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Uyghur Islam and Religious "De-Extremification": On China's Discourse of "Thought Liberation" in Xinjiang

Dr. Joanne Smith Finley
Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies, East Asian Studies, School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, UK

One year ago, I received a text message with a web link from a Han Chinese colleague. She wrote: "You're right! It's the Cultural Revolution all over again!" She was referring to an earlier comment I had made about the religious "de-extremification" campaign unfolding at pace in Northwest China since the publication of the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Regulations on De-Extremification," adopted on 29 March 2017 (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 2017)—a campaign that has led to the extra-judicial internment of an estimated 1–1.5 million Turkic Muslims, mainly Uyghurs (Zenz 2019a; Reuters 2019). The web link led to an extraordinary article published originally on Tianshan.net, the official state news site for the Xinjiang region, and reproduced at Wenxuecity.com (文学城 Literature City), the largest global Chinese-language website outside China. The article, titled "A 'Thought Liberation Movement' is Being Staged across the Great Land of Xinjiang!" (Tianshan.net, 9 October 2018), lauded the "great tide of new-era thought liberation" (伟大的新时代思想解放潮流 weida de xin shidai sixiang jiefang chaoliu) that has "swept across this vast expanse of land like a hurricane" over the previous two years, and defended that movement against its domestic and foreign critics. Using vibrant images reminiscent of those published in Cultural Revolution-era issues of China Pictorial or Beijing Review, the anonymous author (Yi Mu: 一目, One Eye/Purpose/Vision) wrote that the movement was having a "deep [and positive] impact on the present and future of every ethnic group in Xinjiang". Below, I will outline Chinese state discourse on the "thought liberation movement" in Xinjiang, as revealed in the Tianshan.net article.

Chinese state discourse on the "thought liberation movement" in Xinjiang

In the first part of the article, the author begins by describing the "new-era thought liberation" as a "spontaneous mass movement occurring in line with progress and historical development" (群众性自发地顺应时代进步、历史发展的思想解放 qunzhongxing zifa de shunying shidai jinbu, lishi fazhan de sixiang jiefang). From the earliest "spark" to the current "blazing prairie", they write, each ethnic group has now "freed itself from the cage of religious extremist thought and broken out from the shackles of medieval rules" (挣脱宗教极端主义的思想牢笼摆脱中世纪的陈规陋俗束缚 zhengtuo zongjiao jiduanzhuyi de sixiang laolong, baituo zhong shiji de chengui lousu shufu). Furthermore, adds the author, the masses have thrown supporters of the "Three Evil Forces" (三股势力 sangu shili—that is, extremism, terrorism and separatism), "agents of foreign reactionary forces" (境外反动势力的代理人 jingwai fandong shili de dailiren—allies of overseas Uyghur advocacy groups and hostile Western nations), "rogue advocates of religious extremism" (流窜的宗教极端鼓吹者 liucuan de zongjiao jiduan guchuizhe) and "two-faced persons" (两面人 liangmianren—Uyghur officials said to be secretly disloyal to the state) "into the grave of history".

The author next moves to debate whether this movement is a "really bad" or a "really good" thing, with reference to criticisms by domestic and foreign observers (this latter characterised as "certain Western countries" who behave "like anxious shrews"). Here, they present a list of social categories that all, without exception, pronounce the "thought liberation movement" to be "great" (好得很 hao de hen). These include non-believers; believers; religious clerics; women; children; the elderly; and the youth. "Non-believers", the author writes, previously suffered from "wild ahongs' (illegally trained, unofficial imams) knocking on their door and asking why they did not go and pray. They would then "pretend they prayed at home while secretly performing productive labour in their back yard". In the last two years, those "wild ahongs rampaging through the villages" have been "beaten down by the enlightened masses" (横行乡里的"野阿訇"被觉醒的群众们打倒了 hengxing xiangli de "ye ahong" bei juexing de qunzhongmen da dao le). Now, the author writes, the lives of non-believers are "improving daily": they are "busy dawn till dusk" on tractors in the fields, going out to work in the factories or doing business.

