What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
In recent months, troubling details have emerged about a sprawling network of secretive political reeducation camps in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Both official and leaked evidence indicates that up to one million Muslims, chiefly from the Uighur minority, have been interned without legal proceedings. Ex-internees describe vast facilities that can hold nearly 6,000 persons and are heavily secured with barbed wire, surveillance systems, and armed police. Government tenders confirm these reports and provide detailed insights into the sizes and features of reeducation facilities throughout the region. Those interned are subject to intense indoctrination procedures that force them to proclaim “faith” in the Chinese Communist Party while denigrating large parts of their own religion and culture.
When asked by the international media, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it “had not heard” of this situation. Clearly, Beijing has ample reason to avoid the topic. The fact that a core region of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is littered with internment camps is not a pretty picture to convey to the global community. After all, the last memorable time that one million or more members of a particular ethnicity or religion were interned in barbed-wire-clad compounds was under Nazi Germany—even though the intention in Xinjiang is political indoctrination rather than extermination. China also just abolished its nationwide reeducation through labor system in 2013, a system instituted under Mao Zedong to reform “opponents of socialism.” Both the leadership and the population felt that sending people into such camps without legal proceedings, merely at the whims of local police authorities, was no longer appropriate in a modern society governed by the rule of law. The fact that Xinjiang’s current reeducation network might outstrip the size of the entire former national system is decidedly disconcerting.
The roots of China’s denial of the unfolding human rights disaster in Xinjiang might be deeper still. The reeducation campaign has been a profound shock even to seasoned observers of Beijing’s policies in its restive western regions. From a broader perspective, however, it merely represents the logical culmination of Beijing’s wider strategy to reassert control over the spiritual-moral realm of society. The regime’s willingness to subject an entire ethnic group to inhumane indoctrination procedures simply reflects a consistent application of communist praxis to a people who stubbornly insist on maintaining their own ethnoreligious identity. But reeducation is not a specialized tool reserved for assimilating restive minorities. Any citizen is liable to some form of reeducation if he or she fails to align with a prescribed set of values and behaviors. In the nation in general, different reeducation practices could potentially be administered in tandem with the upcoming national social credit system, because the latter is ideally suited to evaluate and enforce state-sanctioned definitions of morality.
After the Cultural Revolution, China’s leadership realized that the improvement of basic material conditions was an urgent priority. The resulting “reform and opening up” under Deng Xiaoping placed the nation on a path of unprecedented economic growth. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, realized the need for a more equal distribution of the resulting economic windfall, especially in the less developed western minority regions. Following the basic Marxist tenet that material progress and societal modernization will rid the nation of the superstitious hold of religion, both continued to emphasize economic development as China’s key strategy for pacifying and integrating restive ethnic groups such as Tibetans and Uighurs.
More than anything else, the 2008 Lhasa uprising and the 2009 Urumqi riots demonstrated to Beijing that economic growth and the trappings of modernity had not won the hearts of Tibetans and Uighurs. In both cases, religion played an important role in the reassertion of ethnic identity. Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama, whose so-called clique was quickly identified by the state as the presumed external agent behind the 2008 uprising. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries had become important loci of ethnic meaning and pride for the Tibetan population and had played an important role in the revival of the Tibetan language, and monks were repeatedly involved in protests and self-immolations. The authorities identified Islam as a primary culprit for violent resistance among the Uighurs and are quick to identify Uighur Islamic State (ISIS) fighters abroad as a major threat to national security. Western Xinjiang experts have pointed out that by blaming violent resistance even on non-extremist expressions of religion and increasingly suppressing any religious practice whatsoever, Beijing turned the Islamic extremist threat into a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing the Uighurs into organized forms of militant resistance.
Meanwhile, religious ideology had also made strong inroads among the Han majority. Today’s China is home to millions of Catholics and Protestants, along with large numbers of adherents of traditional Chinese religions such as Chinese Buddhism or Taoism. According to estimates from the Pew Research Center, China may be home to up to 100 million Christians as of 2018, more than the estimated 90 million Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members. (Many Party members themselves secretly adhere to a religion.) Equally troubling was the fact that even in regions with strong economic growth, distinct religious as well as ethnic identities have been flourishing rather than weakening. My own fieldwork among Tibetans in the wake of the Lhasa uprising showed that in the face of ethnic conflict, quite a few of the more Sinicized Tibetan students (in terms of language and cultural habits) became acutely concerned about the survival of their ethnic group’s distinctiveness.
By the time that Hu handed the baton to his successor, Xi, in 2012, it had become increasingly evident that the classic Marxist-materialist strategy of replacing the “crutch” of religion through improved material conditions and enlightened scientific reasoning was failing. Globally, predictions that religious faiths would naturally decline in tandem with modernization have proved illusory. In this context, it is only logical that Xi has accelerated the regime shift from a materialist to a spiritual and ideological focus, or in Marxist terms, from base to superstructure. The Chinese regime has always maintained an uneasy relationship with religion. But how could it come to a point where even largely secular Christmas parties or the mere possession of a government-approved Koran translation or Muslim prayer mat have become practices deemed subversive to the state?
Historically, authoritarian regimes have tended to fear their own populations. In China, state trust and distrust of individuals and populations is apparently measured along two axes. Firstly, in ethnocultural terms, it is measured by distance from the core of Han culture, language, and ethnicity. This means that minorities with strongly distinct linguistic and other traits are inherently suspect, explaining for example the obsession of Xinjiang’s reeducation camps with forcing even elderly Uighurs to memorize Chinese characters. In network studies it has been shown that homophily, the love of sameness, is an important predictor of trust. Secondly, the state measures the trustworthiness of its citizens by their alignment with “core socialist values.” This set of 12 values, first presented at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, has become the new standard for measuring positive behavior and moral character, a standard in direct competition with religion. Notably, the first individual value of this set is patriotism. These values, some of which are similar to Confucian visions of social harmony under autocratic yet benevolent leadership, are now taught to children starting from kindergarten.
