David Brophy: 'Positive change in Xinjiang must come from within China'

Dr David Brophy is an expert on the social and political history of the Xinjiang region of China at the University of Sydney. He has lived and studied in Xinjiang, where China’s treatment of Uighurs has attracted international attention and condemnation. During his recent visit to Wellington, the Asia Media Centre asked him about the situation there, how Australia and New Zealand might respond, and engaging with mainland Chinese students.

What was Xinjiang like when you first went there?

Things were much better 20 years ago, but it was by no means a harmonious scene. People were terrified of having political conversations, even back then. By the 1990s and into the 2000s, there were intermittent suppression campaigns targeting political activity, but also things being defined as illegal religious activity. Then of course in 2001, the War on Terror was launched. That was a big turning point. In redefining its policing activities as part of this global "War on Terror" [led by the United States after the 9/11 attacks on the US] and the threat from Islamic extremism, China had a whole new rhetorical arsenal to confront the Muslim population in Xinjiang.

What changed?

Since the foundation of the Uighur Autonomous Region in 1955, nationalism and separatism have always been identified as the key enemy. By the late 1990s, the Party was starting to talk about terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and religious extremism.

In 2001, China entered a negotiation with the United States to get the very small-scale conflict in Xinjiang recognised as part of the War on Terror. China would give tacit support to what America was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and in return America acknowledged that there was this international Uighur terrorist organisation that was threatening the peace in Xinjiang. That gave China a lot more credibility in talking about terrorism. They came up with this new formulation they called the "three evil forces": terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.

In Europe, people started to come up with lists of markers of radicalisation. If you started growing a beard, you stopped smoking — anything that people think is a sign of you becoming more religious attracts suspicion. China started doing this in Xinjiang. Pretty soon it started to draw in large sections of the population under a cloud of suspicion. The campaign really exploded after 2016 with the wave of construction of internment camps.


Uighurs on the street in Kashgar, Xinjiang. IMAGE: David Brophy

What prompted that?

No one really has a convincing explanation for why they adopted those particular policies at that point in time. The official justification is that it’s about counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation. But the level of resistance has always been extremely low. The new policies didn’t really come in the wake of a crescendo of resistance activity.

China is internationalising. It’s investing abroad under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative. China wants to expand its communication links through the west. It wants Xinjiang to become the economic hub of Central Asia. If we imagine China succeeding in these plans, that ultimately binds the region more closely to the independent republics of Central Asia. You can imagine somewhere down the line an unstable political situation in Xinjiang could be exacerbated by international exposure and connections with neighbouring countries.

That points to a defensive element. Ethnic and religious diversity is officially celebrated in Party rhetoric, but it presents a political liability. Xinjiang is almost 20 per cent of China’s land mass, and the majority of the population is not Han Chinese. It’s seen as a risk to have such a large chunk of territory and population culturally alienated from the mainstream and not on any observable trajectory towards assimilation. All these things have generated a high degree of paranoia within Chinese officialdom.


Uighur checkpoint in Kashgar, Xinjiang. IMAGE: David Brophy

Would you like to see Australia and New Zealand take a stronger stand on human rights for Uighur people in China?

We first need to work out our overall stance on China. From that standpoint, we can talk about Xinjiang.

Australian policy settings are basically to support the United States in its confrontation with China. China knows this. If we adopt a stance that we view China as an existential threat to Australia, it’s going to be very easy for China to portray our criticism of Xinjiang as just another stick to beat China with. From my point of view, we would be in a much better position to criticise China if we distanced ourselves from the United States on some questions. That would give us the credibility to say we are actually really concerned about what’s going on.

A lot of this applies to our own domestic policies, too. I’m not saying we can’t criticise China until we’ve constructed a perfect society in Australia, but we have had refugees in Australia locked up for years in detention camps. A more productive way to approach the issue is to demonstrate through our actions a sincere commitment to remedying issues in our neck of the woods and on that basis make the case to China.

I don’t think it’s going to help if we say "our War on Terror is good, but your War on Terror is bad". China has been very successful fitting its own policies and rhetoric into this global discourse about radicalisation and the steps necessary to prevent it. Even if the scale of the camps and the policies are greater than what we see elsewhere, their position is that they are just taking to a logical conclusion ideas that are mainstream all around the world.

We've seen a lot of media coverage about Chinese students at Australian universities. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Australian media is now obsessed with this idea that Chinese students represent a threat to intellectual freedom at our universities. It’s very troubling.

We’ve put Chinese students in Australia in a fishbowl. The media is constantly staring at them and looking for signs of aggression, that they are taking directions from the consulate or embassy. They can feel this. They feel under pressure. The danger is this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we’re constantly prodding at Chinese students to see if they’re brainwashed nationalists, that will just drive them into the arms of the embassy or to react in an angry way.

I teach on Xinjiang and Tibet. I’ve never had the problem with any Chinese students. They’ve always been a pleasure to have in the classroom. We have an opportunity in Australia to talk to people from China about these issues. We should be doing everything that we can to maximise that opportunity, but the climate we’re creating is making it harder.

The same thing can be said about Hong Kong. We could play a productive role as a place where people from Hong Kong and the mainland could be discussing these things. They are perfectly capable of doing it. But there’s an intense interest in the potential for confrontation. People need to think what’s going to be a positive contribution — facilitating more dialogue in situations where we aren’t putting pressure on people to renounce their country or publicly denounce the Party.

I do believe that the type of positive change that Xinjiang needs can only come from within China. At a certain point, it is going to require more ordinary Chinese people developing sympathy for the Uighur people. If we could contribute to that in some small way in Australia and New Zealand, that would be the best thing that we could do.

Interview and editing by Rebecca Townsend.

 - Asia Media Centre