Under conventional thinking, one of the most remarkable aspects of China is its high level of homogeneity in spite of its vast territory and population. Out of China’s nearly 1.4 billion citizens, over 90 percent are identified as Han Chinese, while an agglomeration of 55 minorities make up the remainder of the citizenry. This statistic, while concise and easy to cite, is not an adequate indication of homogeneity as there is a great degree of variance amongst the Han. For the sake of the Chinese government, however, this vague concept of homogeneity is something to celebrate rather than debate. It has become a fundamental aspect of policy, both foreign and domestic.
The synonimity of being Han and being Chinese (according to Beijing’s position) is invaluable for an authoritarian regime. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are adamant on maintaining that a single ethnicity is easier to govern and control than would be a multitude of ethnicities. This simple deduction explains why large, authoritarian empires such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union pursued policies designed to limit the strength of minorities in the form of mass executions and state-created famines.
It is in this frame of thinking that the troubling reports that up to a million Uighurs (a Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in China’s westernmost province Xinjiang) are being detained in ‘re-education camps’ can best be understood and analyzed. The Uighurs have been in an awkward position in the People’s Republic ever since their homeland was annexed in 1950. They, along with the Tibetans, have thus always been considered as an internal threat to the Communist Regime. Beijing pursued policies designed to slowly sinicize these peripheral territories, such as enticing ethnic Hans to move West, gerrymandering local districts in such a way as to emphasize Han power, rewriting history and eliminating local identities through education.
In 2009, Brahma Chellaney wrote in The Japan Times that “what Beijing is pursuing is not ethnic cleansing in these regions but ethnic drowning” and that the policies “[are] tantamount to cultural annihilation.” This latest campaign of internment is an indication of a transition of Beijing’s more passive, yet nonetheless ruthless policy of ‘ethnic drowning’ to outright ethnic cleansing.
Of course, the Chinese government denies the existence of concentration camps. One senior Chinese official insisted that there are “no such things as re-education centers,” but rather they were merely vocational schools for criminals. The government has admitted that the plethora of first-hand accounts and satellite imagery, however, render any of Beijing’s explanations and justifications defunct.
The rationale that the government presents for its own people is especially concerning: that the internment camps are hospitals. One official Communist Party audio recording stated that those “who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness.”
The eery reminiscence to Nazi language and thinking should be all the evidence needed to consider the Uighur crisis as an indication of the genuine threat that the Chinese government poses to the world. The elimination of the Uighur ethnicity, while tragic from a cultural perspective, is also evidence of the sincerity of the Communist Party’s intention to crush opposition at any cost. The international community has been more or less indifferent toward the plight of the Uighurs, perhaps due to their relative geographic isolation. However, lack of disciplinary action against blatant evidence of ethnic cleansing sends a message to Xi Jinping that the world is unwilling to confront his authority.