At the end of today’s video I allude to a very basic principle that shouldn’t need explanation, but kind of does. Put simply: Conflict is bad. It’s not always bad, of course. Competition can be tremendously helpful. It can inspire us, and help us achieve new and better things as a species. My hope is that China and the US will be goading each other on for centuries, out to Mars and beyond. But this healthy competitive process can be corrupted.
There are a number of relationships, that the US government carefully maintains, that have fallen into permanent disrepair. Healthy competition has devolved into useless dick waving contests, and pointless geopolitical chess games that kill people. The US-Iran relationship is the classic example, North Korea is another. The greatest tragedy of this decade is the fact that another relationship, between the US and Russia, has fallen into this pattern as well. Relationships can have virtuous or vicious cycles going on, and relations with all these countries are quite vicious.
I tend to blame the US for this, but it does take two to tango, and there are hardline elements in all our manufactured enemies that help to keep the vicious cycles going. And it really is a collaborative effort. Iran’s theocratic regime can’t exist without the US defense industry funded war-mongering think tanks and politicians, and vice versa. We have gotten to a deeply sad point where the only people who have trusted expertise on these issues are perpetuators of the vicious cycle with Iran. Figuring out how to unscrew those relationships is one of the missions of this channel. But it’s far better to avoid starting the disaster in the first place. It’d be really good if we could avoid getting into an Iran style vicious cycle with China. Today’s video on the Uyghurs ends with that plea.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there, for almost as long as there has been a China, its rulers have been struggling to control this vast, sparsely populated territory in the far Northwest. The Chinese call this area Xinjiang, which can be roughly translated as frontier or borderlands, but it has been known by many other names, In many other languages. Thanks to modern technology and wealth, the Chinese may have finally found a way to control the Uighur population by turning Xinjiang into a dystopia that seems more Science fiction than reality. Today we will be talking about what’s going on and why it matters.
Many commenters have criticized me for taking so long to cover this topic, and they are absolutely right. At its best this channel is about challenging the powerful, and that most often means going after the US government. In its dealings with Washington DC, Beijing is still very much the underdog, so I tend to take their side. I don’t apologize for that, but that doesnt mean I should ignore the bad things that China does, and what they are doing to the Uighurs is horrific.
The suffering of Xinjiang is similar in some ways to what China is doing in Tibet. So similar that the Chinese government official who is turning Uighur life into a Sci- fi Hellscape earned his position by doing the same job in Tibet. Tibet gets a lot more attention internationally, which is surprising, because it is a lot less important on almost every measure. There are far fewer people to worry about in Tibet for one thing. For another Xinjiang shares borders with 8 countries, and is the launching pad for many of the land based sections of China’s one belt one road initiative. Tibet has some interesting borders but it also has these honking big mountains that make it both super defensible, and a not very practical place for new transport infrastructure.
I think the main thing is that the Tibetans aren’t Muslim, and the Uighurs are, which means that the Tibetans get a lot more sympathy on the international stage. Its screwed up but that’s how it is. China is now enjoying what is almost certainly its longest unbroken period of control of the region. Since the 1750s China has been the major power in Xinjiang the majority of the time, but they rarely went more than a couple decades without losing it to some Turkic nomad prince, or the Soviet Union, or just to some petty Chinese warlord. The Chinese Communist party is now working hard to ensure that this never happens again.
Between the last reconquest of Xinjiang in 1949 and the end of the Soviet Union, China had to be more solicitous of the Native Uighur population. Don’t get me wrong, it was still authoritarian as all hell,but the Soviets and the Chinese had a bit of a competition going to see who could be better to their subject nations in central asia. That’s why the official name of the Province is still the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province. After 1992, and the fall of the Soviet Union, this stopped mattering as much. And after 2001 China was handled the perfect tool to use against the Muslim Uighur people. All they had to do to get away with cultural genocide was call them terrorists.
Between 2001 and 2016 the Chinese slowly ratcheted up the pressure on the Uighurs. They are no longer a majority in their own province. Members of China’s Han majority have been migrating to Xinjiang for quite some time now but China’s economic miracle over the past couple decades has sent the migration into overdrive. It is basically what the US did to the Native Americans, taking place in what is supposedly our more civilized era. Just like the indigenous people oppressed by the US, Uighurs can make themselves safer by conspicuously abandoning their culture and assimilating to the Chinese mainstream.
A small handful of Uighurs have gone in the other direction and carried out a few horrifying attacks against innocent Chinese civilians. These counterproductive acts of course only serve to provide cover to Chinese repression. By 2016 the Chinese were already engaged in the systematic repression of traditional Islamic life, dismantling mosques and traditional neighborhoods and forbidding facial hair. Then things got a lot worse.
In August of 2016 Chen Quango showed up and he brought the repressive system he pioneered In Tibet. At its heart is a massive expansion of policing and police stations. In urban areas there is now a mini police station every 500 meters or so. According to the Jamestown Foundation there is now a police station for every 300 people in Xinjiang, or roughly one police station for every 150 Uighurs. In his first year in office Quango added almost 100,000 new policing jobs. Surveillance is constant and mandatory. Beyond the absurdly inflated police forces, informing on one’s neighbors is encouraged, and Uighurs are regularly required to surrender their phones and other devices for intelligence analysis. And that’s not the worst bit.
I am a huge opponent of mass incarceration in the United States. One of my favorite arguments against it was the fact that the US had more people in prison than China, a totalitarian state four times larger than we are. Not proportionally, but in raw numbers. That was one of my favorite arguments against US mass incarceration. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly no longer true.
In just the past two years it is estimated that the number of Uighurs that have been detained indefinitely has grown up to almost a million. We don’t have exact numbers on this.of course, though we do know from sattelite imagery that new reeducation camps have been cropping up all over Xinjiang province, and that it seems like every Uighur family in has a family member or members that have disappeared.
We need to be honest about what these are. These are concentration camps. Now I am not saying that this is anywhere near as bad as the mass killing camps that the Nazis set up, or the starvation and disease ridden concentration camps the British set up all over Africa. This isn’t a world historical tragedy or genocide yet. But it absolutely could be. All of the components are there.
The question is what should we do about this? The diplomatic steps western governments have taken are to be applauded. We need to bring attention to this, loudly and repeatedly. But I think we need to tread carefully. I think we need to ask why it is that China felt emboldened enough to arrest as much as 10% of the Uighur population over the past two years. Condemnation is good. Calling this behavior barbaric is good. Embarrassing China on this issue is good. But open conflict would not be good.
Yup, I am about to blame Donald Trump. But not just Trump. Over the past couple years all of Washington DC has decided to start going after China more aggressively. As Trump and his anti-China rhetoric ran for and won the white house Chen Quanguo moved into Xinjiang and stepped up arrests. In October of 2018, after a year of accelerating trade war, China stopped bothering to even deny the existence of these concentration camps. A higher degree of conflict between the US and China has not been good for the Uighurs.
Let’s lean into Godwin’s law by ending this discussion with the Nazis. A little appreciated fact is that they needed World War II to fully become the monsters we remember. They were always disgusting thugs, but in the 1930s, many or even most of the people put in concentration camps got to go home after being brutalized for a period of weeks or months. It was only in the context of World War II and the complete breakdown of civilized norms that the Nazis were able to build out their industrial system of extermination.
The Uighur situation is nowhere near that bad yet… but all the components are there. Heightened conflict between China and the US is likely to further assemble the components. To save the Uighurs we need to embarRass China over this, not fight it.
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