Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

Inside Xinjiang: State Racism in China

Gerald Roche and James Leibold


Christian Lue

| 7 mins read

What if racism is not just interpersonal prejudice or discrimination against a specific group, but a technique of governance used by all states? A key part of recognising this is by moving beyond a narrow, biological vision of racism focused on phenotypic difference, and by looking more broadly at state racialisation processes, to recognise racism as the truly global and diverse phenomenon it is.

Take the People’s Republic of China as a key case study: the discrimination against African migrants or the use of blackface in China's beloved television programme New Year Gala are manifestations of anti-blackness. Or what about the discrimination against minorities like the Tibetans or Uyghurs?

Such examples are pervasive, yet researchers have overlooked how racism in China parallels racialisation in other parts of the world. Racism as a technique of state governance is common everywhere, but is being ignored. For example, ethnic (or minzu) relations in China have often been described as “chauvinism” rather than “racism”.

Such terms hide the ways in which race functions as a tool of governance across all states. Michael Foucault’s concept of “state racism” explains how the modern state sorts its populations into “good” and “bad” races, and how it seeks to persecute the racial other through direct and indirect violence. In China, leaked police files reveal how surveillance is used to racialize Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China, where they are marked and monitored differently to the Han majority in the region. Some are labelled “abnormal” and “inherently dangerous”; harassed, detained and physically punished as a result. This state-sponsored racism seeks to remake the physical and human geography of Xinjiang.

State racism and the governance of death

The Xinjiang example is key to understanding how racism operates through the state and how it permeates all states to varying degrees. Historically “race wars” referred to conflicts where dominated peoples deposed what they saw as foreign, illegitimate governments. However, states have since learned to harness “race” and “race wars” into their own governance strategies.

Crucially, this culminated in the “biopolitical state” - a vision of governing where the vitality and enrichment of the population must be accompanied by the process of creating death (killing some so that others may live). In other words, anyone who threatens the “vitality and purity” of the nation is targeted.

How does this relate to state racism in the modern context? There is the direct, immediate killing, demonstrated in the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, and then there is the more diffuse, “slow death” from state behaviour. For example, in the US context Black Americans suffer from higher mortality rates and more severe illnesses over their lifespan, stemming from long-term discrimination impacting healthcare quality and access. One estimate suggests that these racist inequities have resulted in 4.2 million ‘unnecessary’ deaths in the US since 1964.

To govern, then, is to mark, monitor, and adjust the division between the ‘normal’ population who are made to live and flourish, and racial others who are made to suffer or die. This is woven so tightly into the modern state that legal scholar Leo Kuper describes this murderous capacity of the state as its “right to genocide”. Within this global system, China’s Xinjiang crisis exemplifies the agenda of the “biopolitical state'' through its mass incarceration of Uyghurs and re-engineering of settlement patterns and birth rates to alter the demographic profile of the region. How far does this state racism go?

Evidence from the Urumqi police files

State violence is not new to Xinjiang. However, it has intensified since 2016, when Chen Quanguo became Xinjiang Party Secretary and began building a vast network of re-education camps where forced labour, brainwashing and eugenics policies aim to eliminate Uyghur culture and reduce their population share relative to Han Chinese.

The Urumqi police files leaked from the public security bureau of Xinjiang’s regional capital in 2019 reveal weekly reports on extensive surveillance and street-by-street patrolling. Crucially, racially different individuals are targeted as “pre-criminals”, and sent for re-education before they could commit a crime. But people are also targeted on other social characteristics. Perceived danger and the “need” for remediation in this case functions deliberately to put targeted people under state control.

These “targeted persons” are then subject to dehumanised treatment, torture and abuse in camps and prisons. Those outside are monitored in line with what Jennifer Pan calls “repressive assistance”, a governance strategy where household visits or checkpoints are construed as “conveniences” provided by “caring” state officials. Police have made use of new automated biometric surveillance, to the extent that an AI system automatically flags if someone has an unexpected visitor at home or if they receive an overseas call. These techniques are used by the state to sort people into who can and cannot be trusted.

Anti-racist scholarship in a world of racist states

Surveillance practices in the Urumqi police files show that people and groups are racialised relative to not just their minzu identity, but in response to their perceived threat to collective life.

The biopolitical state decides if people are deserving of life or death. Direct killing seems, as far as we know, relatively rare in Xinjiang, but there is rather a slow, persistent scraping away of identity, memory and self. State racism therefore directly kills or indirectly causes “slow death”, which both combines to produce a “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”. Killing, incarceration and surveillance are parts of a spectrum of techniques deployed by the state to deliver this premature death.

Such practices are embedded in the practices of all states to differing degrees. The current crisis in Xinjiang demonstrates this: it deploys the historically well-documented use of concentration camps with new technologies and surveillance practices first developed by commercial enterprises in the West. State racism is therefore an interconnected phenomenon. Our task now is to track, expose and interrupt the circulation of techniques and technologies used in deadly racialisation between states.

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