Recent media coverage has pushed the Chinese government-operated “re-education camps” in Xinjiang into mainstream consciousness in the United States. Americans are increasingly learning how, over the last few years, Chinese state institutions have detained more than 1 million Uighur and Kazakh people and subjected these Turkic-speaking Muslim minority groups to a program of “de-extremification,” entailing political and religious indoctrination, compulsory language education, and industrial training.
In September, talking heads and politicians condemned Disney for thanking the security and publicity bureaus that administer the camps in the credits of Mulan. Well-known professional athletes such as NBA center Rudy Gobert and several French soccer players have posted on social media in solidarity with the Uighurs. And Netflix had to defend its decision to proceed with a production of science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, despite Liu’s defense of China’s policies in Xinjiang.
I suspect many foreign observers are uncertain how to translate these headlines into political terms. On the one hand, the details of the camps are horrifying. By now, what is occurring seems undeniable, with the basic details largely corroborated by the Chinese state itself. On the other, these facts often get slotted into a narrative that pits a freedom-defending United States against a nefarious Chinese state, a story that plays into the hands of odious right-wing US politicians and militaristic China hawks. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, for instance, capitalized on the Mulan debacle by declaring that Disney’s “decision to put profit over principle, to not just ignore the CCP’s genocide and other atrocities but to aid and abet them, [was] an affront to American values.”
Debates over Xinjiang will only intensify, and I believe internationalist thinkers need to offer an alternative to reductive, pro-US stances such as Hawley’s. The current dynamic is fostering extreme nationalist responses: either an anti-China fearmongering that is at best self-serving for politicians and at worst a pretext for violent confrontation, or a pro-China denialism of the Xinjiang camps, which has seduced some leftists on nominally anti-imperialist grounds. On October 10, for example, the socialist magazine Monthly Review republished an egregious revisionist defense of China’s policies in the region.
Thus far, most discussions surrounding the Xinjiang camps have defaulted to one of two explanations: Either they are the result of a timeless ethnic conflict between Han and non-Han Chinese people, glossed by conservative pundits as “Han supremacy,” or they are attributed to the features of an Asian and communist despotism that is juxtaposed against a free and capitalist Western world.
Though plausible at a glance, such civilizational explanations are too static and lack historical analysis. Darren Byler, an anthropologist researching northwest China, has written that an unnuanced charge of “ethnic genocide simply allows [one] to argue in a culturalist mode that one or more groups of people are bad or evil and dominating another group. It does not allow [one] to explain why.”
The “why” has much to do with political-economic developments set into motion during the 1990s, when the Chinese government encouraged domestic companies to develop infrastructure in Xinjiang and tap the region’s oil and natural gas fields in order to supply energy to cities along the coast. During that time, millions of ethnic Chinese people moved to Xinjiang, soaking up the region’s economic gains and sparking anti-colonial protests by Uighur locals. Though there had been prior tensions between the Han and Uighur groups, the development projects raised them to new levels.
The government’s response to dissent has been to try to assimilate Uighur and other minority groups into a kind of “mainstream” ethnic Chinese society, prioritizing language, religious, and cultural education. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese state explicitly repurposed the US’s own War on Terror rhetoric to demonize Islamic religious practices, as documented by University of Sydney historian David Brophy. The turning point was an explosion in an Urumqi train station in May 2014, after which Chinese Communist Party officials declared a “People’s War on Terror.”
For Byler, the re-education camps are inseparable from a corporate and government-led drive to capitalize on Xinjiang’s resources and people. The region supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s oil and gas and about 20 percent of the world’s tomatoes and cotton. State projects have included experiments in policing and cybersecurity technology, which Chinese companies are already exporting abroad; securing the region for Belt and Road Initiative transportation infrastructure projects into Central Asia; and, it was revealed recently, coercively moving Uighur workers to factories in both Xinjiang and in large eastern cities such as Hefei, Zhengzhou, and Qingdao, manufacturing for brands such as Nike, Apple, Gap, and Samsung.
It is therefore crucial to recognize that the camps are not the inevitable result of deep-seated ethnic conflict or Asian autocracy but are linked to changes in Chinese and global capitalism. They were made possible by processes dating back to the 1980s, when the Chinese government pivoted to market-driven growth and advertised its natural and human resources to foreign investors at cheap rates.
Export-led industrialization in China has meant profits for foreign companies, savings for foreign consumers, and cheaper credit for foreign borrowers. It has also meant periodic revelations over terrible labor conditions in China, such as the 1990s campaigns against clothing sweatshops, the 2010s uproar over worker suicides at Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory, and now reports about Uighur labor. Such scandals never seem to get resolved, only quietly displaced when the next one arises.
The ultimate agency, of course, lies with Chinese companies and institutions. But it is also impossible to understand why these problems are so endemic without looking at global economic dynamics.
For all the talk by US politicians of promoting human rights and decoupling from China, they know that US companies profit from this race-to-the-bottom globalization and that separating the US economy from China’s will not happen anytime soon. From this perspective, the re-education camps implicate more than just the Chinese state. They have grown out of global capital and commodity flows and the attendant institutions designed to protect them.
This is why I am concerned that the most readily available framework for discussing the Xinjiang camps is a nationalistic one that pits US and Chinese values against each other. Its cheerleaders are conservative US politicians, such as Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, eager to stoke nativist sentiments when expedient but unwilling to seriously look at the forces undergirding China’s policies. Last year, President Donald Trump ignored calls to sanction China over the mistreatment of Uighur people because they would interfere with a trade deal with Beijing. And though his administration has begun to denounce abuses in Xinjiang, this seems mostly a negotiating tactic to get concessions from China and an election strategy to deflect blame from mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The most likely outcome of a nationalist rivalry between the US and Chinese governments is not a principled commitment by the United States to improving the lives of those in Asia. It is a tit-for-tat competition to punish innocent people as a form of political leverage, evidenced by the Trump administration’s visa policies targeting Chinese students and workers or the Chinese government’s passage this June of a National Security Law for Hong Kong and its expulsion and detention of foreign journalists.
So then how do we proceed? There are signs that international pressure pushed the Chinese state to at least declare the closure of some camps (though the reality is unclear). Boycotting products linked to Uighur detention, whether Mulan or Apple accessories or H&M jeans, may send a message in the short term.
But in the long term, we need to learn to talk about the re-education camps and labor conditions in China in a more expansive way. This means moving beyond nationalist and humanitarian explanations compatible with Cold War–style political theater. Instead, analysts should foreground the historical and global economic forces that helped give rise to the camps.
American observers should resist framing the camps as something alien to US society, a move that only legitimizes the United States as a global policeman. Instead, we need to connect the dots. We should oppose the Chinese state’s Islamophobia just as we opposed the bloody and oppressive policies of George W. Bush’s War on Terror that inspired it. We should condemn Uighur forced labor in our global supply chains, just as we condemn the exploitation of the guest and prison labor in the same webs of cheap commodity production. And we ought to denounce the indiscriminate use of state power in China’s peripheries, because we denounce the violence of the Border Patrol and police forces at the edges of our own society.
Such internationalist framing resists cynical appropriation by the cold warriors and China apologists. More crucially, it de-exoticizes the Xinjiang camps and enables a more self-reflective conversation about their truly modern and global causes.