China, the Uyghurs and the left
Posted by Keith-264 on October 24, 2021, 7:52 pm
Posted on 23rd October 2021
In June, the leaders of the G7 countries, meeting at a three day summit in Cornwall, issued a strongly worded statement demanding that China “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang” and Hong Kong.1 The backers of Israel’s murderous assaults on Gaza and Saudi Arabia’s bloody war against the people of Yemen have no right to accuse anyone of human rights abuses, and the real concerns of these hypocrites soon became clear. China’s rising economic power presents “challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy”. As a communique at the subsequent NATO meeting in Brussels made clear, China is seen as a strategic competitor whose “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.2
China’s rise has made it a serious competitor to the interests of the West’s ruling classes, and if the rules of your “rules-based” order are not enough, then they need to be bent a little. Donald Trump took the lead, imposing a set of tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018, and then banning Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE from United States government contracts. Despite major differences in other areas, his successor, Joe Biden, has maintained this confrontational stance towards China.3
Xinjiang and the plight of the region’s Muslim Uyghur population, along with the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, are invoked to give a high-minded gloss to measures that are really about trying to protect the dominance of Western corporations. This newly discovered concern for the Uyghurs has led to allegations that a million or more of them—at least a tenth of their total population—are incarcerated in labour camps. China has also been accused of genocide.
How should the left respond to all this? Predictably enough Keir Starmer’s Labour have uncritically accepted the accusations and urged sanctions on China. However, there are also those on the left who, taking China’s side, try to excuse the repression that undoubtedly does take place. For instance, in October last year, the US-based Monthly Review journal hosted a report by the Qiao Collective, a group that “willfully ignores domestic repression of political dissidents in China” according to one Taiwanese activist.4
Others have taken more creditable positions. Critical China Scholars, a group based in the US that has opposed both US propaganda against China and racism against American Asians, issued an open letter criticising both the Qiao Collective’s report and Monthly Review for hosting it.5 This article attempts to outline a similar position, based on Marxist understandings of imperialism and national liberation, that supports Uyghur self-determination while opposing co-option of their cause by US imperialism and its British junior partner.
Where does the often quoted figure of one million detainees come from? Jessica Batke, senior editor at the ChinaFile website, suggests that there are two key sources.6 One is a Washington-based non-governmental organisation, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, whose figure is extrapolated from interviews with just eight Uyghurs asked to estimate the number detained in their villages.
The other source is Adrian Zenz, whose findings have been widely drawn on by the mainstream media. He describes himself as an “independent researcher”, but, as a born again Christian, Zenz reports to a higher authority. He claims he feels “very clearly led by God” to investigate Xinjiang, though he admits he is no specialist on the area.7 He is also a senior fellow at the rabidly anti-communist Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. This organisation has form when it comes to providing conveniently round numbers as soundbites. It claims that communism is responsible for a “holocaust” of 100 million victims globally, a figure repeated by Donald Trump when still president. Like Trump it also blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.8
The claims of Zenz have been amplified by “think-tanks” aligned with the US establishment. For instance, another of his reports, “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang”, is published by Newlines Institute, an organisation that claims to be a “non-partisan think-tank” but actually has close ties to the US military.9 Its parent organisation, Fairfax University of America, was nearly shut down by regulators in 2019 for plagiarism and providing “patently deficient” education.10
Another feature of the “evidence” is the use of aerial photographs, a technique surely discredited by the Iraq war.11 There is clearly a wide margin of error in assumptions about the purposes of institutions identified in these images and estimates of their capacities, let alone their actual populations. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) implicitly acknowledges this, stating that estimates of the number of re-education camps in Xinjiang range from 181 by Agence France-Presse to 1,200 by our friend Zenz.12 ASPI is another “independent, non-partisan think-tank” that is a little shy about its connections—fully 85 percent of its funding comes from the Australian, US and UK governments.13
The Chinese government provides no figures for camp inmates, so estimates are inevitably based on supposition and guesswork, unsurprisingly varying widely. Political scientist Sean Roberts, for instance, quotes figures of 100,000, 500,000 and 800,000 from different sources.14 Nevertheless, organisations close to the US government, such as the various think-tanks and Radio Free Asia, take the highest figures and most sensational stories and promote them. These are then adopted uncritically by more widely respected organisations such as the BBC and Human Rights Watch, helping to create a consensus that supports the US’s agenda.15
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have used propaganda from such dubious sources to label China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide”. This seems deliberately designed to imply that something akin to the Nazi Holocaust is taking place, something worse than human rights violations being committed elsewhere. It is not a word, for instance, that they would ever apply to Palestine, despite Israel’s well-documented crimes.
The self-serving and opportunist nature of US “support” for the Uyghurs is shown by its earlier accommodation with China’s attempt to hitch its repression of the Uyghurs to the newly declared global “War on Terror”. In a sordid piece of political horse trading, the US complied with demands for the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) to be condemned as terrorist in order to get Chinese acquiescence in the war on Iraq. ETIM remains on the terrorist list despite apparently only ever having been a figment of the Chinese government’s imagination.16 The US also incarcerated 22 Uyghurs in Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Despite the US later admitting they should never have been detained, the last of them were only released in 2013.17
However, this does not mean that the left should take a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” attitude and become apologists for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Qiao Collective are rightly “skeptical that the US—having engaged in two decades of perpetual war in Muslim-majority nations—has any legitimate moral interest or grounds on which to defend Muslim religious rights in Xinjiang.” Yet, having stated that “there are aspects of PRC policy in Xinjiang to critique”, the Qiao Collective instead try to justify China’s actions in terms borrowed from the “War on Terror”, offering no criticism whatsoever.18
It is unnecessary to accept all the claims made by supporters of US imperialism in order to recognise the abundant evidence of the Chinese state’s oppression of the Uyghurs, and that it has taken a decided turn for the worse in recent years. In fact oppression and exploitation of national minorities was built into the Communist Party’s nation-building programme from the start. ctd....
Clio the cat, ? July 1997 - 1 May 2016
Kira the cat, ? ? 2010 - 3 August 2018
Jasper the Ruffian cat ? ? ? - 4 November 2021