past seventy years. But up until the past few years, Beijing has at least given lip service to multicultural policies. Alongside the rhetoric of China as a “big, happy family of nationalities” that has meant tangible rights and benefits for the peoples of Xinjiang, including support for mother-tongue education and culture. Now those rights and benefits have been denied to such an extent that we really do seem to be looking at active policies of assimilation. One of the aims of the conference is to discuss whether there is a legal basis for regarding what is going on as cultural genocide.

Chinese officials argue that violence and terrorism committed by a section of the Uyghur population motivated by separatism and a foreign inspired Islamic extremism is ‘poisoning minds’ and is something that the state and civilian population of Xinjiang has grappled with for decades, resulting in hundreds of deaths, especially between 2009 to 2014. You have visited and have been researching Xinjiang and Uyghur society and culture for the past 20 years. Is there any basis to this claim?

Yes, the region saw a large number of violent incidents between 2009 and 2014, which state media labelled as terrorism, but in fact, the majority of these incidents were local flashpoints caused by heavy handed policing, for example where police went into people’s houses forcibly removing veils.

I’ve been researching religious life in this region for over a decade, and what I have observed is a big rise in piety, a return to religious lifestyles: daily prayer, modest dress, fasting, reading the Quran … all of these everyday practices for Muslims around the globe have been labelled as “extremism” by the Xinjiang authorities. Any of these activities, alongside having relatives abroad or even having visited a foreign country, is sufficient reason to send people to the detention camps.

Much of the general media’s focus on the situation in Xinjiang identifies the Uyghurs (mostly) Muslim religious identity and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) suspicion of Islam (and religion generally) as a factor behind what has motivated Beijing’s current campaign of detention, surveillance and political ‘re-education’ of minorities in the province. Yet there are reports of musicians, artists, poets and teachers of Uyghur language, history and culture that have been taken away by the authorities for ‘re-education’. What do you make of this, given that China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups that make up the modern Chinese nation?

The detention of such large numbers of moderate, secular intellectuals and cultural leaders gives the lie to Beijing’s narrative of combating extremism. More than anything, these detentions suggest that the policies are aimed at weakening, even erasing cultural identity.

Statue of Chairman Mao, Kashgar – Photo credit: Dan Lundberg © (Flickr)

One of the conference themes is on the topic of surveillance. China has developed a strong technology sector over the past several years, but this has not been without acquisitions, joint ventures or technology transfers (forced or otherwise) from foreign companies, particularly from the West. This technology is now being used in the development and implementation of facial recognition and biometric data collection in Xinjiang. How do you view this situation?

One of the key things we want to do in this conference is to show that Xinjiang is not a distant place. We cannot understand what is going on there unless we see it in the wider context of global flows of information, ideologies and trade. There are too many examples of companies and even universities in the West collaborating to develop these surveillance technologies. They need to account for the ethical implications of their collaborations.

Another big issue in the region now is the question of forced labour. Many of the “graduates” from the detention camps have not actually been freed, but moved to work in newly established factories. Some of these factories are providing materials for fashion retailers in the UK, as well as elsewhere. It’s crucial to bring public attention to these links, so that companies cannot get away with profiting from forced labour.

You have assembled a number of leading experts to come together at SOAS to deliberate on the crises faced by the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minority groups in Xinjiang. What are some of the outcomes that you hope to achieve from this conference?

We have two aims with this conference. The first is simply to keep this issue alive. The mass incarceration of over a million people cannot be allowed to slip off the agenda. The second aim is to make the links between what is happening in Xinjiang and developments elsewhere. How have narratives of Islamophobia, made in the West, enabled the massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang? Will China’s methods for “managing” its Muslim minorities provide a model for other repressive regimes? If Burma can be held to account for acts of genocide committed against the Rohingja, can we imagine a similar case being brought against China?

Rachel Harris is Director of Research, School of Arts, and Professor in Ethnomusicology, Department of Music, at SOAS University of London. Her forthcoming book, Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam (Indiana University Press) will be published in November 2020.


The conference ‘Surveillance and Repression of Muslim Minorities: Xinjiang and Beyond’ took place at SOAS on Saturday, 07 March 2020.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.

Originally published on 02 March 2020.