Two new books shed light on the situation of the Uyghurs
In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. By Darren Byler. Columbia World Reports; 159 pages; $15.99. To be published in Britain in February by Atlantic Books; £12.99
Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Revised and Updated). By James Millward. Hurst; 536 pages; £16.99. To be published in America in December by Columbia University Press; $35
BTRANSLATION OF THE Foreigners from the 1870s and 1940s published several accounts of Xinjiang, the vast region in the center of Eurasia but which has always been on the periphery of China. Stories about sand and snow were sold back home because they were unusual, but they were written because Xinjiang was increasingly connected to the world, explains James Millward, a renowned western scholar of the region. The region has always been a melting pot for people and a test for advancing empire.
Now Xinjiang has caught the world’s attention again, this time as a site of horrors. In recent years the Chinese Communist Party has detained more than 1m Uyghurs (an indigenous group that makes up 45% of Xinjiang’s population), Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in prison camps. Party officials say they are re-educating “extremists” and helping Uyghurs train for better jobs. Observers say they are in charge of a crime against humanity. In the West, the situation of the Uyghurs has inspired an explosion of books and articles – and many angry Chinese statements.
Two books by Americans offer helpful ways of understanding what has been happening. “In the Camps” by Darren Byler, an anthropologist, discusses the detention of the Uyghurs through the eyes of former prisoners and camp workers. Mr Millward’s most important book, a revised version of “Eurasian Crossroads”, first published in 2006, places the developments within 4,000 years of history.
Mr. Byler’s book is more typical of the recent flood of material documenting life inside the camps. Trying to imitate the work of the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, he narrows down the details of the cemetery which, together, dehumanises the detainees. The heads of the prisoners are shaved. Women have to take the contraceptive pill because the “school” cannot provide enough sanitary towels. They perch on plastic stools for so long that the bowels of some detainees fall out. In their prison cells, TVhours of footage from Xi Jinping’s tours. Sometimes, they ask the prisoners to sing.
The voices of detainees filter through the pages. Adilbek, a Kazakh farmer, remembers being beaten by guards, often as punishment for not speaking Mandarin or for stepping out of line. But sometimes the beatings were random: “They called us cattle. animals.”
These stories are underpinned by a broader ideology. Mr. Byler shows how China uses the rhetoric of a global “war on terror” to try to justify the persecution. The camps, although horrific, are only the most severe form of digital surveillance used by other governments around the world, Mr Byler argues. Similar technologies help bring American migrants to camps on its southern border and allow India to set up communications blackouts in Kashmir. He suggests that “almost every major US tech companies… are involved in the development of Chinese surveillance technology.” They benefit by updating what catches people off guard.
On the other hand, Mr. Millward writes about the camps as the unhappy coda to the story of empire and the dynasty of kings. Readers unfamiliar with Asian history may find it difficult to tell the Xiongnu from the Tokharians. But the fragments about Chen Quanguo, the architect of today’s Uyghur misery, are much richer to be considered together with the pre-communist rulers of the region.
Unfortunately Mr. Millward has not reviewed his entire book. This is appreciated, especially when old projections or examples are still there. (The predictions for the “dry port” of Khorgos, for example, are very difficult to read almost two decades later, now that the transport hub is at a standstill based on the “New Silk Road”.) But it useful to see how the author has changed his tone.
In the first edition of “Eurasian Crossroads”, Mr. Millward painstakingly surveyed the chauvinistic debates of dog scholars in his field, especially in China: the possible Indo-European origin of the Xinjiang Stone; the controversial beginnings of the Uyghur nation. The aim is not to be political, he says in his original introduction, but to offer an overview of history. He has both Han Chinese and Uyghur friends, he tells the reader. Profiles of those trying to balance their Uyghur and Chinese identities round out the book.
In the intervening years Mr Millward has been dragged into the politics he wanted to avoid. In 2011 he and 12 other academics said they were denied Chinese visas after publishing a seemingly innocuous book about this “Muslim border”. The balancing act was an illusion. China has also “lost its balance”, Mr Millward says, by forgetting the lessons of history. The Qing and the Kuomintang were able to implement policies effectively when they accepted that Xinjiang was different and governed accordingly. Today the party has complete control over the area precisely because they are afraid of this diversity.
As with the Cultural Revolution, which also defeated Xinjiang, the consequences of this policy are dire. Qeyser, a young Uyghur who helped Mr. Byler escape, had never seen a phone until he was 15. When officials announced they would be searching all the students’ smartphones, he feared they would be found they article by Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur. intellectual to whom Mr Millward’s book is dedicated, and who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for “separatism”. Mr. Tohti’s crime was to argue that the country’s development had not benefited Uyghurs enough.
Today’s Xinjiang is a sort of crossroads from the one Mr. Millward first described 15 years ago. China’s vision of a homogenous nation is more akin to 19th century European empires, but in Xinjiang, these ideas from the past come together with the technology of the future. Americans may write the first mainstream accounts, but stuck in the middle are the Uyghurs. China is trying to erase the Uyghur culture, discourage births and subjugate the whole people. ■