The 'indefinite repression' of Uyghurs
History shows that the subjugation of a population comes at a high cost
Forty years after Deng Xiaoping initiated the “open and reform” policy, the rise of China is no longer hypothetical. From its trade and currency policies to its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s moves reverberate around the globe. This is no less true when it comes to political violence and repression.
Uyghur grievances, state repression, and securitization at home and abroad are durable. Their implications for Chinese policies, for Xinjiang, and for Central Asia will be with us for a significant period. Beijing seems to have no plan for political accommodation in Xinjiang, preferring the indefinite repression of Uyghur aspirations. But history shows that the subjugation of a population comes with mounting costs as the grievances of the oppressed grow.
Beijing seems to have no plan for political accommodation in Xinjiang, preferring the indefinite repression of Uyghur aspirations
At the same time, China is not likely to withdraw from the international stage and its footprint in Central Asia is expanding, increasing regional resentment and raising its profile as a target for violence. Technological advancements will continue to complicate the picture by making information more difficult to control while simultaneously facilitating high-tech authoritarianism. As China cements its status as a developed country, explosive growth will become elusive. Without economic fires to stoke, Beijing is more likely to stoke nationalism and social stability to strengthen its grip on the polity.
This situation is one of deep contradictions that challenge easy forecasting. On the one hand, the Chinese government has stated its interests, demonstrated its capabilities, and proved its resolve in the face of Western criticism. Those facts would seem to weigh against any meaningful change in the status quo. On the other, such stasis does not erase the ever-mounting domestic grievances and international outrage. As one Chinese government official, who preferred to remain anonymous, told us, “The situation in Xinjiang is like a kettle of boiling water; once you loosen your hold on the lid, the water will splash out.”
The situation in Xinjiang is like a kettle of boiling water; once you loosen your hold on the lid, the water will splash out
Beijing’s answer to this escalating cycle of violence and repression has been cultural genocide. Absent the political wherewithal to accommodate Uyghur grievances, the government is now attempting to erase independent Uyghur identity entirely. Scholars and political observers have so thoroughly documented this reality that it has lost some of its ability to shock the conscience. But when considered as a strategic solution to control a population, its monstrosity comes back into focus. Estimates vary, but there are perhaps ten to 13 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang and more throughout the region. Neutralizing Uyghur identity would be a massive, brutal, and multigenerational undertaking.
Beijing’s answer to this escalating cycle of violence and repression has been cultural genocide
The horrific grandiosity of the vision also makes it unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP or the Party) will achieve it. The 10-year-long Cultural Revolution used massacres, torture, and book- and monument-burning in an attempt to wipe out the cultural and ideological differences within Chinese society.
That effort only silenced Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities for a decade. Estimates have suggested a shortage of 100,000 to 200,000 Uyghur births each year. But even this scale and pace leaves the task of cultural erasure barely begun.
In the medium term, this implies that the grinding, repressive status quo will continue –but with the ever-present possibility for sudden and unexpected shifts and breaks. Because of the massive effort it takes to hold the status quo in place against opposition, there is always the potential for sudden inflection points. The status quo is easily mistaken for permanence.
Under mounting pressure, a release is nearly inevitable—the only question is the time and the precise point of breakage. Thus, while it is unclear what could happen, and even more unclear when it might happen, the potential for a rippling crisis is clear and foreseeable.