Repression in Xi’s China

Repression in Xi’s China

The tightening of state control over Hong Kong and Xinjiang reveal a consolidation of authority in Xi’s CCP, intent on stifling any signs of nonconformity.

Hong Kong democracy activists on September 1, 2020, outside the Foreign Office in Berlin (Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)

Hong Kong in Revolt: The Protest Movement and the Future of China
by Au Loong-Yu
Pluto Press, 2020, 224 pp.

The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority
by Sean R. Roberts
Princeton University Press, 2020, 328 pp.

In Hong Kong in Revolt, labor organizer Au Loong-Yu analyzes the protests that rocked the city in 2019. The participants were pushing back against the politically motivated disqualification of pro-democracy legislators, the imprisonment of nonviolent activists on trumped-up charges, and other oppressive moves by the Hong Kong authorities, who represent local moneyed interests and take their cues from Beijing leaders who increasingly act like heads of an empire. Au sees both anti-capitalist and anti-colonial dimensions to the 2019 protests, although he argues that activists should have been less focused on what sets Hong Kong residents apart from those living in mainland urban centers and more interested in using shared working-class grievances as a basis for building border-spanning solidarity.

The War on the Uyghurs, by anthropologist Sean R. Roberts, who directs the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University, focuses on repression rather than resistance. Roberts makes a compelling case for seeing the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Xinjiang, where many members of the largely Muslim local population are now detained in camps, as constituting a horrific crime against humanity.

Read together, these books show how the political conditions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, often treated separately, are linked.

The 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong was the biggest sustained social movement to take place in any part of the People’s Republic of China since the Tiananmen upheaval of 1989. Last year’s protest wave lasted even longer, involved more people, and saw both more protester militancy and more police brutality. Most participants in the 2019 struggle—which began as a fight to block an extradition bill that would undermine the rule of law in the city but expanded to a broader fight to protect local freedoms—stuck to nonviolent tactics. Some activists defaced property and hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks, but much more violence came in the other direction. There was no 1989-style massacre, but over 10,000 demonstrators were arrested in 2019 and 2020. The call to investigate the police became a key protest demand. There was widespread alarm at the injuries suffered by protesters, journalists, and bystanders, and anger about how much tear gas the police deployed, including in indoor spaces like shopping malls. Around a million people marched in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019, and by some estimates 2 million came out the following week.

In Xinjiang, by contrast, at least a million people have disappeared into a vast network of extrajudicial facilities. The astounding scope of these detention camps has been documented by NGO workers, journalists, think tank researchers, and scholars using satellite images, interviews with Uyghurs and Kazakhs, and government documents that detail construction plans and the hiring of guards. The CCP initially denied there were camps, then insisted they were benign sites for vocational training. Above all, they presented population relocations in Xinjiang as efforts to rid the region of those with extremist views, even though university administrators, anthropologists, poets, and highly trained professionals with no history of expressing radical views have been among those interned.

Those held in these gulags are overwhelmingly Muslim Uyghurs. Roberts describes this as a campaign of “cultural genocide.” The goal seems to be to eliminate Uyghurs as a distinctive ethnic population. There have been reports of forced sterilizations of Uyghur women, destruction of Uyghur shrines and graveyards, limits on the use of the Uyghur language, forced labor programs, and the removal of Uyghur children to guarded “schools” far away from their parents.

Hong Kong and Xinjiang are strikingly dissimilar settings. Xinjiang, in the northwestern corner of the PRC, is a massive arid territory more than twice the size of Texas. Hong Kong is in the southeast, rainy, and less than half the size of Rhode Island. One of Xinjiang’s urban centers is further from an ocean than any other city in the world, while Hong Kong is made up largely of ports and islands. Xinjiang has few people per square mile, while Hong Kong is densely populated. Many of Xinjiang’s residents speak Turkic languages and belong to Turkic ethnic groups—not just the Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tatars, and Uzbeks. In Hong Kong, there are locals who feel at home in a variety of languages, including English, and have forebears from places ranging from Mumbai to Manchester, but the majority of the populace are Cantonese speakers of Chinese descent.

Hong Kong was also distinctive for its relative political autonomy. When Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the PRC in 1997, locals were promised that, compared to any mainland city, their press would be freer, it would be easier to hold protests, and courts would be more independent. They were also promised that there would be free elections for many seats in the local legislature, though some would be set aside for candidates likely to serve Beijing’s interests, and that eventually they would be able to choose the most powerful official in the city, the chief executive. From the start Beijing and its local proxies have been undermining these promises and working to limit the freedoms that Hong Kong’s people enjoyed. Especially during the first decade after the Handover, however, Hong Kong was by far the most autonomous part of the PRC.

