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How Beijing Is Redefining What It Means to Be Chinese, from Xinjiang to Inner Mongolia

19 minute read

In July 2017, Gulzira Auelkhan’s father fell ill. So she made the short hop from her village in the windswept Kazakhstan countryside into her native China to care for him. Upon arrival in the western province of Xinjiang, however, she was arrested, for no given reason. No charges were ever brought, but she spent the next 15 months being ferried between five different prison camps with barbed wire and watchtowers, during which she was interrogated 19 times and tortured with electric batons. Her interrogators had no clear explanation for her detention. “Once they asked me, ‘Do you have a TV in Kazakhstan?’” says Auelkhan, 42. “‘In which case your ideology has been corrupted.’”

Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim who grew up speaking a Turkic dialect, was forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, salute the Chinese flag and sing songs exulting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) beneath photos of President Xi Jinping. “We all had to eat pork, and I was forced to burn a Koran and a prayer mat,” she says. “There was to be no more praying.” Afterward, she was sent to a labor camp for two months, where she sewed gloves until she says her neck ached and her eyes turned bloodshot.

Auelkhan was told she would be paid 6,000 yuan ($930) but received only 220 yuan ($33). Camp guards told detainees that “from now, all ethnicities will be as one and must share the same language and food,” she says. At one point, Auelkhan was given what she was told was a flu shot, and afterward her periods became infrequent and irregular. “I became lethargic and today can’t even knead bread without feeling tired,” she says.

China says allegations of mass detention, rapes and forced sterilization in Xinjiang province are “lies and absurd allegations.” Yet seemingly everybody there knows a friend or family member who has been disappeared. The new rules governing the province are clear: men can no longer sport beards, nor women headscarves. Fasting during Ramadan is forbidden, as is the Islamic greeting “As-salaamu ‘Alaikum,” or “Peace be upon you.”

CCP officials are assigned to live with minorities in their own homes, while AI-powered facial-recognition cameras enable predictive policing in what Amnesty International calls a “dystopian hellscape.” Wearing a slightly longer dress, or forgetting to shave, is enough to flag the surveillance algorithm, according to recently leaked internal files, possibly resulting in detention. “They want to destroy [non-Han] language and culture,” says Auelkhan, who is now based in the U.S. “To brainwash the people.”

Life for Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities—mostly Uighurs but also Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Kazakhs like Auelkhan—is a daily grind of surveillance, indoctrination and detention. The U.N. estimates over 1 million have been placed in “re-education centers” across the Alaska-size region—abuses that the U.S. and other nations have labeled genocide. China, however, justifies its stifling security apparatus as battling the “three evils” of “separatism, terrorism and extremism,” heaping blame on the collective rather than individuals.

The 21st century rebooting of concentration camps in Xinjiang province has horrified the world, but it obscures a more insidious campaign rolling out across the world’s most populous nation. China is in the final stage of a covert and until now little-understood crusade to transform people in peripheral regions perceived as “backward” and “deviant” into “loyal,” “patriotic” and “civilized.” “Xinjiang might be the sharp end of the arrow, but there’s a very long shaft that stretches right across China,” says James Leibold, an expert on race and identity in China at Australia’s La Trobe University.

Although Article 4 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China theoretically guarantees equality for all its 56 ethnic groups, in reality the Chinese Communist Party rules according to a Han Chinese orthodoxy, which claims a direct lineage from the early Yellow River basin tribes and alone defines the national vision. It is this ideology that drives not just the assault on religion in Xinjiang but also the erosion of freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, curbs on local language in Inner Mongolia and the corralling of 2.8 million Tibetans into urban work groups under the guise of “poverty alleviation.”

The goal, according to an official ordinance on the government website for the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, is to “break lineage, break roots, break connections and break origins.”

Across China, minority languages are being purged from schools, workplaces and media, while Mandarin education is universalized. Mandatory birth control and incentivized interethnic marriage dilute the size and concentration of minorities, who are dispatched to faraway provinces for work and education at the same time as Han settlers are beckoned in. Activists now fear that the project of forced assimilation seen in Xinjiang offers a framework for other regions.

