Critical China Scholars, Open Letter to Monthly Review

Dear friends at Monthly Review,

As scholars and activists committed to charting a course for an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist left in the midst of rising US-China tensions, we write in response to your recent republication of a “report and resource compilation” by the Qiao Collective on Xinjiang.

We fully acknowledge the need for a critique of America’s cynical and self-interested attacks on China’s domestic policies. We are committed to that task. But the left must draw a line at apologia for the campaign of harsh Islamophobic repression now taking place in Xinjiang.

Qiao’s “report” is written in a style that is sadly all too common in leftist discussions of China today. While the report “recognize[s] that there are aspects of PRC policy in Xinjiang to critique,” it finds no room for any such critique in its 15,000 words. Eschewing serious analysis, it compiles select political and biographical facts to suggestively point at, but not articulate, the intended conclusion – that claims of serious repression in Xinjiang can be dismissed.

We wish it were the case that talk of internment camps was a myth, fabricated by the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA. But it is not. Problematic links do exist between individual activists and organisations and the American security state, and there have been errors and misattributions in reporting on Xinjiang. The applicability of terms such as “genocide” and “slavery” can be debated. But none of this should permit agnosticism, let alone denialism, towards what is clearly a shocking infringement on the rights of Xinjiang’s native peoples.

Since 2016, Xinjiang has seen a massive expansion of its security infrastructure, featuring a network of camps that mete out a punishing program of political indoctrination, compulsory language drills, and workhouse-style “vocational” training. Internees range from party members deemed disloyal, intellectuals and artists whose work has sustained the distinct non-Chinese cultural identities of the region, through to those thought to display signs of excessive piety. In the same period Xinjiang has seen a surge in incarcerations, with Muslim Uyghurs imprisoned for as a little as encouraging their peers to observe their faith. Others, meanwhile, have been sent to the Chinese interior, as part of non-voluntary labor programs designed to instill factory discipline into Xinjiang’s rural population. In some cases, these workers have been sent to factories linked to the supply chains of Western corporations

Families inside Xinjiang have been torn apart, with some 40% of school-age  children now enrolled in boarding schools, and many growing up in state orphanages. Outside China, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others live with the trauma of not knowing the fate of their relatives.

While elements of these policies call to mind the excesses of past ideological campaigns in China, they occur today in new conditions of rapid capitalist development in Xinjiang, intended to turn the region into an economic hub of Central Asia. The link here between capitalist expansion and the oppression of indigenous communities is one the left has long been familiar with. To fail to recognise and critique these dynamics in this case is a form of wilful blindness.

There are various ways in which the politics of the Qiao Collective abandons what should be key principles of an internationalist left today, but we wish to highlight one in particular: their treatment of the issue of “counterterrorism.”

Qiao would have us believe that the PRC’s “deradicalization” campaign stands in “stark contrast” to American policies in the War on Terror. On the contrary, China’s deradicalization discourse represents a deliberate appropriation of Western counterterror practices. In his speeches, China’s President Xi Jinping himself encouraged officials to adapt elements of the Western-led War on Terror since 9/11.

The authors of the report are aware of these precedents, citing Western policies to preemptively identify those “at risk” of radicalization and intervene. They make note of France’s highly intrusive deradicalisation policies, as well as Britain’s Desistance and Disengagement Programme, part of the notorious Prevent Strategy. (To this list we could of course add the abuses of counterterror policing in the US, Australia, and elsewhere). Astonishingly, though, they cite these policing techniques not to criticize them, but simply to accuse the West of double standards: China, they complain, has received a level of criticism that these European governments have not.

This is entirely disingenuous on Qiao’s part, a deflection worthy of the Chinese state media that they frequently cite. The left, along with Muslim advocacy groups, have long called for an end to these Islamophobic policies, resting as they do on a bogus association of Islamic piety and/or anti-imperialist views with a proclivity to anti-social violence (see here for a recent example of such a call). Would Qiao then be happy for China to receive only the same level of criticism, and face these same calls?

Judging from their report, they would not. The entire thrust of their report is instead to normalize harmful paradigms of “deradicalisation” and “counter-extremism” as an acceptable basis for a state to engage its Muslim citizenry.

Qiao is evidently impressed by the fact that “Muslim-majority nations and/or nations that have waged campaigns against extremism on their own soil” stand in support of China at the United Nations. We are not so impressed. These local “campaigns against extremism” have replicated the worst violations of America’s War on Terror, and often in collaboration with it.

One example Qiao gives here is Nigeria, whose counterterrorism Joint Task Force was accused by Amnesty International in 2011 of engaging in “unlawful killings, dragnet arrests, arbitrary and unlawful detentions, extortion and intimidation.” Another is Pakistan, which the US commander-in-chief in Afghanistan once praised as a “a great ally on the war on terror,” and whose air and ground forces are responsible for serial abuses against civilian populations.

The incidents of violence against ordinary Chinese citizens that Qiao cites should of course not be dismissed: we must criticize those who engage in terrorism, while at the same time recognizing the social conditions that produce it, and pointing to the need for political solutions.

Qiao, by contrast, directs us toward the murky world of “terror-watching” punditry that has arisen in symbiosis with the two-decade-long Global War on Terror, and has provided justifications for that state violence. One of the authorities they cite on terrorism in Xinjiang is Rohan Gunaratna, a discredited figure who made his name in the 2000s urging America and its allies to invade Muslim-majority countries and enact repressive security laws at home. If Gunaratna and his ilk are our friends, the left will have no need of enemies.

Uncritically invoking China’s “terrorism problem,” and downplaying the severity of Beijing’s response to it, paints a left-wing façade on a global discourse of counterterrorism that poses a threat to Muslim communities everywhere. The struggle against anti-Muslim racism and the devastating effects of the ongoing War on Terror is international, and our solidarity in that struggle must extend to its victims in China.

For these reasons, we find it regrettable that you have chosen to give wider audience to the Qiao Collective’s “report and resource compilation.” In recognition of the existence of alternative perspectives on the left, and in the interest of debate, we hope you will also publish this letter alongside it.

We look forward to future opportunities to collaborate on critical left analysis regarding China and the US-China conflict, and we hope you will contact us whenever we can be of assistance. To find out more about the Critical China Scholars and our activities, please see our website, which includes video recordings of past webinars.  

In solidarity,

Joel Andreas

Angie Baecker 

Tani Barlow

David Brophy

Darren Byler

Harlan Chambers

Tina Mai Chen

Charmaine Chua

Manfred Elfstrom

Christopher Fan

Eli Friedman

Jia-Chen Fu

Daniel Fuchs

Joshua Goldstein

Beatrice Gallelli

Paola Iovene

Fabio Lanza

Soonyi Lee

Promise Li

Kevin Lin

Andrew Liu

Nicholas Loubere

Tim Pringle

Aminda Smith

Sigrid Schmalzer

Alexander Day

Rebecca Karl

Uluğ Kuzuoğlu

Ralph Litzinger

Christian Sorace

Jake Werner

Shan Windscript

Lorraine Wong

David Xu Borgonjon

For the Critical China Scholars