At the same time, the author writes, those "believers" who had previously "been penetrated by religious extremist thinking" (受宗教极端思想侵害 shou zongjiao jiduan sixiang qinhai) are no longer forced to give up their meagre incomes and hard-earned business profits to "religious extremist forces" (宗教极端势力 zongjiao jiduan shili) in the form of "disguised religious taxes" (变相"宗教税" bianxiang zongjiao shui). Poor communities have once more taken control of their purse strings, while wealthy households can accumulate more funds for economic production.

Religious clerics, it seems, are also delighted with the "thought liberation". Pointing out that, on Chinese land, every citizen should be a "self-sufficient labourer" (自食其力的劳动者 zishiqili de laodongzhe), the author notes that "some clerics even came to thank us" (i.e. local Chinese authorities) for "correcting" (整治 zhengzhi) the unofficial ahongs, and requested that their own religious venue also be "standardised" (规范 guifan—Sinicised in line with state requirements around "legal" or "official" religion) to give them more time and energy to work in the fields.

Women, according to this anonymous author, had previously been "locked in the home to bear and raise children," then "forced to wear a bulky and ugly burqa" whenever they ventured outdoors. Many had "silently suffered domestic abuse," and often their husbands would suddenly "read taraq" to them and declare a divorce (念"塔拉克"离婚 nian 'talake' lihun). They had been treated "like furniture, not at all like human beings" (如同家具一样没有一点作为人的地位 rutong jiaju yiyang meiyou yidian zuo wei ren de diwei). In the last two years, by contrast, these "awakened" women have "shed their headscarves, walked out of the house, gone to work, and begun to use legal instruments to safeguard their rights and interests."

Children, the author continues, also say the thought liberation is "really great". Previously, they had been sent to underground Qur'anic schools as talip (religious students), where they were "indoctrinated with religious extremist thought" (灌输宗教极端思想 guanshu zongjiao jiduan sixiang) by "illiterates" and faced "a grey and bleak future" (未来一片灰暗 weilai yipian hui'an). Now, those children are "sitting in spacious and bright national education school classrooms", being "nourished by science and culture", and "the intergenerational transmission of ignorance has been halted" (彻底切断了愚昧无知的代际传递 chedi qieduan le yumeiwuzhi de daiji chuandi).

Next come the elderly. They, writes this author, are relieved to see the "thought liberation movement" since they can now "live out their lives in peace". In recent years, some had seen their children "infiltrated by religious extremist thought" and "lazing about all day, not engaging in honest work" (一天到晚游手好闲、不务正业 yi tian dao wan youshouhaoxiu, buwuzhengye). Their offspring would even call them "heathens" ("异教徒" yijiaotu) and accuse them of cooking food that was not halal. All in all, concludes the author, the "traditional morality of respecting the elderly had been totally lost" (民族尊老敬老的传统美德丢得一干二净 minzu zunlaojinglao de chuantong meide diu de yigan'erjing). Now, however, the "awakened masses" have "pulled the brainwashed youth back from the evil, green road of harming themselves and others" (洗脑的年轻人被从害人害己的邪路上、绝路上拉了回来 xinao de nianqingren bei cong hairenhaiji de xielu shang, lülu shang la le hui lai). While some volunteered to "suddenly wake up", others were "reborn after undergoing social rescue" (通过社会的挽救重获新生 tongguo shehui de huanjiu chonghuoxinsheng).

And so to the youth. Before, the author writes, many young people had been "deprived of the right to free love by extremist thinking" (恋爱的自由被极端思想所剥夺 lian'ai de ziyou bei jiduan sixiang suo boduo). "Genuine feelings" that transcend inter-ethnic borders had been "endlessly obstructed". Some very young girls had been forced into marriages with (in-group) "middle-aged uncles they had never seen before". Now, by contrast, the "enlightened young men and women" (觉悟的青年男女们 juewu de qingnian nannümen) can "love publicly and freely": "Ethnicity, religious beliefs and customs are no longer a chasm that cannot be bridged by marriage" (民族、信仰、习俗不再是爱情和婚姻不可逾越的鸿沟 minzu, xinyang, xisu bu zai shi aiqing he hunyin bukeyuyue de honggou).

