Opposing American empire should never justify supporting perpetrators of atrocities, and yet that’s exactly what some anti-imperialists are doing with their analysis of events in China’s Xinjiang region. These pundits claim that efforts to expose human rights abuses in Xinjiang are really aimed at generating consensus for a “new Cold War” against China. It is only the latest manifestation of American denialism, and instead of challenging US empire, it only helps to cover up US government complicity in the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Americans have a history of rejecting the facts of unjust violence abroad. The tactic is most associated with right-wing Holocaust denialism. The historian Deborah Lipstadt traces American Holocaust denialism back to interwar historians and their criticisms of America’s decision to enter World War I. Unlike denialists, these revisionists had truth on their side. Britain had falsified reports of Germans’ using babies as target practice, mutilating civilians, and committing other acts of brutality in order to lure America into the war.
Post–World War II critics adopted similar strategies, often portraying the Germans as victims and the Allies as aggressors. But Germany had actually committed mass murder this time. And so revisionists became denialists. They claimed that the Holocaust had been fabricated to coax America into another European war. For these right-wing denialists, the point was never about what had happened to the victims. It was about making domestic political gains. And if that involved supporting abhorrent regimes and refusing to acknowledge their crimes against humanity, so be it.
Although these denialists mostly aimed to promote US isolationism, others have followed, pursuing different agendas using the same techniques. These have included anti-imperialists on the left who, in order to critique American empire, dismiss obvious truths and question whether well-documented massacres ever happened.
Most notorious among anti-imperialist deniers are Edward S. Herman and David Peterson. In their book The Politics of Genocide, they argue that most accusations of genocide are justifications of US imperialism in the name of “humanitarian intervention.” Looking for US interests behind every report of genocide, they even invert the role of victim and perpetrator in the Rwandan Tutsi genocide, portraying the post-genocide government as a tool of US empire. Noam Chomsky, despite his otherwise nuanced views on genocide, legitimized these arguments by providing a foreword to the book.
For many anti-imperialists, the need to denounce US empire is reason enough to support any of its opponents. And if those opponents commit atrocities, their abuses can be denied. Xinjiang is just the latest iteration in this pattern. The specific identities of the Xinjiang denialists don’t really matter, and I have no intention of inflating their cause by naming them or linking to their work. What brings them together is a tireless effort to debunk every aspect of the “mainstream” narrative about Xinjiang, and to scream “got his ass” at anyone who refuses to debate their ludicrous ideas.
To understand the perversity of this denialism, you don’t have to believe every think tank report and news item about Xinjiang; indeed, there are good reasons to approach all of these critically. Nor do you have to agree that what’s happening to the Uyghurs constitutes genocide (though I do). This is because what these anti-imperialists deny is much broader than the application of a term in international law. They deny basic facts of history.
Like the United States itself, China is an imperial state. Its contemporary borders are the result of conquest, and its current population is a collection of peoples violently confined by the forces of the state. Whether you think China is socialist or capitalist doesn’t change this.
The territory now known as Xinjiang (literally, “new frontier”) was invaded in the mid-18th century amid a global spree of imperial expansions. It was retained by the People’s Republic of China because of a loophole in the decolonization process that enabled states to hold on to colonial possessions that were part of the same landmass. Because China didn’t cross an ocean to colonize Xinjiang, the territory and its people were ineligible for decolonization within the UN’s framework. Thus, praising China’s policies in Xinjiang is praising contemporary imperialism. It also means praising mass incarceration and surveillance, the criminalization of minority identities, assaults on language and culture, and the violent repression of dissent.
And yet, applauding China is often a part of these anti-imperialists’ strategy. In addition to endless ad hominem attacks and insisting that everything they disagree with is a CIA psy-op, these denialists create YouTube deep-dives and interminable Twitter threads presenting the “real” Xinjiang. These inevitably present a “flipped script,” where everything in Xinjiang is good, actually. People are happy; the government is providing jobs; reeducation camps are super-helpful; and minority languages are flourishing exuberantly. Everyone can practice whatever religion they want in exactly the way they want, and the people are protected from extremist Muslims by friendly cops.
These assertions are backed up by an endless stream of facts. A photograph shows an elderly Uyghur man praying. A graph shows an increase in Xinjiang’s population. A video shows Uyghur men and women dancing. Someone points out that the Chinese constitution states that minorities have the freedom to use and develop their languages.
And some of these things are true. But in presenting these facts as evidence of benign governance in Xinjiang, rather than the shallow tokenism of colonial rule, they exemplify a hallmark of what Richard Hofstadter once called the paranoid style in American politics. These denialists do not lack “verifiable facts,” just “sensible judgment.”
Complicity, not Duplicity
If these people want to criticize America, they can highlight US complicity in ongoing colonialism in Xinjiang. One doesn’t need to invent conspiracies. For example, China’s designation of all forms of Uyghur resistance as terrorism has been directly inspired and enabled by the US-led Global War on Terror. Within a year of the 9/11 attacks, the US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, had capitulated to pressure from China and identified the Uyghur resistance group East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist group, which helped pave the way for the eventual mass incarceration of Uyghurs in the name of “De-Radicalization’.” The US War on Terror made it easier for the Chinese Communist Party to redefine Uyghur resistance as terrorist extremism, rather than national liberation or anti-colonialism.
Until recently, this framing of the issue has allowed them to act with impunity in Xinjiang, partly because they have followed the American anti-extremist playbook. Then President Donald Trump even told Xi Jinping, in person, that building the so-called reeducation centers was “exactly the right thing to do.”
We know that the founder of US mercenary corporation Blackwater, Erik Prince (also brother of former US secretary of education Betsy DeVos) transferred his expertise from Iraq to China via the security service provider Frontier Services Group, which trained anti-terrorism personnel in Beijing and planned to open a “training center” in Xinjiang. And despite Blackwater’s claim that it is pulling out of the region, a 2020 financial report sets aside nearly $2.7 million for “setting up business” in Xinjiang. We also know that US tech companies have helped create a surveillance state in Xinjiang. Companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific and Promega have sold equipment to help police in Xinjiang build a system of racial profiling, based on DNA samples obtained, in part, from a prominent US geneticist. And finally, we know that the supply chains of dozens of US companies run through Xinjiang. Companies like Nike and Apple even lobbied against legislation that would affect their capacity to do business in Xinjiang.
Whether you think these complicities support genocide, “mere” atrocities, or “only” colonialism doesn’t change the fact that the US security state has inspired, aided, and profited from the domination over Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
A Very American Anti-imperialism
US involvement in Xinjiang means that it’s perfectly possible to oppose US empire without engaging in denialism, praising colonialism, and debasing the dignity of victims and survivors. But doing so would undermine the impact of the anti-imperialist argument on their target audience: Americans. As part of their laudable but misguided efforts at building popular opposition to US imperialism among Americans, these anti-imperialists want to portray the United States as a two-dimensional comic book villain engaged in a program of global deceit.
In the end, although not all these denialists are American—there are many in Canada, Pakistan, and Australia—all of them are engaging in a celebrated American tradition of denying other countries’ human right abuses in order to make arguments about America to Americans. This narcissistic parochialism is surely one of the most successful exports of American empire.