Uighur men strolling through Kashgar, Xinjiang, in January 2019
Uighur men strolling through Kashgar, Xinjiang, in January 2019Patrick Wack—Inland

As the CCP turns 100 in July, thoughts are now turning to the party’s vision for China in the next hundred years: which, under Xi, is “a Han male, Beijing-centric definition of what it means to be Chinese,” says Leibold. But just as Xi has said the Soviet Union fell because its leaders were not “man enough to stand up and resist,” his aggressive assimilation policy presents a different challenge to longevity, expunging millennia of art, music and literature in what is arguably history’s most comprehensive cultural genocide, all while turning the world’s No. 2 economy into a pariah republic. “The persecution of other minority groups in China is just like the beginning stage of what the Uighurs went through,” says Jewher Ilham, a Uighur human-rights activist based in Washington, D.C. “I just hope it doesn’t go that far.”

Unnerved by riots in Tibet in 2008, and Xinjiang a year later, the influential “scholar-officials” who serve as the CCP’s chief ideologues proposed ending the constitutional benefits then enjoyed by minority groups, modeled on those in the former Soviet Union. Instead of so-called Autonomous Regions where ethnic groups enjoy enshrined rights, they proposed a “melting pot” formula that curtails distinctions by forging a common culture, identity and consciousness.

Soon after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, violent rebellion once again erupted in Xinjiang, and what is sometimes dubbed the “second-generation ethnic policy” moved from the fringe into the mainstream. China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong was convinced that only aggressive subjugation could prevent China from following the USSR into balkanization along ethnic seams.

It was shortly after Xi took control that Ilham last saw her father, the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, inside an interrogation room at Beijing Capital International Airport on Feb. 2, 2013. She was supposed to accompany him on a teaching assignment to Indiana, but at the last moment the Chinese authorities barred his exit. With the words, “Go, go, don’t cry, don’t let them think Uighur girls are weak,” Tohti instructed his then 18-year-old daughter to travel alone to a strange land whose language she didn’t comprehend.

Tohti was universally recognized as a moderate voice whose life’s work was to promote understanding between Uighurs and Han. But in September 2014, he was found guilty of “separatism” and sentenced to life imprisonment. (In 2019, while incarcerated, he was awarded both the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize and Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.) Ilham bristles when the Chinese government claims that it is saving her people from poverty and extremism: “I only see Uighurs dragged into sorrow, disappointment and devastation, in massive pain every day, not knowing if their family members are safe or not, even alive or not.”

Under Xi, “ideological education” has been ramped up across China over the past couple of years, most intensely in areas of historic resistance. It begins early; in 2019, a CCP directive on patriotic education instructed cadres to “start with the babies” to teach “love for the motherland and pride of being Chinese.” Cartoons specifically targeting Mongolian children highlight the importance of national unity and ethnic harmony. In Tibet, toddlers are required to march alongside soldiers in Chinese military uniform. Last year, China’s Education Ministry called for “the infiltration of patriotic education into children’s games and daily activities in preschools.”

At the high school level and above, these programs intensify. A uniform set of textbooks has been unveiled, designed to “strengthen the importance of upholding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity” by stressing how Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea are indivisible parts of Chinese territory. Equally key is the universalization of Mandarin Chinese, under the guise of “bilingual education” that will make graduates more competitive. Tens of thousands of Tibetan children have been sent away to residential schools where they are “paired” with Han teachers. On the rare occasions they can see their families, typically two weeks each year, many struggle to communicate in their native tongue.

In Inner Mongolia, the Chinese territory of dunes and prairie approximately four times the size of Arizona and home to 4 million ethnic Mongolians, Mongolian was the chief language of instruction for ethnic schoolchildren in local schools until September. Since then, however, new directives decreed Mandarin Chinese be used for key subjects, prompting parents to engage in rare public protests. Within hours, photos of demonstrators taken from CCTV cameras began circulating on social media with 1,000-yuan ($150) rewards for information. Rights groups say 8,000 to 10,000 local people were arrested. “China is trying to get rid of the Mongolian minority within its borders,” says former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. “That’s unacceptable.”

Graphic by Haisam Hussein for TIME

Elbegdorj is no anti-China hard-liner. During two presidential terms from 2009 to 2017, he met some 30 times with Xi, who in 2015 hailed bilateral relations as their “best ever.” But China’s toughening ethnic policy has driven Elbegdorj to become one of Xi’s harshest critics in a region where few in power dare speak out. Says Elbegdorj: “I fear Mongolians in China will become the next Uighurs.”

It only started in schools. From Jan. 1, Mongolian content on state media has been replaced with Chinese cultural programs that promote a “strong sense of Chinese nationality common identity.” The provincial department of education issued a 47-page internal training pamphlet quoting heavily from Xi’s seminal 2014 speech in Xin-jiang: “The Chinese cannot separate from national minorities, national minorities cannot separate from the Chinese, and national minorities cannot separate from each other either.” One trainee told the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) the pamphlet is “the bible to this new cultural genocide movement, equivalent to Mao’s red book to the Cultural Revolution.”