Despite these differences, the PRC has tightened control over both Hong Kong and Xinjiang in recent years, reflecting the CCP’s aim, particularly since Xi Jinping became general secretary in 2012, of cultural homogenization. The methods used against those who challenge this vision vary from region to region, but in Xi’s China all forms of cultural difference are suspect. The camp system in Xinjiang is extrajudicial. In Hong Kong, by contrast, those taken off the streets have generally been able to consult with lawyers and have their day in court—although not always, as with the twelve people from Hong Kong who were seized while trying to escape to Taiwan and are now being held incommunicado in Shenzhen. In Xinjiang, authorities interpret beards as a sign of religiosity and evidence of radicalization and potential terrorist inclinations, while singing a banned song, or simply being a youth on the streets wearing black (the favored clothing of young militants during the 2019 protests), can get you into trouble in Hong Kong. These efforts to stifle even small signs of nonconformity reflect a new consolidation of authority under Xi’s CCP.

The War on the Uyghurs is an academic book; Roberts makes it clear that he hopes it will aid efforts to raise awareness about an appalling situation, but it is presented as part of a debate among scholars. Roberts did fieldwork in Xinjiang early in his career but has been blocked from going to the PRC for decades. His analysis is based on close readings of documents and extended interviews with former residents of Xinjiang who now live outside of it.

Au writes in a more unapologetically activist vein, with a lively but occasionally hectoring style. He is less interested in the overall academic and popular literature on Hong Kong, and the arguments showcased in his book are not those between researchers but between rival wings of the resistance. Au, who is based in Hong Kong, peppers his analysis with observations of protests he attended and conversations he had on the streets. He also slips in some optimistic comments, which I do not find completely convincing, about how the pandemic and other recent events have “exposed the internal weakness” of the “mighty party-state” headed by Xi, opening up possibilities for future efforts to resist. (He finished his book before some recent and disturbing Hong Kong developments, including a new round of moves against pro-democracy legislators, initiated in Beijing and implemented in ways that circumvented local courts, that have effectively transformed the Legislative Council into a rubber-stamp body.)

One thing that makes these books particularly useful is how they can help dispel the lingering unease among some on the left about forthrightly considering repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang—an unease generated in part by how enthusiastically some on the right have taken up the causes of the victims of CCP repression.

A small number of Hong Kong activists waved British and American flags at 2019 rallies, in some cases simply to twist the tail of the CCP and its local proxies. These actions struck some on the left as politically suspect, with the Union Jack seeming to suggest nostalgia for British colonial rule and the Stars and Stripes implying support for the U.S. government. There are a small number of supporters of the Hong Kong movement who have expressed the idea that things were better under rule by the United Kingdom, and there was a disturbing uptick in pro-Trump comments in Hong Kong activist circles around the time of the 2020 U.S. election—a complex phenomenon to which the circulation of misinformation and sensationalistic conspiracy theories was one contributing factor. The fact that Marco Rubio and other Republican Party ideologues have been high-profile supporters of Hong Kong protesters and campaigners against the Xinjiang camps, along with some lingering romanticization of the PRC on the left, has further muddied the waters.

Hong Kong in Revolt at times makes it seem like a struggle involving people who embrace a wide range of positions can be divided into one with just a left and right faction. But given the widespread impression that the protesters are a unified bloc, it is useful to hear Au has so much to say about the difference between Hong Kong activists with a positive view of the U.S. right, due to its anticommunism, and activists who, like him, have a negative view of it, due to its record on labor issues and race. Finished at a time when there were some in Hong Kong activist circles unwilling to embrace solidarity with the Black Lives Matter struggle, Hong Kong in Revolt ends with a rhetorical question: “how can we not support the solidarity protest with George Floyd when we Hong Kongers have just been oppressed by the same kind of police state last year?”

Many within the Western left have spoken out in favor of the Hong Kong protesters and helped raise the alarm about the Xinjiang camps, though in some cases a bit belatedly. Dissent and the Nation have both covered the Hong Kong and Xinjiang situations in ways that align with how these books present them. A group of left intellectuals recently issued a letter decrying the persecution of the Uyghurs.

Roberts’s and Au’s books help buttress this trend by framing events in ways that diverge sharply from old-style anticommunist depictions of oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Roberts stresses that American policies in the wake of 9/11—especially an approach to Islam that downplays differences between followers of the faith and supporters of terrorism—provided cover for Beijing’s shift toward a harder line in Xinjiang, and was one factor that over the long run helped lay the groundwork for the development of the camp system. Au, meanwhile, rejects the idea that the Hong Kong struggle is an effort to protect a “capitalist” city from “Communist” encroachment. He sees the enemies of the movement as being CCP colonialism and CCP capitalism.

In their informative coverage of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Roberts and Au help us appreciate the political threads that connect these places. Their books underscore the point that just because the CCP is disliked by many on the right does not mean we should minimize our outrage at the indefensible actions it has taken.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: