Dru C. Gladney on Muslim Detention in China

Dru C. Gladney is currently Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, California.  Recent President of the Pacific Basin Institute in Claremont, and formerly the inaugural Dean of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Professor Gladney taught Asian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa for over a decade, while serving as a Senior Research Fellow at the East-West Center.  In addition to a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1987, Dr. Gladney has three M.A. degrees in religion and philosophy.  A MacArthur Foundation Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships to Turkey and China, and has held faculty positions and post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard University, the University of Southern California, Kings College, Cambridge, Peking and Fudan Universities, the National University of Singapore, and Bosphorus University, Istanbul.  Dr. Gladney began his field research in Western China over 30 years ago, and has carried out more recent projects on China’s “New Silk Road” in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Malaysia.

Gladney is author of the award-winning book, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic (Harvard University Press, 2nd edition) as well as three more recent books:  Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality  (Harcourt Brace); Making Majorities: Constituting the Nation in Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Fiji, Turkey, and the U.S. (Editor, Stanford University Press); and  Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Sub-Altern Subjects  (University of Chicago Press) In addition to his academic research, Gladney is a frequent commentator on CNN, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and NPR.

SiKe Wang '21 interviewed Dru C. Gladney on Sept. 24, 2018. 

What has caused the sudden rise of security and surveillance in the past one or two years in Xinjiang? In particular, what lies behind the mass detention of Muslims, mainly the Uighurs?

The new security policy the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region has implemented has a lot to do with the China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which was adopted by President Xi Jinping in 2013.  Chen Quanguo, who was appointed Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region at the end of 2016, is responsible for the implementation. The earliest re-education centers were launched in 2017. The new security measures implemented under Chen are drawn from his previous experience in managing stability in Tibet, but the campaign targeting the Uighurs is much more technically sophisticated.

The Chinese government is very concerned about Uighur fighters, especially those who are trained or participated in wars in the Middle East, such as Syria. They’re worried about the so-called homegrown terrorists returning to Xinjiang and waging an insurgency against the Chinese government. So far there have been very few reports documenting such incidents, but there is probable fear among Chinese government officials, as well as security planners in the region, that a more organized and violent insurgency could emerge in the future. If they don't crack down or eradicate any of those problems, then it will blow up in their face. It is bad for the Belt and Road initiative. Beijing’s fears about the Uighurs are related to China's desire to build the new Silk Road.


Do we know the true extent of the mass detention of Muslims? What makes this particularly problematic? Are there any social, economic or political drawbacks for this mass detention for the Chinese government?

Based on reports by people outside of China who were previously detained, we have a pretty good idea about the extent of the mass detention.  Another source of information came from visitors to the region who have taken photographs of these centers. There are also satellite images that have documented the expansion of these centers in southern Xinjiang. Estimates now are very reliable. They suggest there are up to a million Uighurs who have been detained. That's one tenth of the entire Uighur population in the region.  The official objective of this massive effort is the so-called “re-education of the Uighurs.”


How has the “re-education program” affected those who have experienced it?

I don't know because I'm from outside of China. There are reports that the Uighurs are very worried about their families. The Chinese government certainly hopes to bring the Uighurs under control and to make them follow the government's policies.  In particular, the Chinese government attempts to control religious and cultural practices and expressions, such as wearing beard, the use of Muslim names, and so forth.  What the Chinese government has done makes a lot of people afraid of keeping in touch with their relatives through WeChat and other apps. There are concerns about how the Chinese government monitors their conversations through these apps. The Uighurs felt that the Uighur Autonomous Region is no longer their home. The government has made it really clear that the Uighurs must follow the party line, otherwise they can lose everything. Indeed, many of them have lost their businesses and some have been taken out of school.


Do you believe that such political indoctrination will be effective in combating what the Chinese government calls “extremism” and “separatism” in the region?

The widespread fear that this program has engendered Is really troubling for the region because people don't know why they are detained and where they will be taken.  The policy can be said to be effective because it has made the Uighur population throughout the region very subdued and very reluctant to speak to outsiders. However, most of us who have been studying this region for decades and spending time and learning the language of this region think that such a policy could be very counterproductive. We don't think it's a wise move to isolate and engender such fear among the majority ethnic group in this region.


International criticisms are beginning to mount against the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. How has Beijing responded? If possible, what would be the most effective way to make China end such detentions?

It is a complicated region. China has the right to be concerned about its domestic security and the rise of Islam. China has a lot of concerns particularly in South Asia, which has seen the rise of radical Islam. However, most of us who have studied that region will argue that traditionally people in this part of China have not been attracted to radical Islam. They are most influenced by the moderate Islamic traditions in Central Asian. And it's only been with this repressive policy that many Uighurs have felt pressured to join radical groups that have the money and the support system to further their hopes for independence of the region. So a policy of heightened repression can be really counterproductive. Most of us feel that the situation in this region has gone from bad to worse.

Is it possible now for places like the United States and Europe to engage with China on this issue? There's a lot of differences on all sides of the aisle in the US.  But on the Uighur issue we see a growing agreement in the U.S. that the Chinese government has really gone too far. This consensus is emerging in the European Parliament as well. We have never seen this kind of unity of concern about the Uighurs ever. The Chinese government’s mass detention has evoked quite a strong response in the West. Some people in China argue that Western criticisms of China regarding the Uighurs are intended to keep China weak. We really feel that it is in China’s best interest to win over the hearts and minds of the Uighurs.   It is not in its interest to repress them and make them angry and resent the government.

SiKe Wang CMC '21Student Journalist

By 栾盛杰 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11682.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

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