Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

The Dismal International Response to China’s Gulags

A cultural genocide is unfolding in China. The world’s silence is scandalous.
July 27, 2020
Featured Image
Uighur men walking past the exit of an underpass after attending Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan, in Kashgar in Xinjiang, where China has enforced a massive security crackdown, reportedly imprisoning more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in a network of internment camps. (Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images)

Mounting evidence shows that the Chinese Communist Party is running an extralegal campaign of mass internment of more than one million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the western frontier province Xinjiang. In this realm of indoctrination, nearly 2,000 miles from Beijing, Uighurs and other indigenous peoples are stripped of their traditions, culture, and language. China continues to deceive the world about the scale and depravity of this project but, by contrast with its mendacity regarding the coronavirus pandemic, it is not clear that it needs to do so: The world is not paying much attention.

Xinjiang, a sprawling 640,000 square miles—comparable to the size of Alaska—sits along the ancient Silk Road trading routes and has a history of incubating violent unrest in service of the independence of what the inhabitants sometimes call East Turkestan. After a long period of official neglect, the Chinese state has recently begun to exhibit great interest in the region, extracting natural resources while imposing its culture. This project has included the forced migration of millions of ethnic Han Chinese to settle this internal frontier. In the process, the Islamic way of life prevalent in the region has come under dire threat. Mosques have been razed and prayer has been outlawed. Beijing’s policy of subjugation and ethnic colonization generated resentment and resistance, and some ethnic-based riots have taken place in recent years. Chinese authorities point to a few sparse attacks on government targets in Beijing and elsewhere to justify harsh emergency measures against the Muslim minorities in the region.

Intrusive and pervasive surveillance oversees the Muslim minorities of Xinjiang. Displays of Islamic faith are often punished. A network of concentration camps has been constructed to enslave Uighurs for purposes of “reeducation,” and in recent years the camps have swelled to accommodate a torrent of new inmates. There is compulsory singing of Communist party songs praising the glorious motherland and its wise leader, Xi Jinping. Escapees from these camps have testified to grotesque treatment: sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, routine torture. Many of the women in the camps are sterilized.

China has claimed that the concentration camps were vocational skills training centers. These assertions are rubbish, with no more grounding in reality than the CCP’s claim that the U.S. military is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. Our knowledge of the monstrous treatment of Uighurs by the Chinese authorities has recently been sharpened by drone footage out of Xinjiang taken last year showing scores of Uighurs sitting, bound and blindfolded with heads shaved, waiting to be loaded onto train cars bound for the camps—or worse.

The aim of the Chinese regime is clearly cultural extermination and ethnic cleansing. It is therefore not too early to pronounce the Chinese concentration camps as this generation’s impending Holocaust. Indeed, it is high time for the civilized world to say so, and to begin to act accordingly.

Unfortunately, the international response to China’s systematic barbarism in Xinjiang has been dismal, when it hasn’t been appalling.

And this seems unlikely to change as long as this remains, if not quite a post-American world, then at least a post-Pax Americana world.

President Trump reportedly gave his blessing to China’s treatment of the Uighurs. According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, at the G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi explained to Trump the rationale behind the concentration camps. According to the American interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump considered eminently justified. Bolton also declared that the National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, had confirmed that Trump endorsed the Chinese gulag during his November 2017 trip to China.

This is absolutely scandalous, but it will come as no surprise to those who have observed the way that Trump, with unfathomable historical frivolity, has been whimpering for the approval of Chairman Xi since entering office. Only last year, Trump was asked by a reporter about the protests then erupting in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a part of China,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ll have to deal with that themselves.” Imagine the wolfish delight that must have overcome the faces of the Communist commissars in Beijing.

Trump has not suffered politically for making a fool of himself and bringing dishonor on his country in this way. At least not yet. But as long as he remains in office, the United States will not attempt to rally the beleaguered and distracted free world to contest a formidable totalitarian adversary.

The last time it did so, the architects of American strategy understood they were engaged in a supreme contest of ideological and imperial dimensions with the Soviet Union. To prevail, the United States needed to muster and maintain every element of its strength–moral, political, economic, and military.

In Washington, there could be no peace with Soviet oppression. And the greatest symbol of such oppression, although it only became known late in the long twilight struggle, was the gulag—the system of forced labor camps where dissidents were sent to work, often unto death. Created by Lenin and expanded by Stalin, the gulag system was not exposed until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago.

Initially written on small strips of paper, which Solzehnitsyn inserted into an empty champagne bottle that he buried to keep the contents safe from the KGB, Gulag tells the story of the prison camps in numbing detail. Solzhenitsyn noticed that a political regime capable of committing this radical evil in the first place could not survive without maintaining the terror and oppression of the gulag. “Rulers change, the Archipelago remains,” Solzhenitsyn concluded.

An estimated sixty million human beings went through the Soviet gulag. The Chinese count does not (yet) approach that figure, although in its growing prison system and surveillance state the Chinese security apparatus has constructed something almost as elaborate.

Today, the Russian gulag and the grisly Communist Party of the Soviet Union that operated them are no more. But the network of camps that has arisen in Xinjiang will likely remain as long as the regime that has built them. The Chinese term for this kind of foul camp is laogai. History will record it, even if the American president does not.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.