The New York Times has published a piece on what is happening in China, ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, based on a leak of 400 pages (I assume you should be able to read the article if you click the link even without a subscription). As to the source of that leak, “The papers were brought to light by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”
The piece is a testament to the brutality of the fiat will of an authoritarian state. But it is also a testament to the humanity that persists in the face of that domination of spirit.
The entire article is very long and detailed, and I invite readers who can read Chinese to read the original documents. Obviously I cannot. But, my own takeaway is that it’s about as bad as we thought, and Xi Jinping is a more subtle and complex thinker on issues related to Xinjiang than the title might imply.
On the whole, I think we should be skeptical about sensational stories, such as the one about people being harvested for their organs. These are the sorts of things that really induce click-throughs, but if you consider the genetics Uyghurs are not going to be the best source of organ matches for most Chinese in any case (in contrast, criminals drawn from the general population could be).
But after reading Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution what is described in the piece is very familiar (there are major differences, the Cultural Revolution was very much an intra-elite conflict in which the masses were collateral damage, while this is clearly directed by a more unified state against an ethnoreligious group). Some of the responses to the article declared that this was similar to what was occurring in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. I am open to suggestions about the strength of the analogy, or book recommendations about Nazi Germany (I recently read Thomas Childers’ The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany), but from what I have read about the rise of the Nazi state and its industrial-scale genocidal aims and operations, this is not that. There is a precedent that I think is analogous to what the Nazis aimed for, and that is the Dzhungar genocide.
Rather, it seems that Xi Jinping’s goal is to use state coercion to forcibly extinguish the cultural distinctiveness of the Uyghur people. This aim also erupted explosively during the Cultural Revolution when minority customs were targeted by the Red Guards, but its roots are old in the Chinese system and cultural memory. The Chinese have assimilated foreigners and minority groups for thousands of years. Sometimes that assimilation is passive. And sometimes it is aggressive. But it has been a feature of the Chinese cultural landscape since the beginning.
The nature of Chinese assimilation can often cause problems for religions, particularly those perceived to be foreign. Even after 1,500 years of a presence at the center of Chinese life, Buddhism was still seen as a foreign antisocial influence by Confucian mandarins at the end of the Imperial period. Attempting to understand the Chinese in terms of their own society, early European Roman Catholic missionaries dressed in a manner similar to Buddhist monks when they arrived in the Ming court. Only later did they understand that the Chinese elites did not hold these monks in particularly high esteem, and so changed their wardrobe to mimic Confucian bureaucrats.
As a stylized fact between the end of the Shang dynasty and the crystallization of State Confucianism under the Han dynasty, the intellectual elite of Chinese society shifted away from the propitiation of a personal God (Shangdi) toward reverence for an impersonal principle of Heaven (Tian). This is not to say the cults of various supernatural figures, gods and goddesses, were not popular. Rather, these were a mass religious phenomenon, but not integrated seriously into the ideology of the elite. In contrast, though Christianity and Islam exhibit elite and mass modalities, they perceive themselves as a whole on some level. The contempt of Christian or Muslim elites for the superstitions of the mass of believers is tempered by their role as spiritual mentors and teachers (e.g., “reforming Christianity”). In contrast, the Confucian educated elite of China treated mass religion with benign neglect, not as something worthy of ideological engagement. So long as religion was not a motive force for revolution and an institutional rival to the state and its subsidiary units, it was left in peace.
This juxtaposition and contrast explain the Chinese attitudes toward “foreign” and “Western” religions. The Chinese customs and traditions as passed down from the time of Confucius served as organizing principles of civilized life. Islam and Christianity can also serve as civilizing forces. Christianity was the primary force through which Romanitas was transmitted after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Northern Europe. Islam emerged as a binding ethos of a vast and diverse Caliphate. China, with its own indigenous traditions, did not need some such a binding force.
