James Millward on the Uyghur Minority in China

James A. Millward is Professor of History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, where he teaches World, Central Asian and Chinese History to undergraduates and graduate students.  He is also an affiliated professor in the Máster Oficial en Estudios de Asia Oriental at the University of Granada, Spain.

Millward received his bachelor's degree from Harvard, his MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), and his Ph.D. in History from Stanford.     His research interests involve China and Central Eurasia.  He is the author most recently of The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013).  Previous books have focused on China and Inner Asia, especially the Xinjiang region (Beyond the Pass and Eurasian Crossroads), as well as Mongolia and the importance of Tibetan Buddhism to the Qing empire (New Qing Imperial History: the Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde).  He also follows and writes on contemporary events in Xinjiang, PRC and China’s international relations.   He is currently at work on a history lute-type instruments on the silk road.    

Millward has served on the boards of the Association for Asian Studies (China and Inner Asia Council) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society.  He also served as president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in 2010.  He lectures frequently across the US and internationally at universities and to groups ranging from K-12 teachers, Congressional committees and staffers, and the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society.   When not busy with teaching and research projects, Millward enjoys playing a variety of stringed instruments and performing with the band By & By in the Washington D.C. area. 


The Chinese government has increasingly curtailed religious expression and cultural activities by the Uyghur minority. How has the tug-of-war over religious freedom evolved between the Chinese government and the Uyghur minority in recent years?

The term “tug of war” is not an accurate description because only one side is holding onto the rope. There is no Uyghur political party or interest group that can push back against the Chinese policies on Xinjiang. Any dissent at all over the Uyghur or Xinjiang issue is seen as separatist or even as terrorist, and the dissent is very harshly punished. I would characterize the changes in the Chinese government’s policies as increasing curtailment of cultural or religious expression. The targets of the policies are no longer specifically Islamic activities, but rather Uyghur ethnic and cultural practices. A few years ago, the Chinese government began to have concerns about beards on young men or traditional facial covering on women, and new policies were first rolled out in local parts of Xinjiang province. The Chinese government generally does not implement policies province-wide all at once. The policies were interpreted differently in different localities, and in some parts of Xinjiang, even headscarves such as Uyghur women have worn for decades were interpreted as illegal or as a sign of religious extremism. Today there are also mass detentions of a large percentage of the Xinjiang population, regardless of whether the detainees are religious or secular. The detainees are majority Uyghur or in some cases Kazakh.

What lies behind the latest intensification of the crackdown in Xinjiang?  What makes the latest crackdown stand out?

One of the factors has been the arrival of the new First Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. He arrived in Xinjiang in August 2016 with a mandate to eliminate security problems. Chen Quanguo is seen by the Chinese Communist Party as having successfully subdued resistance in Tibet, and he has high-level support for his decisions in Xinjiang. Although some so-called “re-education centers” had existed prior to Chen’s arrival, Chen has been ramping up the number of these “re-education” detention centers (really a kind of concentration camp). Perhaps Chen may have even put in a quota system and is detaining large numbers of Uyghurs at centers throughout Xinjiang. Chen is also in charge of high-tech security in the region as well, which involves facial recognition cameras and phone-checking software. The Chinese government or Xinjiang authorities would claim that what lies behind this intensification is a greater security threat. They would point to incidents over the past few years that supposedly show a greater level of unrest, particularly in southern Xinjiang. The Chinese government argues that Uyghurs are increasingly recruited by ISIS, but this may be a chicken-and-egg problem. The pull factor may be radicalization and recruitment efforts from ISIS, but a push factor is the intense government crackdown that pushes many Uyghurs to leave Xinjiang and the PRC.

The Chinese government has exercised strict control over the Uyghur people’s communications with individuals overseas to limit the influence of Xinjiang separatist activists. How did the Xinjiang separatist movement evolve over the years? Are the policies of the Chinese government fueling radicalization in the region?

There really are no Xinjiang separatist activists because there is no political space to be an activist or movement within the People’s Republic of China. There may be activists that make political statements regarding the issue of Xinjiang and Uyghur persecution from overseas. But I would not use the word “activist” or “movement” because those words imply that a political space or a broader organizational framework for dissent exists within the PRC. It is important to resist uncritically adopting the language of the Chinese government.

Certainly there are activists outside of China who are making statements from overseas. The Chinese government has placed limits on the use of applications, such as WeChat and Weixin, on video communication, and on the types of materials that people access. Most people in China do not use computers, and their connection to the Internet is via their phones. The Chinese government can actually require people to download phone-checking software to monitor individuals’ activities. The government has heightened its monitoring of the Uyghur people’s connections to friends and families overseas. It has restricted travel and tourism, taken back passports from people who had passports, and has even reached out to coerce Uyghur students to come back to China and to Xinjiang. There are some instances of people being arrested as soon as they return.

