Why the sudden interest in the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang region?
In this Sept. 20, 2018, photo, Uighur children play while their relatives rest outside their house at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region. China’s vision for ethnic unity is taking shape in a village where Han Chinese work and live alongside Uighur minorities. | Andy Wong / AP

Until late 2017, the words Uighur and Xinjiang were virtual unknowns in Western media. Suddenly, though, the mainstream corporate media began to host a steady, and increasing, flow of articles and reports about the Chinese government’s clampdown on ethnic and national minorities in its northwestern province. Specifically, these reports repeat the mantra that China has imprisoned over one million members of the predominately Muslim Uighur community in Xinjiang, placing them into forced labor and indoctrination camps.

Why the sudden interest?

Certainly, China has intervened quite deliberately in Xinjiang over the past decade. This is a coordinated intervention that emerges from the government’s campaign against terrorism and its anti-poverty strategy.

Xinjiang has long been part of China’s territory, reflecting an association that dates back at least to 200 BCE. In 1955, the People’s Republic of China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, confirming both the territorial integrity and multi-ethnic reality of the country. However, separatist sentiment also has a long history among Uighurs in the region, often expressed through calls for some form of independent “East Turkestan” state.

A March 2019 report from the Chinese government notes a sharp increase in violence and terrorism in Xinjiang since the early 1990s, by “forces inside and outside China [that] have stepped up their collaboration as terrorism and extremism spread around the globe, trying desperately to establish ‘East Turkestan’.” The report, available through the State Council Information Office, provides details on thousands of terrorist acts in Xinjiang over the past 25 years, as well as on the government’s response.

The Chinese government says that its approach to Xinjiang reflects “a policy that strikes the right balance between compassion and severity.” This includes a counterterrorism and de-radicalization campaign that aims to identify and curb the influence of extremism in Xinjiang, while protecting rights to religious activity. It also includes measures to confront extreme poverty in the region, which tends to make the population more susceptible to reactionary ideologies. Expanded health care, mandatory public education, improved jobs and incomes, and increased infrastructure are all part of this effort.

Of course, there is the possibility that China’s response to terrorism in Xinjiang is “imbalanced,” but this hardly explains the sudden and obsessive interest of Western governments and corporate media in the Uighurs.

Certainly, achieving the right balance between “compassion and severity” is tricky. The Chinese effort in Xinjiang warrants study and scrutiny; indeed, the government has invited the European Union to send human rights inspection teams to Xinjiang, although these invitations have been declined. Of course, there is the possibility that China’s response to terrorism in Xinjiang is “imbalanced,” but this hardly explains the sudden and obsessive interest of Western governments and corporate media in the Uighurs. After all, these same voices had precious little to say about Spain’s aggressive crackdown on the Catalan independence movement last year, other than to reiterate the necessity of a “united Spain.”

The West’s interest in the Uighurs is a lot less about altruism and a lot more about its economic and political rivalry with China.

Xinjiang province is rich in natural resources. Over 40% of its territory is suitable for agriculture and forestry, it contains some of China’s largest mineral deposits, its coal reserves account for nearly 40% of the national total, and it contains around 25% of China’s petroleum and natural gas. Economically, Xinjiang is key to China’s development, and this means that it is also key to Western imperialism.

At the beginning of April, members of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) visited Ottawa to lobby the Canadian government to impose sanctions and coordinate an international campaign to pressure the Chinese government. In the last month, the WUC made similar visits to New Zealand, Italian, and European Union officials. The WUC is based in Germany and receives annual funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), one of the United States government’s most powerful instruments for promoting a pro-U.S. discourse and orientation among foreign countries. The organization exists for the specific purpose of forming an independent state of East Turkestan—that is, it exists exclusively to achieve the territorial breakup of China.

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that an East Turkestan economy would be strongly interwoven with that of its funders and backers, the United States and the European Union.

On its web and social media, the WUC circulates stories accusing the Chinese government of systematically harvesting live organs from imprisoned Uighurs to sell on the underground market to transplant recipients.

Added up—a million prisoners among a population of about 10 million, restrictions on growing beards or abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, systematic live organ harvesting—it starts to sound like the stuff of cheap Cold War movies. The purpose of this unchecked yet widely circulated narrative is to whip up a frenzy of moral outrage that can justify various forms of foreign interference in China’s sovereign affairs.

It’s a classic case of the “White Man’s Burden”—that deeply embedded view that humanitarian intervention is the noble enterprise of civilized nations to rescue their oppressed and savage cousins. (And, in the process, to justify brutal colonization, division, and re-division of the world’s territory, plunder, and genocide.)

The Canadian government has enthusiastically promoted humanitarian intervention (or “Responsibility to Protect”) as justification for imperialist aggressions against Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and many other sovereign countries. Furthermore, it has an enormous interest in securing access for Canadian corporations to Xinjiang’s rich mineral and energy resources.

This interest must be exposed and stopped.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in People’s Voice.


Dave McKee
Dave McKee

Dave McKee is the editor of People's Voice, Canada's leading English-language socialist publication.