At each turn, the author demands rhetorically: "So who is it, then, that says the thought liberation movement is 'really bad'?" They conclude that, self-evidently, it is the "parasites" ("寄生虫"们 jishengchongmen), who use religious extremist thought to "make a fortune by extracting the income of the masses" (作威作福、榨取群众收入 zuowei zuofu, zha qu qunzhong shouru); those who "treat women like accessories"; and, most significantly, those who "would compete with us for the next generation in the hope of cultivating separatist poisonous grasses" (妄图与我们争夺下一代来培植分裂毒草的人 wangtu yu women zhengduo xiayidai lai peizhi fenlie ducao de ren)—where "us" denotes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the course of reading the Tianshan.net article, one has the sense of being bombarded by Orwellian double-speak. Below, I will consider state discourses of "thought liberation" in Xinjiang in the context of how that movement has played out in practice over the past two years.

What has "thought liberation" really looked like?

"Thought liberation" in Xinjiang has not been, as the author of the Tianshan.net article suggests, a "spontaneous mass movement". In this sense, it differs importantly from the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which was launched by Mao Zedong against perceived power rivals inside the CCP and carried out spontaneously by actors outside the party bureaucracy. "Political re-education" in Xinjiang has been carried out "in a highly organised manner by an unprecedentedly effective party-state apparatus, starting at the top" (Klimeš 2018b). This top-down project, part of a process of "social re-engineering" of Turkic Muslims since 2010 (Byler 2017), has involved state-sponsored surveillance, intimidation and coercion (Human Rights Watch 2018; Byler 2018b); indeed, I argue elsewhere that it fully fits definitions of "state terrorism" (Smith Finley 2019). At the same time, the project reflects the long-standing teleological standpoint of the Chinese state that Han Chinese secular culture represents progress, development and modernity (Harrell 1994).

The state discourse asserts that "thought liberation" has targeted only "extremists, terrorists and separatists". In fact, the scholar Adrian Zenz estimates that, rather than a minority of criminals, a full 10–20 per cent of the Turkic Muslim population has been detained in internment camps, based on arbitrary local detention quotas (Zenz 2019a). Many were interned purely on the grounds of their religious piety, understood as adhering to peaceful Islamic practices legal anywhere elsewhere in the world. Others were taken for spurious reasons ranging from travelling abroad (especially to a Muslim country) to being non-fluent in the Chinese language (Smith Finley 2019). The current campaign is thus a form of extra-judicial, pre-emptive punishment of perceived potential "terrorists".

The article's narrative sets up an artificial separation between "believers" and "non-believers", stating that non-believers were being harassed by "unofficial" imams. In reality, few in Uyghur society would describe themselves as "non-believers"—rather, individuals differ in the extent to which they practice Islam (while a small number practice Christianity). Most would say they are Muslims nominally, adhering to related dietary prescriptions—unless forced to do otherwise. And, while there developed certain antagonisms between nominal Muslims and those who embraced traditionalist orthopraxy as the Islamic revival progressed across the 2000s and 2010s (Waite 2007; Byler 2018a), such divisions are common in Islamic societies everywhere. It is not the place of the state to intervene to "save" individuals—they are fully capable of defending themselves (see also below).

The narrative goes on to suggest that "believers" are relieved to "once more be in control of their finances". In practice, members of the Uyghur community had happily donated funds for local mosque-building and charitable purposes since at least the early 2000s, on a fully voluntary basis (Smith Finley 2013). Meanwhile, recent fieldwork suggests that far from feeling relieved at the state shutdown of Islamic venues, local people are desperate to enter the mosques but are either unable due to the mosques being shut down, or are afraid of high-tech surveillance. Below is a diary entry from my 2018 field trip to Kashgar Old Town, where I spoke with residents nearby a padlocked mosque and closed mädris (Qur'anic school):

