The Uyghurs as Victims of Chinese National Socialism

Published February 8, 2021

News outlets in the United States and in Europe have again been drawing attention to the oppression and persecution being suffered by the Uyghurs in the western region of China known as Xinjiang. Somewhere between one and two million of them have been rounded up and placed in “reeducation” camps by the Chinese government, with smuggled out stories telling of beatings, torture, organ-transplant harvesting, gang rape, and ideological indoctrination sessions, along with executions. 

The Uyghurs are a combination of Muslim Turkic groups who number between 12 and 20 million. After at least two short lived attempts in the 1930s and 1940s to gain national independence from the Chinese governments that replaced the Manchu Dynasty after its fall in 1911, Xinjiang was once more politically joined to China following the coming to power of the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong in 1949. 

The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, and other minority groups in China, have been the victims of Chinese political and ethnic imperialism. The Chinese government has attempted to assure the political unification and integration of, especially, Tibet and Xinjiang by a policy of ethnic and cultural “sterilization.” For decades, the Chinese authorities in Beijing have instigated Han Chinese population migrations to these two areas to “dilute” and reduce to a demographic minority the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples within their own lands. 

The Chinese government has attempted to persecute and eradicate the practice of Islam and Buddhism, respectively, among these peoples. The Chinese military has desecrated religious temples and places of worship, murdered and imprisoned religious leaders, forced women of both groups to marry Han Chinese to genetically “cleanse” Xinjiang and Tibet of their indigenous populations, and have restricted or prohibited the learning and speaking of the distinct local languages and practicing of cultural customs.

Though, of course, never said officially or publicly, the Chinese government’s policy, to guarantee political solidarity and unity throughout each and every corner of the territory of China is to make the country one racially single group, the Han Chinese. A similar fate would mostly likely face the people of Taiwan, if the Chinese government succeeds in imposing unification on what it considers to be a “renegade” island-province of the People’s Republic of China. 

The government of Taiwan officially counts 95 percent of the island’s population to be ethnically Han Chinese, with a handful of indigenous minority groups. However, in a variety of public opinion polls over the last decade, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of those participating in the surveys considered themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than Chinese. So even if the ethnic divide does not distinguish the mainland Chinese from the nearly 24 million people who live on the island, any forced integration following a Chinese government invasion of Taiwan would involve a cultural as well as ideological “cleansing” of “subversive” ideas, attitudes, and practices. A dress rehearsal is being witnessed in Hong Kong today. 

While the Chinese government is currently being especially ruthless in imposing its rule over these areas under its political jurisdiction, it should not be forgotten that governments have always been jealous of ceding even one inch of any land under its control. Wars have been fought and rebellions have been put down over claims to territories said to be linked to the larger mother country due to history, race, language, culture, religion, or simple insistence that a piece of land, along with the people and resources upon it, is essential to that nation’s political survival, economic security and welfare, or national defense against external threats from surrounding governments. 

When criticized for its domestic treatments of the Uyghurs or Tibetans, the Chinese authorities, like virtually every other government when similarly challenged for imposing itself on some portion of its population not wanting such generous and insisted upon paternalism, has declared that it is an uncalled-for foreign intervention into its internal affairs, which undermines that country’s right to national self-determination in deciding its own domestic affairs in its own way. 

What is noticeable and important in all such references to “self-determination” and “freedom” from external intervention, is the meaning of “national” self-determination and one government’s freedom from the interference of any other government in what and how it uses its political authority and force within the boundaries of its jurisdiction as demarcated on a map. 

That is, it is the self-determination of a group or collective (usually defined by race, ethnicity, language, religion, culture or common “history”) that is referred and called for and defined as a “nation.” However, the meaning of a “nation” as a definable group of people has often been recognized as ambiguous and open to disagreement and debate. (See my article, “The Meaning and the Mind of an American“.)

It can be said that the modern notion and conception of a “nation” and national self-determination emerged out of the French Revolution. Prior to that, allegiance and loyalty was to the king who ruled over the state in which his subjects resided. But with the beheading of the French King, Louis XVI, in 1793, the new cry became that what bound people together was that joint membership within the nation-state in which they lived. This was joined with the democratic appeal that in the new nation, the people ruled themselves through those they appointed to political office. 