The slogan “Learn Chinese and become a civilized person” captures the state’s contemptuous view of Mongolian culture—now called “Chinese grassland culture.” At Tsagaan Sar, or Mongolian lunar new year, Peking operas and the high-pitched Chinese suona horn have replaced Mongolian dances and the horse-head fiddle in televised celebrations. “The goal of this policy is very clear: they want to completely eradicate Mongolian language, culture and identity,” says Enghebatu Togochog, director of the SMHRIC.

For those above school age, work enforces assimilation. Farming and herding communities across Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia are being forced to settle in new, fixed and thus monitorable communities. The Xinjiang government’s 2019 Five-Year Plan includes a “labor transfer program” designed to “provide more employment opportunities for the surplus rural labor force.” At least 80,000 Uighurs were removed from Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), noting that birth rates in Xinjiang fell by almost half during the same period, the most extreme drop of any global region in the 71 years of U.N. fertility-data collection, including during genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. In Tibet, 604,000 workers were “transferred” to urban areas during 2020 alone, according to state media. Today, ads on Chinese websites offer factory owners Uighur workers in batches of 50 to 100.

Freedom of religion, long suppressed in China, is now being squeezed to the limit. While Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama has long been reviled by Beijing as a dangerous “splittist,” his image was still displayed discreetly. No longer. The portrait of His Holiness that until recently adorned the main prayer hall at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery has been removed. In its place are dozens of CCTV cameras and a mural urging the Tibetan people to embrace Xi’s “China Dream.”

Under Tibet party chief Wu Yingjie, there’s been a renewed focus on separating “religion from life.” Tibetan society is divided into a “grid system” of five to 10 households, each with a nominated representative responsible for political activities forced to keep track of individuals via an integrated electronic system. Cadres are installed in every monastery or religious institution, while “convenience police posts” at road junctions track the populace. Across Tibet, “transformation through education” facilities targeting monks and nuns for “correction” have produced reports of torture and sexual abuse that mirror testimony from the Xinjiang camps. Inmates are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and learn CCP propaganda by rote in a bid to obliterate memory of a time before party control.

Muslims fare worse. The demolition or “rectification” of mosques and shrines is being ramped up across China, with 16,000 damaged or destroyed in Xinjiang alone, according to the ASPI. Cemeteries have also been bulldozed, leaving bone fragments protruding from the russet earth. In Linxia, Gansu province, a city once nicknamed Little Mecca, the elaborate dome and minarets of Tiejia mosque were demolished last year for seeming too “Arabic,” say locals, and the call to prayer forbidden as a “public nuisance.” Although the elderly can still worship, police bar children from entering the mosque. In the Silk Road oasis town of Hotan, the main mosque has been razed and cabbages now grow in its place. “It’s a wretched thing,” says a passing neighbor.

China insists it is in fact committed to promoting ethnic culture, and says its minorities live better than ever before, with new roads, hospitals and opportunities. But PR is not Beijing’s strong suit; in early January, the Chinese embassy in the U.S. tweeted that Uighur women were “baby-making machines” before “emancipation” by CCP policies, prompting Twitter to suspend its account for dehumanizing content. Anyone who has taken an official trip to a minority region is familiar with the requisite dance performance by awkward locals as smug officials stand by.

March brought the release of a state-produced musical set in Xinjiang (supposedly inspired by the Hollywood movie La La Land) portraying a romantic idyll where pretty girls frolic in meadows and accordion-playing heroes stand atop galloping horses. Completely absent is any reference to Islam or a suffocating security leviathan. In Beijing’s eyes, minorities must fall into neat stereotypes: Uighurs are entertainers, pickpockets and extremists. Tibetans are ruddy-cheeked religious fanatics. Mongolians are backward ger-dwelling nomads. Each, in their own way, are retro-grade and requiring correction. And the party is panacea for all. “You cannot just put a few people dancing in front of the camera and say we are preserving their culture,” says Ilham. “They also showed people dancing and playing games in Nazi camps. Does that mean that crimes against humanity did not happen then?”

Dhondup Wangchen, who was jailed for six years after making a documentary about Tibet, is today exiled in San Francisco
Dhondup Wangchen, who was jailed for six years after making a documentary about Tibet, is today exiled in San FranciscoCarolyn Drake—Magnum Photos for TIME

For a watching world, the question is how to hold China to account for its transgressions while accommodating another reality: its economy props up much of the world’s (and more so with the pandemic).