An elderly Hui man in a white skull cap and his Uyghur wife say the mosque was closed for some time, and the Qur'anic school for much longer. They are clearly upset. He says the other day some foreign Muslims wanted to go in the mosque to pray. "We had to tell them to go to the Heytgah mosque, didn't we?" I say the Heytgah mosque [Xinjiang's largest and most famous mosque] isn't open for prayer either, and they look dismayed, glancing at one other in shock. His wife asks what I do, and I say I'm a university teacher. Then it dawns on her and she says, "You know about the situation then?" And promptly bursts into quiet tears. I try to comfort her, squeezing her arm, and saying everything changes, things will get better. She asks me then, "When will they get better?" (field notes, 2018)

Similar levels of trauma are observable in Muslim restaurant owners who have either had their halal signage defaced or removed by authorities, or chose to self-censor by not replacing it following refurbishment. As one female Hui restaurateur observed carefully: "Our halal sign will not be replaced when the shop gets its new façade; but even if it doesn't appear up there, I will still have it in my heart" (Smith Finley 2018). And, if Islamic clerics are inviting the state to Sinicise their mosques, this too indicates a high level of fear, born of the knowledge that imams were among the first targets of mass detentions (Bunin 2019).

The state discourse takes full credit for "awakening" women; for saving them from the "religious extremism" of the Islamic patriarchy. Yet, as female Uyghur and Kazakh professionals in the diaspora point out, Turkic Muslim women are "diverse in looks, lifestyles, and roles in the community"; they include mothers who proudly embody japa (burden, sacrifice), scholars, teachers, business people and more (Shamseden 2019). They are not all prisoners within their own homes, as portrayed in the Tianshan.net article. Indeed, research conducted in the 2000s and early 2010s demonstrated that many women had voluntarily embraced new forms of piety amid the religious revival, both on- and offline (Smith Finley 2013; Harris and Isa 2019). These women had not been forced to do so by their menfolk. Looking back through history, Turkic Muslim women have long been adept at improving their own status as, for instance, when they embraced the Muslim reformist education movement of the Jadids from the late 1800s on. As Yi Xiaocuo aptly observes: "There is no such thing as a monolithic 'Xinjiang woman.' And they don't need saving by any central authority" (2019). The "saving" of women, meanwhile, consists of nothing short of gendered violence and cultural genocide. The state breaks Turkic Muslim women in detention. It subjects them—as culture bearers—to forced abortions, coercive birth control, and sexual violation in order to disrupt reproduction (Ferris-Rotman 2019). At the same time, it forces them to renounce Islam and their mother tongue (Smith Finley 2019). Then it "remakes" them as politically docile, secular, neo-liberal, economically productive subjects (Shamseden 2019; Yi Xiaocuo 2019).

In the state narrative, the CCP is similarly lauded for "rescuing" Turkic Muslim children and transferring them to "national education school classrooms" (where only Chinese is spoken). During my 2018 field trip to Kashgar, I recorded a 6 year-old boy named Qäysar giving a perfect rendition of China's national song in fluent Chinese. He at least seemed to remain happily oblivious of the cruel cultural cut that the state is enacting between generations (Smith Finley 2018). Other reports coming out of the region tell a different story. Chinese human rights researchers working for Bitter Winter magazine reported recently that Uyghur pupils in national education schools are being psychologically "tortured." They are cautious when trying to write in Chinese "as if they were skating on thin ice." Though fluent in their mother tongue, they are not allowed to speak it, and are forced instead to speak awkwardly in Mandarin. As a result, some stop talking at all (Xiang 2019). Meanwhile, a range of evidence—including government policy directives, official reports and related state or private media articles, educational statistics, public construction and procurement bids, village-based work team reports, and official propaganda pieces—confirms that the children of "doubly-detained" parents are being placed in state care, ranging from orphanages to public schools with boarding facilities. All are heavily securitized and promote systematic linguistic and cultural assimilation (Zenz 2019b).

