The Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) is located in contemporary far Northwest China. It borders eight nations from India to Mongolia. The largest group of people native to this Alaska-sized region are the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority of around 12 million who share a mutually intelligible Turkic language with a population of 15,000 Uzbeks and, to a lesser degree, with the 1.5 million Kazakhs and 200,000 Kyrgyz who also call parts of the region their homelands. Like the Uzbeks, Uyghurs have practised small-scale irrigated farming for centuries in the desert oases of Central Asia.
At the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the population of Han-identified inhabitants of the region was around 6%, with Uyghurs comprising roughly 75%. Prior to 1949 it was unclear whether the region would become an East Turkestan republic within the Soviet Union or whether the imperial boundaries of the Qing dynasty would turn Uyghur and Kazakh lands into an internal colony of the People’s Republic.
In 1949, Stalin and Chinese Communist Party leaders agreed that China should ‘occupy’ the region. Over a period of several years the Chinese state moved several million former soldiers to work as farmers on military colonies in the Kazakh lands in the northern part of the region. Today Uyghurs comprise less than 50% of the total population and Han more than 40%.
It was not until the 1990s, as China developed a market economy oriented to global capitalism, that the Uyghur majority areas of Southern Xinjiang – where Uyghurs represented more than 90% of the population – became the target of an internal settler colonial project. It was during this period that the oil and natural gas reserves of the region became the focus of profit-oriented state-owned or managed corporations. Since then, Xinjiang has become the source of around 20% of China’s oil and natural gas. It had an even higher percentage of China’s coal reserves and now produces around 20% of the world’s cotton and tomatoes.
This economic system produced what the anthropologist Andrew Fischer calls ‘disempowered development’, referring to the ways development projects in Tibet disenfranchised Tibetans. The process of placing settlers in positions of power had the effect of capturing Uyghur economic and political institutions, such as the banking system and grassroots governance.
Over time it created a system of domination that pushed Uyghur teachers out of the education system and restricted religious practice. At the same time the cost of living began to rise, buoyed by the natural resources sector, but Uyghurs were largely excluded from working in the new economy by systemic job discrimination. Uyghur scholars working within the Chinese academy have shown that as corporate settlers began to take over local government they created highly exploitative systems of tenant farming and Uyghur forced migration. This in turn led to under-employment among Uyghurs.
These structural antagonisms rose to a head in 2009 with large-scale Uyghur street protests, police violence and rioting in Urumqi, the Uyghur region. The local authorities responded with militarised ‘hard-strike’ campaigns across the region. This led to the enforced disappearances of several thousand Uyghurs, and began to build deeper forms of resentment about police brutality and state control. At the same time, land seizures increased across Southern Xinjiang as the state incentivised Han settlement in Uyghur-majority areas – another major source of tension.
These increased forms of control and legalised theft were the primary causes of increased Uyghur protest and violence directed at state actors. Many such incidents were described by state media as ‘terrorism’, but often the majority of the people killed or hurt in these incidents were Uyghur demonstrators. They typically were unarmed or had improvised weapons and were killed or injured by the police using automatic weapons.
Along with the rise in police violence and Uyghur protest the arrival in 2011 of smartphone-based internet services began to shape Uyghur religious practice in new ways. Many Uyghurs used WeChat to discuss their place in the Muslim world. Because state authorities did not then have the technological capacity to regulate Uyghur digital speech, this new media platform precipitated a flourishing in Uyghur religious instruction. Many became more pious in their practice as Muslims, which my research shows was both a form of symbolic protection from the increasing pressure of rising Han settlement in Uyghur-majority areas and also a form of escape from state control of movement, education, and economic success. Several of the Uyghurs I interviewed at that time said they became pious ‘because it gave them hope’.
In late 2013 and early 2014 there was also a rise in violent attacks carried out by Uyghur civilians aimed at Han civilians. Several incidents in cities such as Beijing, Kunming and Urumchi stand out. These coordinated, planned attacks – using knives, vehicles and explosive devices – were quite unlike many other so-called terrorist attacks that Chinese state media ascribed to Uyghurs, which were often spontaneous protests that turned violent and targeted state representatives rather than civilians. In May 2014 regional leaders declared the ‘People’s War on Terror’ in response to these attacks.
However, the People’s War on Terror targeted far more than the criminals who carried out attacks and those who supported them. Rather, it precipitated a criminalisation of basic religious practice and Uyghur ethnic affiliation. Initially it was only religious leaders who were sent to camps, but by 2017 the state began to assess the entire Muslim adult population.
Private industrialists and Han settlers, who had benefited from the natural resource economy, were mobilised through a dramatic increase in Private–Public Partnerships (PPPs) to develop a surveillance industry at the cutting edge of contemporary technological systems.
It was not simply about preventing terrorism. In response to the rise in pious practice among Uyghurs, and global forms of Islamophobia that spread with the rise of terrorism discourse and the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, state authorities began to describe normative Muslim practices such as regular mosque attendance and fasting during Ramadan as signs of the spread of the ‘mental illness’ of religious extremism. The People’s War in effect became a programme of preventing Uyghurs from being Muslim and, to a certain extent, from being Uyghur.
The state agencies outsourced authority to private companies and police contractors to attempt to transform the native populations of the region, and building hundreds of massive internment camps. Private industrialists and Han settlers, who had benefited from the natural resource economy, were mobilised through a dramatic increase in Private–Public Partnerships (PPPs) to develop a surveillance industry at the cutting edge of contemporary technological systems.
In 2016 and 2017, the state invested an estimated $7.2 billion specifically in the Xinjiang information security industry as part of an increase of over 90% in public security spending.1 Over the same years the state awarded an estimated $65 billion in private contracts to build infrastructure and $160 billion more to government entities in the region – an increase of nearly 50%. The majority of this increase in construction spending was centred on the building of detention facilities and related systems.2