Why the Chinese Frontier Matters

A guard watchtower along the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a “vocational skills education center” in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 4, 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Remote Xinjiang Province is now at the center of the West’s moral quandaries.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T here was something sickening for viewers who saw the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom being interviewed on one of that nation’s Sunday-morning political-chat shows. The United Kingdom has made moves, as other European countries have, to build a 5G cellular network without the help of the Chinese state-backed company Huawei. The host, Andrew Marr, showed a video, taken by drone, of hundreds of blindfolded and manacled prisoners, presumably ethnic Uighurs, lined up before train cars in Xinjiang Province. No educated viewer could look at this footage and not think of the clattering train cars of WWII, loaded in Germany, Romania, and Hungary, feeding into the death camps.

Asked about the images he was being shown, the Chinese ambassador practically shrugged, noting that he did not know what was being depicted or where the video came from. And, he added, states have to transfer prisoners, don’t they?

Also, as the week began, Josh Hawley responded to reports that Uighurs were being transported to factories in eastern China by introducing legislation requiring American companies that manufacture in China to provide certification that their companies and their contractors are not using enslaved Uighurs as laborers, or face enormous fines.

Until recently, the territory in Xinjiang Province hasn’t been securely under Beijing’s control. In fact, the emergence of the name Xinjiang, to replace the English name of the territory, Sinkiang, is evidence of the changed status. It’s largest city, Urumchi is almost 2,000 miles away from the capital and functions more like a Chinese frontier, or a Chinese Siberia. In fact, the province, like Tibet, is designated as an autonomous region. To Westerners, this region, if known at all, is one of the dustier and more exotic and lonesome detours along the ancient Silk Road trading routes, a series of run-down, mysterious, but traditional trading towns strung between the Gobi Desert and Kabul.

Almost no place on earth could seem further from core American interests. And, consequently, it has been difficult to draw any political attention to this section of China. The traditional way of life in Kashgar seems almost centuries removed from the modern liberal Hong Kongers who are at a physical, social, and financial nexus of globalization.

Though Xinjiang was an ancient place even in the Middle Ages, there is a history even in the 20th century of revolt and attempts at independent government. Dreams of founding or re-founding East Turkestan or Oriental Turkistan or Uighuristan still haunt some of the exiled men and women of this region, though each of these names is either loaned from the Soviets or too narrow to capture the whole population of non-Han Chinese people who have been living there. This includes other Turkic Muslim peoples such as the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, many of whom have ethnic or even tribal ties that cross borders into neighboring Eurasian states, or the Tajiks whose affinity runs to Iran and Afghanistan.

The Chinese have only recently begun to squeeze the resources of natural gas and coal from this area. And as the Chinese state has induced millions of ethnic Han Chinese to relocate to this internal frontier for that effort, they disturbed the old Islamic way of life with new development, importing Han Chinese culture and the firm hand of Communist political direction. Locals began to resist, some of them violently.

The “terror” attacks have consisted of little more than race riots and stabbings, but a few vehicle attacks as well. Over a decade ago, the conservative essayist Peter Hitchens described a “voluntary apartheid” — punctuated by violence — setting itself up in these cities. Incredibly intrusive security measures were introduced to the region. And in the past three years, observers have seen enormous concentration camps built in the area. A few brave journalists have seen what the “reeducation” looks like. And now survivors of these camps testify that the women in them were often sterilized. China was not just moving in for the resources, they were ethnically cleansing the region.

This kind of tyranny moves this obscure and largely unknown region into the center of things. The U.S. is not and never should try to be the custodian of these ancient and venerable peoples. But we do have to be true to ourselves.

The concentration camps of the Third Reich were dismantled at the end of a global war. The Soviets running the Gulag were subjected to an effective economic blockade from Western democracies. The entire moral authority of Western intellectuals was built on anti-totalitarianism, the opposition to genocide, and the championing of human rights.

The left-wing intellectuals who would police local companies for the verbal slip-ups known as “micro-aggressions” cannot maintain the moral authority to do so if they are tweeting on phones or networks implicated in modern slavery and ethnic cleansing. They can’t criticize supposed democratic backsliders in Central Europe while remaining mum on one of our largest trading partners getting into the train-car and camp business. They can’t in good conscience promote anti-racism on a social network controlled and monitored by the most actively racist government on planet Earth. Even the Left, so accustomed to viewing their own nations as the most malignant feature of the global order, will have to question whether they really believe in human rights. They can’t argue for boycotting and divesting in states in the Middle East, unless they face this.

The attempt to place modern slaves in the supply chain of Western luxury goods is an attempt to implicate and morally geld Western nations who would criticize or punish the Chinese Communist Party for its crimes. China’s mercantile policy has always been aimed at making resistance to the Chinese Communist Party’s political tutelage cost something financially. Soviet Communism tried to overwhelm the West with political will, ruthlessness, and brain power. China’s innovation is to seduce and infantilize the West by playing the capitalist game. We can either make costly adjustments in trade policy, or we can face a future with a leadership class that has found itself at first financially compromised, then morally compromised — and heading into Xi’s arms bankrupted in every way.

Most Popular

Film & TV

Laughing at Beyoncé’s Absolute Monarchy

Back in the Nineties, when hip-hop zealots questioned the intelligence of Beyoncé songs like Destiny’s Child’s careerist anthem “Survivor” and the sex-as-junk-food hit “Bootylicious,” there was little regard for the female agency that she now channels into an intersectional act, trading on gender and ... Read More
Film & TV

Laughing at Beyoncé’s Absolute Monarchy

Back in the Nineties, when hip-hop zealots questioned the intelligence of Beyoncé songs like Destiny’s Child’s careerist anthem “Survivor” and the sex-as-junk-food hit “Bootylicious,” there was little regard for the female agency that she now channels into an intersectional act, trading on gender and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The World’s Worst Idea

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a little book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. When Regnery asked me to write the book, I was happy to do it but wondered whether a book on socialism, a brief conspectus of its grotesque failures, would be necessary or useful. I wondered why anybody would be ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The World’s Worst Idea

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a little book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. When Regnery asked me to write the book, I was happy to do it but wondered whether a book on socialism, a brief conspectus of its grotesque failures, would be necessary or useful. I wondered why anybody would be ... Read More