Securitisation and Mass Detentions in Xinjiang by Rachel Harris, SOAS University of London

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China is home to some 12 million indigenous Turkic speaking Muslims, primarily Uyghurs but also smaller numbers of Kazakhs and others. It is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world. Inhabitants are controlled and monitored to an extraordinary degree and detained in extraordinary numbers. These extreme policies are justified by the claim that China is fighting Islamic radicalisation and extremism.

Map of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, northwest China

Throughout the 1990s China pursued a series of “strike hard” campaigns against what it then called Uyghur “separatism”. “Separatist incidents” at this time took in a wide range of activities from instances of local unrest to attempts to promote Uyghur autonomy, or even promote Uyghur cultural identity. Soon after the September 11 attacks on the United States, China began to explain incidences of unrest or random violence in Xinjiang, which previously were termed “separatism,” as premeditated terrorist attacks spurred by religious extremism. To what degree can these government claims be justified?

Since the 1980s, we have seen a rise in Islamic piety in Xinjiang (Smith Finley 2013; Harris 2015), very similar in form, and closely related to the revival elsewhere in Central Asia, and more broadly a part of the global Islamic revival. It primarily took the form of a steady rise in piety: building new community mosques, growing numbers of people adopting daily prayer, fasting and forms of Islamic dress, and many debates about how to be a good Muslim.

China’s increasingly severe policies towards Islam after 2001 produced a downward spiral of repression, which provoked violent incidents, which provoked further repression. By 2014 this cycle of violence had escalated to the point that some Uyghur-initiated acts of violence began looking increasingly like planned terrorist attacks. 2014 saw the killing of thirty-three people with knives by a band of masked Uyghurs in a train station in Kunming, and the bombing of the Urumqi station that killed forty-three. In response, the Chinese government declared a ‘Peoples War on Terror’ (Roberts 2018).

In my view, it is China’s concerns about this broad based Islamic revival that have motivated the current heavy securitization of the region. Its so-called anti-terror policies are not targeted at small groups potentially vulnerable to extremism, but at all forms of religious expression. The ‘People’s War on Terror’ is directly linked to Xi Jinping’s wider moves to establish his personal authority, and to demonstrate absolute control over this key strategic region, in order to ensure the success of the flagship ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (Clarke 2017).

An entry in a “peasant art competition” illustrating Xi Jinping’s 2014 call for the Uyghur masses to slaughter terrorists and extremists like vermin.

New counter-terrorism legislation introduced in 2015 defined “terrorism” in a way that criminalized virtually any Uyghur expression of dissent or religiosity, as signs of religious extremism and terrorism. It introduced extensive powers of surveillance and censorship, especially regarding Internet and social media communications. It curtailed Uyghur mobility; Uyghurs were required to apply for a ‘convenience card’ if they wish to leave their hometown. It criminalized the wearing of veils and growing beards, and other everyday religious practices including daily prayer, fasting, and halal eating practices.

Propaganda mural: “Discriminating against those who do not fast by not eating the food they prepare is a form of religious extremism.” (Living Otherwise)

In 2016 Chen Quanguo – formerly Party Secretary in Tibet – was appointed as Party Secretary in Xinjiang. Following his arrival we saw an extraordinary rise in security measures, and a clear policy of racial profiling of Uyghurs. In this period we have seen the widening out of the “anti extremism campaign” to include not just religious people but many prominent writers, artists and academics who were either too active in promoting Uyghur culture, or had too many foreign connections.

Under Chen, Uyghurs have been effectively quarantined from the outside world – people have had their passports confiscated, and by 2017, even receiving a phone call from a family member living outside China has also become an offence punishable by detention in a re-education camp. Chen introduced “grid-style social management involving extraordinarily high levels of policing, and many new recruits. Thousands of new “convenience police stations” were rolled out on Xinjiang’s streets to play a critical role in the surveillance.

“Grid-style social management”: a new “convenience” police station

 There are now numerous checkpoints on the roads, at train and bus stations and inside towns and cities. These checkpoints come complete with metal detectors and facial recognition or iris scan machines. We know from independent observers that only Uyghurs are required to pass through these scanners; Han Chinese citizens pass through a separate gate. In some areas cars must be equipped with GPS trackers. Kitchen knives are etched with serial numbers that are linked to the ID number of the purchaser. Human Rights Watch has reported on the development of a biological database to assist in tracking Uyghurs, and on compulsory collecting of DNA samples.

Uyghurs queue at a checkpoint in Khotan beneath a giant TV image of Xi Jinping

 There is also plenty of low-tech surveillance. Local people are mobilised in counter-terrorism exercises, which involve marching around the streets with big sticks. There are rewards for information: five million RMB for information on actual planned terrorist attacks, 2000 RMB for reporting face coverings or beards. Over 10,000 teams of visiting officials descended on Uyghur rural households in 2017. This was part of what was framed as the “Becoming Family” policy. It involved home stays with Uyghur families by Han “relatives” who were required to report on “extremist” behaviour by their hosts, such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan, and possessing “undesirable” items like Qur’ans.

A counter terrorism drill in a southern town in Xinjiang

 As if they were not sufficiently exhausted by all these security measures, Uyghurs are regularly mobilised to participate in mass activities: celebrations of Chinese culture, singing revolutionary songs and dancing to counter extremism.

Singing Red Songs to counter religious extremism

The Re-education Camps

 The consequence of non-compliance in these activities is incarceration in the network of detention camps or “re-education centres” that have sprung up around the region. While estimates of the numbers of people detained is speculative, the available evidence suggests that more than 10% of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority population – Uyghur, Kazakhs and others – a total of over one million people, have been interned in political re-education facilities.