Thus, through the theory and practice of democracy, it was now said, the “nation” was nothing but the expression of the freedom of “the people” to govern themselves without interference from others not part of the particular nation-state. Every people, it was argued, should be free to be self-governing, and not tied to a king or prince. They should be allowed to democratically make the choice to remain part of the nation-state in which they find themselves or break off and join some other nation-state to which they feel more kindred, or to form their own separate nation-state. 

Since the monarchies, especially in the 19th century in central and eastern Europe were resistant to concede land and people over which they ruled, there were calls for wars of national liberation, some of which succeeded, but others that failed. In all of this there was one entity in these struggles whose autonomy and freedom to choose was most often submerged and lost in the fight for “national” self-determination: the individual and his right to liberty. 

As the British historian, Alfred Cobban, expressed it concisely in his book on National Self-Determination (1945), as the 19th century progressed, “The emphasis was more on the sovereignty of the nation than on the rights of individuals.” One of the starting principles upon which the rationale for democratic self-rule was based was that rights resided in individuals, to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. The ultimate “sovereign” in society was the individual with his right to peacefully go about his own personal affairs without interference and molestation, and to voluntarily associate and interact with all other free and sovereign individuals on the basis of mutual agreement and consent.

The purpose of governments, existing or being formed, in this classical liberal idea and ideal of peace and freedom was the securing and protecting of each individual’s rights. Hence, liberal democracy was the institutional mechanism by which each of the “sovereign” persons within a country was free and safe from the aggressions of his neighbors or a neighboring nation by a political association for purposes of self-defense. 

But even before the guillotine blade was dry of the blood from the severing of Louis XVI’s head from his royal body, the individual Frenchman, from whom all rights flowed, was told that in the name of defending the revolution to secure those rights he needed to be subservient to and maybe sacrificed for the freedom of the French nation as a whole. The nation as a collective distinct from and superior to the individual person was in whose name was made the case of “sovereignty” and “national self-determination.”  

Political nationalism replaced philosophical and political individualism as the basis for overthrowing oppressive rulers, especially those of a foreign monarch or people. Italy was to be unified and freed from the Hapsburg occupiers. The Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, and other distinct Balkan peoples were to be liberated from Turkish tyranny but squabbled with each other about where the boundary lines between them should be drawn. The Hungarians wanted to be free from the Austrian monarchy but did not want to give the same respect to other ethnic and linguistic peoples living on Hungarian territory. The Poles unsuccessfully rose up against their Russian rulers more than once but dreamed of a free Poland that would encroach on many other surrounding peoples. 

Once established as sovereign nations, either before or after the First World War, each was jealous of its borders, often hungry for territorial expansion, and intolerant of ethnic and linguistic minorities within their respective nation-states. Especially were the governments of many of these newly formed nation-states suspicious and oppressive against those minorities. 

Such minorities were forced to send their children to government schools in which the majority’s language was mandated as the form of written and spoken communication. Government business and commercial regulations and taxes were used to discriminate and penalize the minority groups. 

Such minorities were pressured to leave, or in harsher situations expelled. Following a bloody and destructive war in 1919-1922 between the Greeks and the Turks over control of a large part of the Anatolian peninsula, 1.5 million Greeks were expelled from Turkey and 500,000 Turks were forced out of Greece, but only after. During the fighting, thousands of both Greeks and Turks were massacred as a form of revenge and “ethnic cleansing.”   

After the cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of the Germans under the Nazi regime in World War II, with the murder of six million Jews, three million Poles, and many millions more of Russians and Ukrainians and other peoples across the continent, the governments of Eastern Europe took their revenge by brutalizing and expelling nearly 12 million Germans from countries where their ancestors had sometimes lived for centuries. (See my review of, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Eastern European Germans, 1944-1945.)

What was witnessed in the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, as each of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups assaulted and mass murdered each other in the pursuit of national self-determination as defined by territories claimed by each collective group, including the expelling of each other from conquered lands, has had many antecedents in modern history. 

Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are viewed as threats to the unity of the nation-state as identified by demographic markers of the dominant group. The minority may want independence or want to break off and politically join a neighboring nation-state that increases its territorial size and economic strength vis-a-vis the country containing such restive minorities. And, finally, it weakens the unifying sense of identity and shared destiny of the majority group. 

There are many ideas that Europe has exported to and shared with the rest of the world over the centuries, especially during its period of colonial control of many parts of Asia and Africa, and the Americas. Among them have been liberalism, nationalism and socialism. Liberalism’s legacy in some of these countries has been the ideal if not the actual practice of representative government, rule of law, and the idea of certain personal freedoms and civil liberties to be recognized and respected by the political authority.