There was a period in the early Tang dynasty when various forms of Buddhism became so institutionally powerful that it looked as that religion would come to take a central position in elite Chinese identity, as it had and would in many societies (e.g., Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Silla Korea, and Tokugawa Japan). But what happened is that in the second half of the Tang dynasty institutional Buddhism was eviscerated, with the monastic wealth being confiscated, and monks and nuns being driven back to secular life. Though Buddhism persisted, obviously, it never again challenged the Confucian system as an institutional framework and body which provided an alternative Weltanschauung which could supersede the rites developed during the Spring and Autumn periods.*
Modern China’s “problems” with two particular groups in the western regions, Uyghurs and Tibetans is not a surprise. Both of these groups are strongly attached to a religious Weltanschauung which is somewhat incommensurable with the Chinese system. And, both of these have never really been part of the Chinese system in a deep way. The conquest of Xinjiang under the Manchus was the conquest of the Manchus as Central Asian warlords, not as Emperors of China. Tibet received Manchu protection, but it was given autonomy, in part due to the Manchu affinity for Tibetan Buddhism (there are also complex politics with the Mongols).**
The Uyghur Muslims, who are culturally descended from Karluk Turks who expanded into the Tarim basin between 1000 and 1500 AD, have little historical experience of the assimilationist tendencies of the Chinese state. This is in contrast to the Hui Muslims, Muslims in China proper who speak dialects of Chinese, and are physically quite similar to their Han neighbors (some West Asian ancestry is visible in many Hui as well). Though there are concentrations of Hui in Gansu and Yunnan, Muslims have been a presence in the cities of eastern China for many centuries. The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China is a work that explores the intellectual response of very religious Muslim intellectuals to the claims of Chinese civilization. I will not review the whole argument, but I will say that it is clear one line of reasoning began to lead to a synthesis with Confucian thought so that an Islam with clear Chinese characteristics was emerging in the 18th-century. Further west, in and around the Gansu corridor, Chinese Muslim practice and belief were veering into syncretism with Pure Land Buddhism.
But these syntheses were not to be. Early modernity saw the collapse of the Manchu political system, the prestige of Chinese culture, and the reemergence of an international Islam reinvigorated by modern communication technology and travel. Chinese Islam has experienced several waves of “reform,” which operationally mean standardization and alignment with world-normative Islam so that several Chinese sects now derive from this process of reinvigoration. Though Chinese Muslims have always lived a somewhat separate life from non-Muslims due to their dietary restrictions, Islamic reform movements have also added more external differentiation, from the manner of dress to grooming, to the architectural style of the mosque.
The widespread mass antipathy toward Islam from the Chinese populace reflects the reality that Islam, properly understood by most Muslims, involves participation and assertion in public domains of the Islamic religion, and regulation of private life in a manner which mandates separation from the broader non-Muslim society. Islam is not simply another private cultic practice, a devotion to a regional god, or excessive enthusiasm for amulets and astrology. It is an ethical and metaphysical system that can rival Neo-Confucianism and Communism. Chinese history suggests that religious organizations have a great ability to mobilize and become the seedbeds for revolution and overthrow the current order. The founder of the Ming dynasty spent a period as a Buddhist monk, but ultimately his path to victory came through his association with a regional millenarian cult with Manichaean antecedents.
In the article above Xi notes that acts of violence by Uyghur radicals in the late 2000s have a cause proximately in geopolitics (Islamic radicalism in Central and West Asia). But, he suggests that the ultimate issue is the depth of the feeling of Muslims about their religion. This indicates that the ultimate aim by Xi is of a much broader scope than the reeducation of just the Uyghurs. There are as many Hui Muslims as Uyghurs, and the Hui are distributed broadly across China. Xi seems to be a realist and understand that religion will not fade away. But, he also seems to be affirming the historical practice of the Chinese state and elite in crushing the institutional independence and solidity of religions that involve more than just personal and private devotion.
Religion as another individual consumer good is tolerable. Religion as a force for social coordination for the production of social phenomena is dangerous.
Previous Chinese leaders seem to have accepted and believed that economic development will lead to ethnic and religious harmony. But the literature does not show a simple pattern where development leads to a diminishment of confessional or sectarian feelings. On the contrary, the anomie induced by rapid development can result in the emergence of powerful religious revivals whose aim is to bring order and stability back into the lives of the dislocated. Uyghur separatism may in fact be due to economic development, and the greater integration of the Uyghurs with ethnic Han.
Historically the Chinese state has been suspicious of overlarge and powerful non-state institutions of civic society. Islamic religious revival and identity is a problem because it counteracts the assimilative power of the consumer economy. The reeducation camps are an attempt to check the integrative action of Islam, so that eventually the Uyghurs as a distinctive ethnic unit may disappear. This is entirely possible, as they are only 0.76% of the population of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Finally, one must admit that cultural extinction does not entail physical genocide. But the loss of memory effaces the past and restructures the present. The eastern Uyghur city of Turpan was conquered by Muslim Turks only in the late 14th-century. It was the last bastion of Buddhist Uyghur culture. Within a century the Uyghurs of Turpan were Islamicized. In the 17th-century the Uyghurs of Turpan believed that the ruined Buddhism temples that their ancestors had worshipped in and built were actually the works of the Oirat Mongols, who had recently converted to Buddhism.
The truth is what one chooses to remember. Or is forced to.
* Neo-Confucianism and religious Daoism both “borrowed” extensively from Buddhist metaphysics, while the influence of Daoism is clear in some Chinese sects, such as Chan, which became Zen in Japan.
** Han and Tang dynasty suzerainty over Tarim basin oases have nothing to do with modern Uyghurs and were tenuous and short-lived in any case.