China's Oppression of the Uighurs 'The Equivalent of Cultural Genocide'

German anthropologist Adrian Zenz was instrumental in uncovering the extent of China's oppression of its Muslim Uighur minority. In an interview, he criticizes Western inaction and warns that China has already begun exporting its tools of oppression.

Men pass by surveillance cameras in Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
GILLES SABRIE / NYT / REDUX / LAIF

Men pass by surveillance cameras in Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Interview Conducted by


China's diplomats refrain from uttering his name in public, even though many of them are confronted with his work on an almost daily basis. An anthropologist from Germany, Adrian Zenz, 45, has almost singlehandedly triggered a debate that is proving to be a challenge for the Chinese leadership. He has done extensive research into Beijing's repression of the country's Muslim minority Uighur population and has shed light on the system of internment and reeducation camps that China has set up in the western part of the country. According to Zenz, over a million Muslims have been locked away in these camps -- without trial.

What makes Zenz's research so challenging for Beijing is that he works with Chinese government documents and shares his results with international organizations, with the governments of Canada and the U.S. and with the United Nations. "That may explain," he says, "why China's government has never criticized me or my research directly. They essentially have no way of discrediting my sources."

Zenz wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about China's policies regarding the Tibetan ethnic minority and until recently, he taught at the European School of Culture and Theology, a Christian educational facility in Stuttgart. He moved to the U.S. last summer and is a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.

DER SPIEGEL: Dr. Zenz, according to your findings, up to 1.5 million people are being held in Chinese internment and reeducation camps, with most of them belonging to the Uighur minority. How did you arrive at this number?

Zenz: Chinese government documents suggest that it is at least 1 million. From a strictly scientific perspective, this number is speculative because there are no independently confirmable statistics. But I examined publicly available information, such as job advertisements along with construction and budget plans. If you take everything together, this number approaches the truth.

DER SPIEGEL: The New York Times just recently published additional internal documentation that confirmed many of the details of your research.

Zenz: That information is extremely important. It shows that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered the government to take an even harder line than before in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. It is possible that the internment campaign seen in recent years is entirely his doing. At the very least, he pushed it forward and approved it. We had already assumed that Xi was directly responsible for Beijing's policies in Xinjiang, but the contents of these papers have to have consequences for Xi, also from an historical perspective.

DER SPIEGEL: The documents appear to suggest a source within the apparatus. What conclusions can you draw from that?

Zenz: The official who leaked the material wanted to ensure that Xi and others in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could not shirk their responsibility. That shows that there is stronger opposition in the government to these human rights violations than was previously known. The official has taken an enormously high personal risk, which also indicates that he sees the situation as being extremely serious.

DER SPIEGEL: China's government recently claimed that the number of people being held is on the decline. Is that true?

Zenz: Officially, Beijing only speaks of so-called "vocational training centers." Recently, there has been a tendency to remove the "hard cases" from the internment camps and send them to prisons, with the less serious cases being sent to the vocational training centers, which is essentially forced labor. When the government now says that many have been "released," that could also mean that the internment camp inmate in question is still locked in the same cell as before, but instead of being sent to the classroom, he is sent to a factory instead.

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DER SPIEGEL: What is the Chinese government trying to achieve with its camp system?

Zenz: It's not just about the camp system. Beijing has the long-term plan of suppressing an entire society. The people in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, particularly the ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs, are being subjugated by a system of social control that, beyond the forced education and forced labor in the camps, has a deep impact on people's lives down to the village, and even household, level. Even after a person is released from a camp, it is nothing but a release into a condition of helplessness inside an open-air prison. Everyone who has spent time in a camp knows that their families won't be free for generations to come, that once they become parents, they won't be able to speak freely with their children because they will be forced to share everything with their teachers. It is a perfidious, all-encompassing concept of social control that is the equivalent of cultural genocide.

DER SPIEGEL: The government says that social control is a legitimate means in the fight against terrorism.

Zenz: There have been instances of Uighurs perpetrating violence. People have been killed with brutal methods. Islamist radicalization has taken place within fringe groups. But if a Muslim man in Germany goes after people with an ax, for example, the state can't simply criminalize all Muslims, throw them into camps and separate parents from their children. If that were to happen, we would have a police state. And it would provide a huge boost to the process of radicalization.

DER SPIEGEL: China's government points to several serious attacks that have taken place or been planned in Xinjiang.

Adrian Zenz has spent years researching China's handling of its ethnic minorities.
Sonja Och/ DER SPIEGEL

Adrian Zenz has spent years researching China's handling of its ethnic minorities.

Zenz: The propensity for violence has increased significantly since 2009, and you have to realize that Beijing became active primarily after the attacks on Tiananmen Square and in Kunming.