China is clearly calculating that with all these policies, including phone monitoring and detention, dissent will not turn into unrest. We are unsure whether “re-education” is a euphemism for imprisoning people or whether the government is submitting people to indoctrination. Yet by preventing people from worshipping as they wish, detaining them in re-education centers while putting their children in orphanages, and restricting their rights to communicate with family members abroad, the Chinese government is certainly making the Uyghur people unhappy. It is unclear whether the crackdown would make the Uyghur people radicalized, since the word “radicalization” assumes a religious kind of resentment. It is not necessarily the case that people will be radicalized in that sense, but they will certainly be frustrated and eager to leave China and Xinjiang since ordinary life for Uyghurs has become untenable.

Despite recent investments in infrastructure from the government, many Uyghurs in Xinjiang have voiced complaints regarding poverty and job discrimination. What are some of the economic grievances that Uyghurs in China have experienced in the past?

Investments in infrastructure have been made in Xinjiang for the past several decades and standards of living have generally risen as a whole. It is difficult to measure exactly who the beneficiaries of the investments and rising living standards have been because doing accurate polling and surveys is impossible in China. It is fair to say that the broad opinion of scholars who study the Xinjiang economy from outside of China has been that, although there have been investments in petro-chemical production and transportation infrastructure as well as big agriculture, the investments have largely benefitted the Xinjiang state apparatus and the Han migrants who make up half the population of Xinjiang today. The Uyghur minorities in general do not view themselves as the main beneficiaries. In cities like Urumqi, there are well-off middle-class Uyghur communities. Yet in southern Xinjiang and in more of the rural areas, the poverty among the Uyghur minorities is more entrenched. There is evidence for real cases of job discrimination against the Uyghur minority. The state-owned agricultural and industrial enterprises often post that their job vacancies are open for Han only and that Uyghurs need not apply. Even if the Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang are relatively better off than they were decades ago, the sense that the Han are even more so, may fuel resentment.

How does the Chinese government employ technology in its surveillance of the Uyghur people?  What are the other rules and practices that help the Chinese to monitor the Uyghur minority?

The most fundamental piece of technology is the national ID card that codes people by their particular ethnicity. With the use of the ID card, it is always clear in the system that certain individuals are Uyghur. The Chinese government has been adding various types of information to the dossier linked electronically to the ID. In addition, the government conducted mandatory surveys about various kinds of daily practices and beliefs, which included questions about how often you pray, the religious practices of your relatives and friends, and regions or countries where you have travelled. The information is then coded and then calculated into a “social credit score.” This score is now being implemented across the country. For Uyghurs it determines things like where you can and can’t go in the city, whether you can buy bus, train or plane tickets, whether you can get a bank loan, and so on.

The Chinese government has also started to add biometric data like fingerprints and iris scans to the dossier tied to the ID card. The government implemented a medical program offering people free check-ups, and they used the program to harvest DNA. The government has purchased DNA scanners from American companies. The DNA scans are then being added to this electronic dossier as well. Facial recognition technology is spreading across China, and a video camera can recognize and identify individuals. The government can constantly track your location and movements. Mobile phones and individuals’ activities on social media are monitored as well. The government is on the lookout especially for Uyghur Arabic script materials on phones. These policies raise the question of what a highly motivated state that is not concerned about privacy plans to do with this massive system of big data.

What are some factors that could further complicate the CCP’s efforts to quell instability in Xinjiang?

The efforts that the Chinese government is taking right now to quell instability will backfire. The government will create a generation of disaffected people in Xinjiang as a result of the excessive policies, particularly the policy of mass detentions based on ethnicity. The Chinese government clearly has a different calculus, however, thinking that its policies will be effective in preventing unrest. Yet the network of concentration camps that detain individuals on the basis of their ethnicity is simply horrifying. The most obvious similar instances in history can be found with the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II and in concentration camps for Jews, Romani, and others in fascist countries during WWII. Generally these policies have never ended well.

Some other factors that could complicate CCP’s efforts include international reaction. The human rights issue is receiving much more attention and press reports than the Chinese government might have counted on. The focus on the use of high-level technology also aligns with the growing interest in technology across the world, and recent news reports about China have been driven by the dystopian nature of the policies. The Trump administration has very loudly signaled its non-interest in human rights issues. While the Congressional Executive Committee on China and the State Department have issued public statements about the Uyghur issue, the White House has not. So the CCP is able to bypass the traditional supporters of human rights. But nonetheless, other than the government actors, the global media and human rights groups such as Asia Watch and Human Rights Watch are very much on the alert about the Uyghur issue. There is greater public attention now and increasing public knowledge about who the Uyghurs are and where Xinjiang is. The human rights focus has raised the global level of awareness and has internationalized these problems because of the horrific nature of the very policies the Xinjiang authorities are implementing. This obviously has an effect on China’s soft power and its ability to project a positive image, particularly to the Islamic world. These changes will complicate what is the signature foreign policy initiative of Xi Jinping, namely the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves infrastructure-building and investment in 68 countries in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia. The BRI is China’s effort to newly brand its position in the world, but it requires China to have a benevolent image and a sense of neighborliness to other countries in Eurasia. This may be difficult particularly in Central Asia where much of the population is culturally very similar to the Uyghurs themselves. The multi-cultural tolerance that underlies the BRI propaganda has been contradicted by the chauvinism and intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet and elsewhere in China.


Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

Sunday Market in Hotan, an oasis city in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Image by Colegota via Wikimedia Commons.

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