Finally, the state discourse claims "social rescue" of the "lazy, brainwashed youth". Here, it is first pertinent to point out that if Uyghur youths appeared to be "lazing about" in recent years, it is not because they spent their entire day praying, as the Tianshan.net article implies. Their idleness has more to do with the very high un- and under-employment rate among Uyghur men. This was already high even before the collapse of trust between Uyghurs and Han during the 2009 Ürümchi riots (Maurer-Fazio et al. 2007; Hasmath 2019), and it has dramatically worsened since. Next, we need to examine what "rebirth through social rescue" has entailed in practice. John Sudworth's astounding BBC film shot in June 2019 inside selected re-education camps—now "spruced up" and renamed "vocational training centres"—provides a good indication. Visibly nervous Uyghur "students" each told the same story: that they had been "infected by extremism" and had "volunteered to have their thoughts transformed." Some performed music and dance routines for the visiting reporters, with "smiles fixed in place." However, Uyghur-language graffiti scrawled on the walls, and later translated by the reporting team, belied that outward narrative: "Oh my heart, don't break!" Sudworth compared this experience with media trips organised to camps at Sonnenburg and Theresienstadt by Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and designed to demonstrate their "humanity" (Sudworth 2019).

As for "enlightened young men and women" being able to "love publicly and freely," "free love" in this context translates into forced marriages in a climate of terror. They have been enabled by a campaign of gendered state violence, whereby Chinese authorities are "removing Turkic Muslim men who they perceive as threats to 'security' and 'safety,' emptying out a clear path for Han settlers to insert their presence onto Uyghur and Kazakh homelands"—and into the lives of Turkic Muslim women (Yi Xiaocuo 2019). Shamseden, writing in April 2019, cites reports that Chinese officials and local Han residents are abusing their power to "make personal demands" of Uighur women, especially those whose menfolk are detained. As she asks: "If Uighur women refuse an offer of marriage, what is to stop officials from branding these women, or their families, as 'suspicious,' to be taken away without charge or trial, never to be seen again? Under these circumstances, how could a woman dare to refuse an unwanted marriage?" (Shamseden 2019). Additional evidence has emerged, via analysis of state narratives, to suggest that coercion is indeed present in these inter-ethnic matches. Byler (2019a) outlines the pattern: a Han migrant or security worker chooses a Uyghur woman, initiates contact, and then works with local authorities (variously, county civil affairs bureaux; town government cadres; visiting "relatives", i.e. party cadres sent to stay in Uyghur homes and monitor for "extremist" activity; armed police; township Party committees; county-level cooperatives; "religious management committees") to convince the families to agree. Byler suggests that this development marks the advent of "state-sponsored sexual violence" towards Uyghur women (2019a).

What is the state's true motivation behind "thought liberation"?

In the final sections of the Tianshan.net article, the anonymous author emphasises the "independent choice that every person in Xinjiang is making to follow the tide of development" (凡是群众们一丁点的顺应时代发展的自主抉择 fanshi qunzhongmen yi dingdian de shunying shidai fazhan de zizhu jueze). The "awakening of the masses", they assure us, has allowed people to "take back the most basic rights of everyday life" (拿回…最基本的生活的权利 na hui…zui jiben de shenghuo de quanli) and "be free from the grief and terror of rioting, displacement, broken homes and death" (免于动乱、流离、家破人亡的忧伤和恐惧 mianyu dongluan, liuli, jiapo renwang de youshang he kongju). Yet if we rewind a few years, we see that Uyghurs had in fact chosen to follow their own alternative tide of development, oriented towards cross-border trade, and characterized by consumption of (halal) Central Asian, Turkish and Arab goods (Smith Finley 2013; Smith Finley and Tynen 2017; Harris and Isa 2019). This trend has now been halted by the state, with the Turkish language and flag outlawed in the region as dangerous manifestations of "pan-Turkism". Turkic Muslims are instead being compelled to speak Chinese—the language of the colonizer—and to perform secular rituals instead of Islamic practices. As anthropologist Darren Byler has observed, this imposition by the colonizer "functions as a form of epistemic violence and structural oppression rather than a liberation of indigenous minds" (Byler 2017). In response to the state's claim that people have taken back their basic rights, it should be noted that the list of rights violations related to the "de-extremification" (thought liberation) movement is long. Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, they include the rights: to life, liberty and security (Art.3); to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Art.5); to equal protection of the law without discrimination (Art.7); to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (Art.9); to a fair and public hearing in the determination of criminal charges (Art.10); to be free from arbitrary interference with one's privacy, family, home or correspondence (Art.12); to leave and return to one's own country (Art.13); to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art.18); and the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Art.19) (United Nations General Assembly 1948). Finally, in the context of "thought liberation", it is clear that no one in Xinjiang—nor any exile outside of Xinjiang—is free from grief, terror and fear, while many are affected by displacement (as they cannot return to Xinjiang), broken homes (due to their spouse or parents being interned) and death (many have died in internment camps).

The author also launches their final attack on the movement's domestic critics. This latter, they write, hope to "build a medieval slavery regime in which politics and religion are integrated" (建立中世纪政教合一的奴隶制政权 jianli zhongshiji zhengjiao heyi de nulizhi zhengquan) and "turn the masses into 'slaves dependent on their master' while assuming the role of slave master on a killing spree" (将群众变成"依靠主人的哑巴",自己来做那个生杀予夺的奴隶主 jiang qunzhong biancheng "yikao zhuren de yaba", ziji lai zuo nage shengsha yuduo de nulizhu). Here, I would suggest, can be discerned the state's true motives behind "thought liberation" or religious "de-extremification". The threat to Chinese hegemony is clear. While it is important to note that Uyghur voices are diverse and certainly not united around a desire to install a system of Sharia law, at perceived risk here is the politico-legal (政法 zhengfa) system preferred by the Chinese state. This system ties politics to law and closes the door both for judicial independence and for the supremacy of "rule of law" in China (Keith and Lin 2005). It means that the authoritarian Chinese state is free to remove its political adversaries as and when. When it comes to the charge of religious elites turning the masses into slaves and killing them with impunity, one might point to new evidence that the state is currently transferring "reformed" re-education internees from camps to factories where they are subjected to forced/slave labour (Zenz 2019c; Byler 2019b); meanwhile, people are dying in the internment camps, whether from poor nutrition, withheld medication, or beatings by guards (Xinjiang Victims Database, 2017–).

Domestic critics, the author continues, "still hold tight to the medieval scriptures" (还抱着中世纪的经书 hai bao zhe zhongshiji de jingshu) in the 21st century, attempting to control what people consume. They "shout about how religious law is higher than state law", "see all non-Muslims as the enemy", and want to "lure, deceive and coerce the innocent masses to become the cannon fodder of violent terrorism" (引诱、蒙骗、胁迫无知群众当暴恐活动的炮灰 yinyou, mengpian, xiepo wuzhi qunzhong dang baokong huodong de paohui). Again, for the state, the perceived threat here is the possibility of transition to a new political system; state fear is reflected in the propaganda shift in recent years from the previous "Love the country, love religion" (爱国爱教 aiguo aijiao) to the present "Love the [Chinese Communist] Party, love the country" (爱党爱国 aidang aiguo) (Smith Finley 2018). It reflects too in the recent replacement in many Christian venues of the Ten Commandments with the sayings of Xi Jinping. As one Chinese preacher put it: "The Communist Party's ultimate goal is to 'become God'." (Tang 2019). Both examples reflect not genuine fear of religious extremism but state paranoia and regime insecurity.

This insecurity is visible too in the concluding remarks of the Tianshan.net article. At last, the author insists, the way in which "the enemy forces" (敌对势力 didui shili) have watched Xinjiang so urgently in the past two years shows that "our policy", "our long-term mechanism" (我们的长效机制 women de changxiao jizhi) is "correct". What "we" (here read the Chinese authorities) are doing now is "the right thing at the right time" and designed to ensure "long-term governance and peace" (长治久安 changzhi jiu'an). This deep-seated central anxiety revolves broadly around regime security, and narrowly around the need for Xi Jinping to successfully implement his flagship project: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), designed to pass straight through Xinjiang, and on which the Party's future legitimacy is seen to rest (Clarke 2018; Klimeš 2018a). When state discourses talk of "separatist poisonous grasses", it demonstrates that what the authorities fear is not "religious extremism" per se or even orthodox religious practice, but the potential for political dissent, an anti-colonial movement to regain contested territory. Ultimately, as one scholar in exile observed, when the Chinese state turns Islam into "an ideological battleground" between the secular state and Turkic Muslim groups, it is "at the service of maintaining its power and discipline" (Yi Xiaocuo 2019).


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