Action is only beginning. In March, the U.S., E.U., U.K. and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang (and Beijing retaliated in kind). In April, Australia canceled two projects under Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, and Italy is reconsidering its own participation. Growing opposition globally to abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere have spurred calls to boycott everything from Chinese-manufactured goods to Disney’s remake of Mulan. Such moves have elicited petty reprisals from Beijing; after international firms like Nike and H&M took steps to extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang’s cotton market, the latter’s logos were blurred in TV news reports and store locations purged from local map services.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has been asking for access to Xinjiang since 2018. In late February, Beijing said it was discussing a visit, but no plans have been finalized. There is reason for skepticism. The last U.N. rights chief to access Tibet was Mary Robinson in 1998. To date, U.N. experts have at least 19 outstanding visit requests to China. And the pandemic has provided China with a convenient excuse to delay and demur. Hobbled by China’s sway over the world body, democratic nations are finding other ways to act. “The PRC is a totalitarian regime that’s become more internally repressive and more externally aggressive,” says Kevin Andrews, an Australian MP for the center-right Liberal Party and a former Cabinet Minister, who backed a parliamentary motion to condemn China’s abuses in Xinjiang. “Multilateralism has its limitations,” says Andrews, meaning countries are increasingly forming smaller alliances to protest “what’s probably the most egregious example of human-rights abuses on a systematic basis in the world.” The U.K., Australia and Canada have all recently changed visa rules to make it easier for Hong Kong citizens to claim asylum. Meanwhile, the Mongolian diaspora across Australasia, Japan, Europe and North America are uniting to form a World Mongol Congress, says Elbegdorj, “to protect our historical, cultural heritage and Mongolians as human beings” by offering free online courses.

Although President Donald Trump viewed the relationship with China purely through a competitive lens, his successor, President Joe Biden, has made it clear that China’s treatment of minorities will be a central issue in diplomatic relations. To become a world leader, China must “gain the confidence of other countries,” Biden said in February. “As long as they are engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it is going to be hard.”

The U.S. Congress has also made its feelings clear, first by passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, which sanctioned Chinese officials and companies believed to be complicit in abuses. Then the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which makes it U.S. policy to assume all Xinjiang goods are tainted with forced labor unless proven otherwise, unanimously passed the House and is currently in the Senate. “The Chinese government and Communist Party continue to enrich themselves at the expense of Uighurs and other ethnic groups,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio, co-sponsor of both bills, tells TIME. “[I] urge fellow democracies to follow suit with similar legislation.”

U.S. allies are certainly feeling emboldened. In May, the G-7 group of leading economies stated it was “deeply concerned” by human-rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. (China responded by saying it “strongly condemns” any “intervening in China’s internal affairs.”) In June, a final communiqué by leaders of the 30-member NATO alliance said China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”

Dhondup Wangchen wants the world to pick a side. In 2007, as Beijing was preparing to host the Olympics for the first time, he picked up his camera and crisscrossed Tibet, emboldened by the government promises to protect human rights and press freedom that helped secure its bid. Wangchen gathered 40 hours of interview footage from 108 Tibetans discussing the upcoming Games, the Dalai Lama, political persecution and Han migration. The 24-minute film he produced, Leaving Fear Behind, landed him six years in a squalid prison, where he was “tortured day and night and kept in solitary confinement for over 86 days,” he tells TIME from exile in San Francisco. “China broke every one of its promises.”

Today, Beijing is preparing to host the Olympics once again, further burnishing its image, though this time on its own terms. China no longer makes pledges to respect human rights according to international definitions, and secured the Winter Games without vowing to protect its minorities. Wangchen says any country participating at Beijing 2022 “will further embolden the CCP to commit all kinds of crimes against humanity without any consequences or accountability.”

The disconnect between ideals and reality grows only more stark. In late 2020, a Pew Research report found that majorities in all 14 countries surveyed across Europe, North America and East Asia had a negative view of China. Meanwhile, speaking at a study session for top CCP cadres on May 31, Xi emphasized the importance of presenting the image of a “credible, lovable and respectable China” that wants “nothing but the Chinese people’s well-being.” The irony, of course, is that document after document, testimony after testimony, indicates that the repression is ordered by Xi himself.

“In the camp, guards openly said it was Xi Jinping’s policy,” says Auelkhan. “We had to publicly thank him for everything.”

With reporting by Madeline Roache/London

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Write to CHARLIE CAMPBELL/SHANGHAI at charlie.campbell@time.com