DER SPIEGEL: In 2013, a car sped into a group of people in Beijing, while in 2014, armed attackers in Kunming killed 31 people and injured 143 more. Both attacks were attributed to militant Uighur groups.

Zenz: The Chinese people expect their government to protect them from such attacks. But the state has struck back with such force that even people are being oppressed who not only didn't do anything wrong, but who were examples of successful integration. We're talking about Uighurs who speak fluent Chinese and who even felt Chinese to a certain degree. Many minorities that had never aspired to independence are so shocked by the magnitude and horrors of the camp system that they now say: If we want to survive, we need independence.

DER SPIEGEL: Are we seeing a repeat of radicalization patterns in China that we have become familiar with in places like the Middle East and Chechnya?

DER SPIEGEL

Zenz: That danger exists. People who already tended toward radicalization are now definitely heading in that direction. And for many others, the excessive repression has shaken any faith they had in the state. For them, the only alternative remaining seems to be the complete dedication to their own culture and religion.

DER SPIEGEL: Thus far, almost no state has managed to overcome religiously motivated resistance by relying solely on repression. Yet no state has ever had the surveillance tools that China has at its disposal. Is it possible that China will ultimately succeed in stripping the Uighurs of their religion and culture?

Zenz: It is theoretically possible, but there are two problems from a practical point of view. One is the hundreds of thousands of people who have already spent time in the camps and experienced trauma to their core identities. These people can't even give expression to their trauma because they are constantly under surveillance. Their conversations are being listened to and the police are examining their mobile phones during routine checks. They have no way out, and that turns them into potential living time bombs.

DER SPIEGEL: And the second problem?

Uighur men leaving a mosque after prayers in Xinjiang in May
Greg Baker/ AFP/ Getty Images

Uighur men leaving a mosque after prayers in Xinjiang in May

Zenz: The next generation. Since 2017, many Uighur children have been educated in state-run boarding schools, where they are required to speak Chinese and not allowed to observe religious customs. Many of them are separated from their parents. The children can feel, of course, that they are different. That leads to an unavoidable question: If I'm not exactly like the Chinese, then who am I? And the question "Who am I?" is the most powerful question that humans can ask. Sooner or later, many will ask this question and figure out what happened to them.

DER SPIEGEL: And that is why the assimilation of the Uighurs will fail?

Zenz: The Chinese have assimilated other peoples already -- including, ironically, their own occupiers on occasion. But those assimilations followed a different pattern than what is now happening in Xinjiang: They weren't imposed from above. Instead, the allure of the Chinese culture and language proved an attraction to other peoples. That was even true at the very edges of Chinese settlement areas, where Tibetans freely assimilated over the course of several generations because there were advantages to doing so. Even a little more than 10 years ago, when I was conducting my research, many pragmatic Tibetans would say: What good is it to be fluent in Tibetan if I'm unable to find a job without speaking good Chinese?

DER SPIEGEL: Why didn't China's strategy work in Xinjiang?

Zenz: Because Beijing's approach to governing Xinjiang has been overly heavy-handed without differentiating felt needs. Already under Mao Zedong, major mistakes were made, and draconian policies were applied; entire villages were forced to eat pork. Chinese-style communism, indeed communism in general, commonly relies on a system of reeducation through propaganda. And if that doesn't work, then it turns to harsher measures, such as reeducation camps. The communist regime actually has no other tools at its disposable to reach its goals than reeducation.

DER SPIEGEL: The developments in Xinjiang, in other words, are a consequence of communist ideology?

Zenz: Correct. The importance of ideology has long been underappreciated, which is why many are now surprised by the actions taken by the current regime. I'm not surprised and consider the measures to be ideologically consistent. Ideology may not be the most fundamental force driving human action. That would be fear and self-preservation, and the Chinese Communist Party, at its core, is driven by a fear of losing power. But ideology helps us understand the path that the CCP takes toward self-preservation: namely reeducation, oppression, atheism and forced labor.

The watchtower of a facility thought to be near a reeducation camp in Xinjiang.
Greg Baker/ AFP/ Getty Images

The watchtower of a facility thought to be near a reeducation camp in Xinjiang.

DER SPIEGEL: You have described China's policies in Xinjiang as a kind of "Cultural Revolution 2.0." What is the basis for comparing what is currently happening with the Cultural Revolution, Mao's 1960s campaign?

Zenz: It represents the same attempt at imposing an ideology with violence. Due to the technological tools available, it is being instituted in a much more systematic and refined way, but the methods are comparable. People are being arrested on the flimsiest of suspicions and huge groups of people are being criminalized collectively -- not just individuals, but entire sections of the population.

