Interview: ‘To say that Xinjiang is ruled by law is an absolute joke,’ analyst says

Chinese-Australian policy analyst Vicky Xiuzhong Xu discusses China’s ‘governance’ of Xinjiang.
By Kurban Niyaz
2021.11.05
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A Chinese flag flies behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, a town south of Kashgar, in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, June 4, 2019.
AFP

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an Chinese-Australian policy analyst and journalist known for exposing human rights abuses in China, is co-author of a new report detailing details the deep involvement of Chinese government agencies in a systematic effort to suppress Muslim Uyghurs and their culture in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. The report by the independent, nonpartisan Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is the latest document presenting evidence of the ramping up since 2014 of systematic human rights abuses of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. The mounting evidence has drawn accusations of genocide in several Western capitals. Xu and the other two authors of the 80-page report titled “The Architecture of Repression: Unpacking Xinjiang’s Governance,” reviewed thousands of Chinese-language sources, including leaked police records and government budget documents never before published, to map and analyze the mechanisms used by the Chinese government in Xinjiang during a period of mounting repression from 2014 to 2021. Reporter Kurban Niyaz of RFA’s Uyghur Service talked to Wu about the report’s findings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: You mentioned in the report that responsibility for the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang is the widely discussed by numerous scholars and experts. Why is it important to discuss this?

Xu: it is important to talk about responsibility because in this situation this crackdown has been going on for seven years, but only a very small number of individuals, entities, or organizations have been held responsible for their involvement in these crimes against humanity. First, it’s important to understand who has been responsible, and by having that understanding means we can have more rounded understanding of the whole situation. Second, for historical reasons, it is always important to hold abusers responsible, so some kind of documentation is really needed. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

RFA: Mass campaigns and political movements have occurred in China since the late 1950s to the late 1970s. For example, current Chinese president Xi Jinping himself also suffered during past times of political chaos, so why are we seeing this again under his leadership at the beginning of the 21st century?

Xu: There have been repeated mass political campaigns that have subjected people, not just Uyghurs but everyone, to mass detention, labor reform, and unspeakable horrors throughout China’s history. These things mostly stopped after the 1980s, but you can see that under Xi Jinping they have come back. It’s impossible to know exactly why because neither you nor I can have an in-person conversation with Xi Jinping. We don’t know, but we can only read his speeches and analyze his personal experience as well as the policies that came out of his office. By analyzing hundreds of policies that came out of Xinjiang, or East Turkistan, in the last seven years, the policies themselves are clearly similar to the policies during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s or later in the 1980s [with] the “strike hard” campaign nationwide. It’s clear that Xi Jinping himself specifically in 2014 ordered Xinjiang officials to implement neighborhood informant policies, which means that he was using mass campaign methods. He is very consciously using campaign policies, despite that he hasn’t admitted it. I mentioned in the report that in the 1980s when Xi Jinping was working as a party secretary in Hubei province, he told his colleagues that he didn’t like campaigns because they cost a lot of money and are very damaging. … He said that the country suffered enough from campaigns, but 30 years on now what we’re seeing in Xinjiang and in greater China is that he has brought campaigns back.

RFA: We’re seeing rule of law serving as a tool for the even harsher punishment in Xinjiang. Based on your study, how is rule of law being applied in Xinjiang?

Xu: To say that Xinjiang is ruled by law is an absolute joke, and we also found a lot of evidence for this. This is the first time we have solid evidence that police reports acknowledge that neighborhood police can just arrest people to fill quotas. And we have knowledge that local officials even brag in state media and on social media that law enforcement officers are not following the laws themselves. … There isn’t a lot of following the law going on, not even by officials, but the slogan keeps being repeated. It’s just hypocrisy at the highest level going on.

RFA: Your report notes that almost all local officials in Xinjiang are Han Chinese, while their deputies are Uyghurs. What does this tell us?

Xu: The reality is that there is just an incredible amount of racism going on inside of the Chinese party-state system. A decade ago I saw studies on how difficult it was for Uyghur youths to find jobs—meaningful employment—and how they were being discriminated against in wider Chinese society. It’s no surprise that especially at a time like this when Uyghurs are under a crackdown that the Chinese government doesn’t trust them. It presents us with another deep hypocrisy because the Chinese government calls the Uyghur homeland the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. So where is the autonomous region?

RFA: What are government departments doing to ensure social stability in Xinjiang?

Xu: Around 2017, I was traveling in China, and I met a Uyghur teenager on a train and asked him what was on in Xinjiang. He said that everything was terrible because it was about stability maintenance. I don't think I fully understood what he meant, but now after reading so many Chinese government documents, I think I understand what it means. It's very clearly spelled out in the Chinese government’s 2017 policies. They want to achieve a state of comprehensive stability by the end of this year. … They really believe that there’s something wrong with Uyghurs, and the campaign — this crackdown — has been going on for five years, and they have scared everyone into silence. They have locked away anyone who dared to speak. So, that's your comprehensive stability, which in this report we call “manufactured stability.”

RFA: We are seeing that atrocities and governance tools used in Xinjiang are now expanding beyond the border. How dangerous are they globally and why it is important for the world to do its best to stop them?

Xu: The “Trinity” mechanism, which gives the neighborhood committees so much power to watch people’s every step and watch their emotions, has been increasingly implemented in China more broadly especially during the COVID pandemic. Under Xi Jinping, you see a lot of these policies and being discussed and proposed elsewhere. There is a real danger that the sort of bureaucratic structure or governance tactics used in Xinjiang will spread to other parts of China. If the rest of the world thinks Xinjiang or the Uyghurs present a big ethical dilemma, then now that ethical dilemma is going to be multiplied and the possible human rights violations that would occur would just be unimaginable.

RFA: You began at an early age to speak about the injustice and the suffering of Uyghurs. There are so many other young Han Chinese who are not willing to talk about this issue or support justice for the Uyghurs. Why do you think Chinese youth in who live in Western countries don’t do this?

Xu: I can't speak for other people, so I'll speak for myself. The Chinese government began putting pressure on me and my family in China from 2018 onwards. But I was a reporter for The New York Times, and I was supposed to tell the biggest stories about China that I knew. The story about the Uyghurs was one of them. It has been the most significant story about China for me for a couple of years now, and I just continued to do that work. But the price I’ve had to pay has become heavier and heavier. Earlier this year I was practically declared a national enemy in China. I’ve pretty much lost all of my relatives now, and it was very upsetting, but I don't have any regrets. I’ve been doing the right thing and a good thing.

I can understand why others wouldn’t be doing this. First, a lot of people in China don’t have the privilege of using a VPN and having access to real news, and a lot of people never had the privilege to even learn how to think because they were what you would call brainwashed. So, these people don’t have the ability to care or they don’t have the privilege to having a sense of justice. Overseas Chinese are in free countries and can freely access news. But because these days diaspora communities like the overseas Chinese communities are still mostly controlled by mainland pro-China or pro-Chinese Communist Party voices, they are risking becoming an outcast in their own communities if they support the Uyghurs or Tibetans, you are risking being an outcast. I don't have a lot of Chinese friends in the diaspora. And the friends I do have in the Chinese diaspora don’t want to admit in public that they are my friends because there is a social cost to supporting the Uyghurs. And it’s not just a social cost. Some people have been threatened with prison sentences just for being friends with me or just knowing me.

Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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