But seemingly even more influential intellectual products imported from Europe by other parts of the world have been nationalism and socialism. China has adopted a blend of both. The Chinese communist leadership has successfully used both to establish and maintain its power. The 19th century wars that, particularly, Great Britain and France fought and won against the Imperial Chinese government, followed by defeats at the hands of the Japanese more than once, and the imposition of what was perceived as “unequal treaties” upon the Manchu monarchy that permitted foreign administered areas in port cities and the stationing of foreign military forces in the country, all created deep seats of resentment and feelings of humiliation among the growing educated segments of Chinese society in the 20th century.

At the same time, there has been little or no notion of Western-style individual liberty and limited government in the long stretch of Chinese history. And the few voices that captured glimmering of such ideas were few and without any noticeable influence. Instead, the country was burdened through the centuries with political absolutism, the weight of traditionalism, and an educational system based on blind memorization with little encouragement of creative and independent thought. (On a few past Chinese voices pointing in the direction of liberty, see my article, “Tigers are Less Dangerous than Tax Collectors and Political Paternalists”.)

Both the Nationalist (or Kuomintang) Party of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek before 1949 and the Communist Party under Mao Zedong and, now, Xi Jinping, have offered political ideologies based on national rebirths of the Chinese people, and a reclaiming of China’s “rightful” place among the nations of the world. Indeed, Xi Jinping dreams a dream of China once more the “Middle Kingdom” of political, economic, and military greatness that will again be the nation around which the rest of the world revolves. (See my article, “Economic Armaments and China’s Global Ambitions”.)  

The other ideological ingredient in the Chinese mix has been socialism. Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920s and 1930s placed emphasis on the collective interests of the nation coming before the independence and freedom of the individual citizen, and looked to the socialist experiment in Soviet Russia as a model from which to learn in rebuilding the new China. The free enterprise lessons to be learned from the freer market environment of a place such as Shanghai, which was governed as a practically free city under the protection of especially the British, Americans and the French between the two World Wars, was instead viewed with envy and anger. (See my article, “The History of Shanghai as a Tale of Successful Capitalism”.)

Mao and the Chinese communists combined the new nationalism, particularly in the face of resistance to the Japanese invasion and occupation of a large part of the Chinese mainland between 1937 to 1945, with the promise of a thorough renewal of the country in the aftermath of war’s destruction through socialist ownership and central planning. That it was a huge human disaster as a result of compulsory collectivization, mass terror, forced labor camps, government created famines in the name of a “Great Leap Forward” for rapid industrialization, and then the societal cataclysm from ten years of the Cultural Revolution until Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, has all been swiped under the rug of history by Mao’s heirs. (See my reviews, of Laogai – The Chinese Gulag and Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years in Chinese Communist Prisons and Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine and Mao: The Unknown Story.) 

China’s national socialism – “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – has combined the worst of both collectivist ideologies with a vast and minutely intrusive surveillance system of ever-watchful Big Brother. And one in which, the all-powerful state, according to one recent international survey of people’s trust in their government recorded that among the Chinese polled, the communist regime is trusted by 82 percent of the population. A demonstration of the power of the closed society in which many if not most people only really know what the government wants them to know or in which the people asked were fearful of expressing any real doubts they may have about the regime they live under, or both. 

But maintenance of such apparent “unity” in thought can only be assured, in the minds of the Communist Party leadership, when the nation is placed above the individual, when all are made subservient to “the nation’s plan” for “making China great again,” when all dissent and difference is purged from the national body. One leader, one Party, one Nation, one People. 

That is why President Xi Jinping’s long-run central plan for China’s global hegemony to come – a true legacy for a farseeing Chinese emperor in all but name – can brook no multicultural diversity. Ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity is dissent from the common good and destiny of a chosen people. There is only one permissible national self-determination, and that is of a single Chinese people as a whole defined by one language, one ethnicity, one ideological and cultural identity, and one government-controlled and directed future.

The Uyghurs and Tibetans are alien and subversive bodies in the Chinese nation that must be absorbed or eliminated. Beginning with Mao and now with terrifying single-mindedness by Xi Jinping, the irradiation of these foreign elements are to be “neutralized.” This truly makes the Chinese political system an ideology of national socialism in the footsteps of others that have preceded it. 

[Originally posted on American Institution for Economic Research (AIER)]