DER SPIEGEL: But the Cultural Revolution had something rebellious about it. It was a movement against the establishment of the party and against state authority. In Xinjiang, by contrast, it is the state itself that is imposing its will.

Zenz: Yes, but the effect is the same. During the Cultural Revolution as well, people were locked up without any court proceedings whatsoever. Anyone in Xinjiang who engages in any type of religious practice, anyone who even has a single Koran verse saved on their mobile phone, will be subjected to a brutal process of reeducation without trial. And just like in the Cultural Revolution, the goal is the creation of a new society.

DER SPIEGEL: Is China any different in this regard than other countries that discriminate against minorities, such as Turkey does with the Kurds, for example, or Sunni Saudi Arabia does with its Shiite population?

Zenz: Not fundamentally, no. But the Chinese regime is pursuing an even stronger tendency toward colonizing. China still sees itself traditionally as the Middle Kingdom, as a highly developed culture that gradually assimilates the minorities in its surroundings. The CCP is also infused with this notion, and it is one they seek to take advantage of. The tendency to look down on other peoples -- one that is also, of course, present in other countries -- is extremely pronounced in China. In combination with Beijing's economic and technological strength, this Chinese ethnocentrism is becoming increasingly problematic, even beyond Xinjiang.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your explanation for the silence of the Muslim world? Muslim organizations and governments are otherwise quite vocal when it comes to the discrimination of Muslims. But on the issue of Xinjiang, they have mostly been silent.

Zenz: The governments of Muslim countries are often themselves authoritarian and have their own challenges with their ethnic and religious minorities. Externally, they may espouse values like freedom of religion, but in reality, their highest priority is holding onto power -- just as it is for the Chinese government. That is the reason why these governments sell out the Uighurs. In China, they have a partner that supports their own authoritarian model. In a cynical way, they and the atheist government in Beijing are natural allies.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that other authoritarian regimes will one day reach for the same surveillance tools that China is now using against its minorities?

Zenz: China is already actively exporting these technologies. The network supplier Huawei has already helped African countries spy on and arrest opposition activists and dissidents. In Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese surveillance technology was recently installed that can recognized faces and license plate numbers. In Uzbekistan and Serbia, Huawei is setting up the same kind of technology that is already in operation in Xinjiang. The experience gained by oppressing the Uighurs is being transformed into a business advantage. The surveillance systems are being promoted with names like "Safe City," or "Smart City" or "Harmonious Society." The focus is on organizing cities more efficiently, but these concepts also have a strong surveillance component. China, in other words, is already in the process of outfitting authoritarian regimes around the world with such surveillance capabilities.

DER SPIEGEL: The West, of course, is also in possession of surveillance tools. What's the difference?

Zenz: The difference is that we in the West openly and critically debate the methods used by the state and their effect on individual rights. There is no such debate in China. The state has a monopoly on both power and data. In the West, there is a kind of oligopoly, with private companies like Google and Facebook possessing huge amounts of data. But the state is unable to access it at will, at least not without triggering a critical debate, as the example of Edward Snowden shows. These debates have consequences: This spring in San Francisco, for example, the authorities banned the use of facial recognition technology.

DER SPIEGEL: You spent years teaching and conducting research in Germany. Now, you have moved to the United States. Why?

Zenz: I had started feeling a bit isolated with my research focus in Germany. One particularly tragic aspect of the Xinjiang story is that over a million people are locked away in camps and the world seems to just keep turning as if nothing untoward was happening. In the U.S., Xinjiang is being watched much more attentively. In many European countries, China only hits the headlines when our economies are at stake.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you not worried that your research could be used for political purposes in the U.S? After all, Washington sees China as a geopolitical rival.

Zenz: I have contact with representatives of the U.S. government and I appreciate their efforts on behalf of freedom of religion. At human rights organizations, religious freedom is often in the shadow of press freedoms and freedom of opinion and is sometimes ignored entirely. Elements within the U.S. government have done all they can to support the Uighurs, to no advantage of their own. I see others, though -- like the president -- as opportunists who don't really care how the Uighurs are doing.

DER SPIEGEL: A group of Senators and Representatives is pushing for the White House to slap entry bans on those responsible for the Xinjiang policy and to freeze their assets in the U.S., if they have any. Do you believe Germany and Europe should do the same?

Zenz: Yes, I do. Not because of the financial or economic consequences of such measures, but because of the political message it would send: What is happening to the Uighurs is a crime against humanity. China's government would, of course, react strongly to such measures, just as they have struck back against the results of my research. But they would understand the message. For as long as our efforts to defend our values cost us nothing, they mean nothing to China's government. China is a culture in which talk is cheap.

DER SPIEGEL: Dr. Zenz, thank you very much for this interview.

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