The combination of these two scales results in a unique blend of what one might call socialism with Han-centric characteristics. Minorities such as Uighurs are especially affected since they are not only culturally and linguistically distinct but also hold on to a comprehensive religious worldview. The link between Islamic extremism and violent resistance fuels this perception. In Xinjiang, an official government document portrayed reeducation as “free medical treatment” from an intoxicating addiction. A Han Chinese official bluntly compared it to spraying weed killer on a field.
But the state’s morality project also targets the Han who are religious or otherwise affected by so-called foreign cultural and ideological influences. In southeastern Jiangxi Province, party members told residents they were “melting the hard ice in the hearts of religious believers” and “helping turn them into believers in the party.” Even Taoism, an indigenous Chinese religion, is now required to "Sinicize" by discarding its “superstitious” elements, while being permitted to retain beliefs compatible with “core socialist values” such as not believing in an afterlife. In their battle for the minds of the next generation, Chinese authorities have been rapidly increasing restrictions on religious practice in relations to minors, banning religious teaching activities for children such as Christian Sunday schools or Muslim school holiday scripture classes. In Xinjiang, worshippers now have to scan their ID when entering a Christian church, and an alarm will ring if the person in question works for the government or a public institution. Entrances to mosques feature facial recognition cameras and those attending must register with the police.
Deng’s policy of economic growth through opening up represented a strongly incentives-based approach. Those who aligned with Han Chinese cultural norms and who did not overstep certain boundaries set by the state could often reap the resulting material benefits. Xi’s China continues to offer material rewards for cultural integration but has also massively ramped up the coercive side, increasing the consequences of ideological misalignment in the context of vastly increased surveillance capabilities.
As Chinese society and its social management by the state is becoming increasingly complex, the government plans to introduce a nationwide social credit system by 2020. But unlike Western credit scoring systems, China’s upcoming social credit system is much more comprehensive in nature, not restricted to the economic realm but also designed to measure a person’s moral character. Not only can Beijing use this new system to gradually force out the competition in the form of other religions and effectively impose its own version of morality but Chinese citizens could additionally receive negative credit for practicing unapproved expression of religiosity.
Here, it is possible to see how Xinjiang’s reeducation drive could end up influencing the nation’s future social credit system: those who end up falling below a certain score could be required to undergo reeducation treatments to greater or lesser degrees. As in Xinjiang, reeducation could take place along a continuum, ranging from daytime courses in moderately secured facilities versus longer internments in more secured compounds and under tougher, military-drill-style conditions.
The social credit system could promote a more subtle form of preemptive obedience by providing continual incentives to align one’s behavior with the standards of an all-seeing state.
In Han-majority regions, where the former reeducation through labor system was abolished, a new array of barbed-wire-clad reeducation camps might spark substantial resistance. But aided by high-tech surveillance, new forms of reeducation could be much sleeker and more sophisticated than their crude predecessor. The social credit system could promote a more subtle form of preemptive obedience by providing continual incentives to align one’s behavior with the standards of an all-seeing state. In an era of high-capacity smart computing, the benefits of compliance and the costs of noncompliance are effortlessly and seamlessly scalable. Moreover, since social distrust and financial fraud are very real issues in Chinese society, a mechanism such as social credit is more acceptable than in the West. Its algorithmic nature lends it an air of objectivity and fairness in a society where predictability, reliability, and equal treatment before the law are often in short supply.
Ultimately, this could result in a nationwide apartheid-like system. In Xinjiang, Uighurs are already subject to much greater scrutiny and restrictions. The future national social credit scheme could follow existing pilots in creating green or fast lanes for those with high social credit scores, be it for security checks or bureaucratic procedures, while those with low scores are set to face more complex and time-consuming checks or are outright banned from certain privileges.
Both reeducation and social credit represent metrics-based approaches to social control. In one sense, what is happening in Xinjiang today is the logical result of the state’s reassertion of control over the moral-spiritual sphere. In another sense, what is happening in Xinjiang is likely foreshadowing the future of societal freedoms throughout the nation. Akin to visions of the Confucian superior man or the New Socialist Man, the current regime takes recourse to Mao’s thought reform methods in order to mold a subservient and “civilized” citizenry—in time for China to become a “great modern socialist country” by 2050.
If successful, the proposed social credit system and its interplay with existing ideological control mechanisms could play a key role in enshrining the party’s grip on power. But will this really turn people away from the opium of the masses toward the liberation promised by state ideology? Historically, religions have flourished most in times of intense persecution. Christianity thrived in the underground catacombs of the Roman Empire when Emperor Nero had its adherents torn apart by wild beasts. The Cultural Revolution created a seedbed for many traditional Chinese and other faiths to spring up after the oppressions ended. After four decades of communist indoctrination in one of the world’s most sophisticated police states, thousands of East Germans flocked across the opened borders to experience the feeling of being able to freely speak their minds.
Today, there is little indication that Xinjiang’s archipelago of reeducation camps is turning Uighurs into well-integrated, grateful, and patriotic citizens. Rather, several ex-internees have literally risked everything in order to tell the story of their horrors to the world. Conversely, Uighurs who “successfully” completed their reeducation term are by no means subsequently treated as more trustworthy citizens. Importantly, even the most refined social credit system cannot replace the social trust that comes from a fundamental faith in another person. Not only is this kind of trust difficult to conjure through coercion; it seems to wither wherever human freedom is in short supply.