top of page

China’s Uyghur Persecution Is All Part of Its Grand Economic Scheme


February 9, 2022

Security cameras above the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, in 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Our prominent cultural and sports figures ought to consider plausible alternatives to doing business with China on Beijing’s terms.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLEThe leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) view the Olympics as a platform from which to proclaim their vision for the world: what Beijing calls the “community of common destiny for mankind.” The CCP may be vague about what this common destiny holds in store for the rest of us, but we can get an idea if we look at how Beijing operates in areas that are already firmly under its control.

To wit, Xinjiang Province, where live the Uyghur people.

The CCP has a long if sporadic history of ethnic repression and totalitarian policy in what it calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but the modern version began in earnest around 2016, when Chen Quanguo was made party secretary in Xinjiang. Chen was the ideal choice for the job because of his experience as party secretary in Tibet and specifically because of the expertise in cultural genocide that he developed in that position.

Chen got to work quickly in Xinjiang. He added 100,000 security personnel and built thousands of new police stations throughout the region; he also supplemented traditional police methods with a battery of high-tech surveillance and collection of personal data, including DNA and retinal scans. He then ensured that all the personal information was fed into a data system that uses algorithms to determine which Uyghur residents are likely to be “extremists.”

Uyghurs can be designated as “extremists” if they socialize insufficiently with neighbors or have more than two children; they can be guilty of “pre-crimes” if they engage in traditional Islamic practices such as wearing a beard or carrying a Koran. Those so designated are surveilled and can be arrested — over 350,000 were arrested in 2017–18, according to a Brookings report by James Millward and Dahlia Peterson — and sent to “concentrated educational reformation” facilities, the CCP’s term for concentration camps.

No one knows for sure, but it’s likely that 1 million to 1.5 million people have been interned in approximately 180 camps in Xinjiang. Detainees in the camps, as Millward and Peterson report, are subjected to physical and psychological torture, systematic rape, forced sterilization, forced IUD-implantation, and administration of anti-fertility drugs, as well as numerous daily human deprivations.

All in all, it’s fair to say that what is happening to the Uyghurs is the most comprehensive human-rights abuse in the 21st century, which is saying a lot.

Do not think that this repression is simply an expression of savagery. Plenty of savage things happen in Xinjiang, but as far as the CCP is concerned, the repression there is a practical response to a practical problem.

In 2016, the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was beginning to gain steam. BRI is a program of Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in countries around the world. The investments are typically in the form of loans for projects the local government desperately wants but cannot afford. The terms of the loans are usually favorable to China, and the projects themselves are typically performed by Chinese companies with Chinese employees.

BRI is of immense importance to the CCP. It’s Xi Jinping’s flagship project for capturing foreign markets, extracting the resources and co-opting the elites of other countries, controlling key foreign ports and foreign technological infrastructure, and exerting economic leverage on the countries to whom China has extended credit.

One important objective of the BRI is to solidify China’s economic and political links to Central Asia, and through Central Asia, to Europe. And to get to Central Asia from Eastern China, the BRI must go through China’s westernmost territory, which, unfortunately for the Uyghurs, is Xinjiang Province.

Beijing was not going to take any risks with the infrastructure it was building through Xinjiang. The CCP has always mistrusted the loyalty of the Uyghurs because (a) they are not ethnic Chinese, (b) they are Muslim, and therefore (c) they have cultural and religious traditions not dictated or controlled by Beijing.

In short, the Uyghurs were in the way. And since they were of little value to the Chinese state to begin with, they are now being gotten out of the way, using the methods deemed most efficient by a regime that has contempt for human dignity and possesses an apparatus of high-tech oppression that empowers its agents, almost literally, to spy on and suppress everyone at once.

It’s as if the Frankenstein monsters of the 20th century have come back to life in Xinjiang: We are seeing the “banality of evil” played out under the “lights of a perverted science”; once again, we are witnessing Big Brother’s “boot stamping on [the] human face” of helpless people.

The plight of the Uyghurs ought to surface often in commentary about the Olympics and thereafter. This is not just because the Uyghurs are fellow human beings whose suffering we have a duty to remember: Speaking out in behalf of the Uyghurs could embarrass the CCP, and might embarrass them greatly. Our business leaders and especially our cultural icons could have an impact, but they need to be smart about when and how they go about it.

Take Chamath Palihapitiya, for example. Palihapitiya, a part-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, recently got himself in hot water by vehemently declaring that “nobody cares” about the Uyghurs.

On the assumption that Palihapitiya is a decent man, I doubt that he really doesn’t care about the oppression in Xinjiang Province. I think rather that he is deeply concerned about his business investments, and he doesn’t want to put them at risk by speaking out on the plight of the Uyghurs, especially since nothing he says could exert any pressure on Beijing.

Few of us are above thinking about money, and it is undoubtedly true that Palihapitiya himself does not have sufficient prominence to embarrass the CCP.

But that is not true of certain people he knows.

The Golden State Warriors employ Stephen Curry as their point guard. Curry is one of the NBA’s top five players and a universally admired figure in the sporting world. What if Palihapitiya had lunch with Curry and suggested that he and some of his fellow basketball stars send a private message to the appropriate parties in Beijing? A message such as the following:

“The NBA cares about the suffering of marginalized groups all over the world. So from time to time a member of the NBA family may feel moved to speak out about the suffering of the Uyghurs. You should know that if you punish the NBA for that, as you have in the past, we’re all going to start talking about the Uyghurs, and not just periodically but all the time. We’re going to post on social media, do interviews, and print ‘Remember the Uyghurs’ on our uniforms, right next to ‘Black Lives Matter.’ We might even do videos with Enes Kanter.”

It would be a bold move but not a crazy one. The ten most famous NBA players have over 400 million followers on social media. A high-profile battle with Beijing might double that number. The NBA would lose revenue in China, but it would gain fans, and admirers and customers, everywhere else in the world. So would the players. (I might buy a few pairs of sneakers myself.) The more China tried to hide or deny what’s going on in Xinjiang, the more it would galvanize global recognition of what is in fact happening there.

Beijing definitely wouldn’t want that. The NBA has a lot invested in China, but not as much as the CCP has invested in the propaganda surrounding “the community of common destiny for mankind,” which might well be blown to pieces before the CCP’s very eyes.

The point is that leverage goes both ways, and some people have more leverage than others, particularly if they band together. I’m not suggesting that Olympic athletes try something like this during the Games; they stand too good a chance of being arrested. But the Olympics would be a good time for our prominent athletes and entertainers and Hollywood leaders to remember the Uyghurs, and consider whether there might be a plausible alternative to doing business with China on Beijing’s terms.

bottom of page