China has only recently acknowledged the existence of these camps under heavy pressure from western media. In response to questions raised by a UN committee in August 2018, it issued rebuttals concerning the scope and aims of the camps. However there is mounting, incontrovertible evidence concerning the numbers of people being detained in the camps, and the methods of re-education being used there.

Adrian Zenz has unearthed a substantial body of government sources, showing a huge spike in government procurement and construction bids in Spring 2017 valued at around RMB 680 million. They indicate both the construction of new facilities as well as upgrades and enlargements of existing re-education facilities, whose compound sizes range between 10,000 and 82,000sqm. Many bids mandate the installation of comprehensive security features including barbed wire fences, reinforced security doors and windows, surveillance systems, watchtowers, and guardrooms.

“Re-education” methods

From interviews with the few people who have been released from these camps, and people employed as instructors in the camps, we know that detainees wake before dawn, sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag. Instructors lecture them about the dangers of Islam, and internees are tested and punished if they fail to provide the correct answers.

Forced repetition and self-criticism are central to the re-education program. Before meals, inmates chant, “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi,” and sing revolutionary songs such as “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China.” They are required to present self-criticism, and submit to criticism by their fellows. They must apologize repeatedly for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Qur’an to their children. Those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.

Testimonies hint at the psychological trauma inflicted on detainees. Reports also attest to the trauma suffered by the wider Uyghur population, both within Xinjiang and in the diaspora. We know that Uyghurs within Xinjiang are struggling to maintain daily life with over 10% of the workforce in detention. Many children have been sent to state orphanages because both their parents have been detained. Uyghurs living outside Xinjiang are suffering from crippling anxiety and guilt: they risk detention for their relatives if they try to contact them, and they fear worse consequences for their detained relatives if they speak out.

Individuals known to have been detained

  • Professional football player Erfan Hezim detained in 2017
  • Prominent religious scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, 82, died in custody, January 2018
  • Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Teyip detained in 2017, accused as a “two-faced” official, insufficiently loyal to the state
  • Xinjiang University Professor Rahile Dawut detained in 2017, possibly in connection with her ethnographic research on Uyghur religious culture
  • Uyghur writer and Xinjiang Normal University Professor Abduqadir Jalaleddin, detained in January 2018
  • Elenur Eqilahun, detained in 2017, possibly for receiving calls from her daughter who is studying abroad
  • Pop star Ablajan Ayup, detained in February 2018, possibly for singing about Uyghur language education
  • Halmurat Ghopur, Vice Provost of Xinjiang Medical Institute, detained in 2017for exhibiting “nationalistic tendencies.”
Pop video by Ablajan Ayup, “Dear Teacher” (Soyumlik Muellim)

This short list of prominent Uyghur intellectuals, artists and athletes who we know have been detained is only the tip of the iceberg, but it demonstrates that the scope of the campaign has gone well beyond the religious sphere. Current policies seek to quarantine Uyghurs from any foreign contacts, they target individuals who have promoted Uyghur language or culture, and people who resist, or are insufficiently enthusiastic about, the campaign. It suggests that the anti-“terror” campaign is being used as part of a wider set of policies – including the so-called “bilingual education” policy which has banned the use of Uyghur language in schools and higher education – which are designed to break down ethnic identity and affiliation, and absorb minority nationalities into the wider Chinese nation (zhonghua minzu).

It also suggests that Turkic-speaking Muslim minority peoples are now collectively regarded as a threat to China’s national security. As one official from Kashgar reportedly said at a public meeting, “you can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one – you need to spray chemicals to kill them all; re-educating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops …  that is why it is a general re-education, not limited to a few people.”

Further resources:


Blogs/web articles:

‘The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia”

“Sounding Islam in China”

How Should the World Respond to Intensifying Repression in Xinjiang? A ChinaFile Conversation. June 4, 2018.

Recent Journal articles:

Mark Elliott. 2015. “The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate Over a “Second-Generation” Ethnic Policy,” The China Journal, 73: 186-213.

Rachel Harris. 2015. “The Changing Uyghur Religious Soundscape.” Performing Islam, 3: 93-114.

James Leibold & Timothy A. Grose. 2016. “Veiling in Xinjiang: The Struggle to Define Uyghur Female Adornment.” The China Journal, 76: 78-102.

Sean R. Roberts. 2018. “The biopolitics of China’s “war on terror” and the exclusion of the Uyghurs.” Critical Asian Studies, 50/2: 232-258.

Adrian Zenz (2018) ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang, Central Asian Survey, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997

Joanne Smith Finley (ed). Special Issue on Securitization in Xinjiang. Central Asian Survey, forthcoming.

Book Chapters:

Bellér-Hann, Ildikó, The Bulldozer State: Chinese Socialist Development in Xinjiang, in Madeleine Reeves, Johan Rasanayagam, and Judith Beyer (eds.), Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia: Performing Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), pp. 173-197.


Bovingdon, Gardner. The Uyghurs: Strangers in their own land. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Brox, Trine, and Ildikó Bellér-Hann, eds. On the Fringes of the Harmonious Society: Tibetans and Uyghurs in Socialist China. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2014.

Smith Finley, Joanne, The Art of Symbolic Resistance: Uyghur Identities and Uyghur-Han Relations in Contemporary Xinjiang (Leiden: Brill. 2013).


Huang, Cindy, Muslim Women at a Crossroads: Gender and Development in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (UC Berkeley, 2009).

Steenberg, Rune Reyhé, Uyghur Marriage in Kashgar. Muslim Marriage in China (Freien Universität Berlin, 2013).