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‘Once Their Mental State Is Healthy, They Will Be Able to Live Happily in Society’

How China’s Government Conflates Uighur Identity with Mental Illness

Even the neatly staged scene inside one of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s concentration re-education centers was unnerving. An unidentified young Uighur woman dressed in a red and black tracksuit spoke to a Reuters reporter as dozens of other Uighurs donning the same uniform wrote feverishly behind schoolhouse-style desks. Her eyes nervously shifted on and off camera. She recalled suffering from extremist thoughts, which had invaded her brain after she listened to several religious sermons delivered by a non-state-employed imam. Authorities in her hometown quickly intervened. They told the young woman her actions violated state law and “recommended” she enter a new government program to overcome her deviance. If her incarceration follows the pattern of others, she will remain in re-education until authorities “let her out” and grant her permission to be transferred to a factory or placed under house arrest.

In Xinjiang, the administrative region encompassing the Uighur homeland, countless individuals have been forcibly taken from their homes, ripped away from their families, and even separated from their children to endure what authorities call jizhong zhuanhua jiaoyu zhongxin/jidi,” “concentration re-education centers,” a term that encompasses a broad taxonomy of incarceration, from detention centers (kanshousuo), prisons (jianyu), to what the government dubs “professional skills education training centers” (zhiye jineng jiaoyu peixun zhongxin). Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) insists these facilities are “the same as boarding schools,” a curious gloss—even for Party officials—considering many of their grounds are fortified with steel barricades, barbed wire fences, and security guards.

Evidence pieced together from satellite images, government tenders, and survivor testimony presents a harrowing reality and undermines the C.C.P.’s attempts to justify and humanize what it claims are necessary counter-terrorism measures. Undoubtedly, the concentration re-education centers have been established to violently and permanently erase meaningful cultural markers (including Islam and native language) from Turkic Muslims. Internees are not students; they are prisoners. Their treatment reflects Chinese state practices for handling severe mental illness, addiction, and disease.

As such, we should pause before impetuously tracing the practice of describing Islam as an illness, disease, or even cancer to “Western” politicians. While the United States-led “War on Terror” and subsequent global anxieties over Islam have undeniably emboldened the C.C.P. to act with impudence toward Turkic Muslim populations, we must also recognize a history of C.C.P. attempts to pathologize any culture that poses a political threat.

Indeed, the Party has applied the language of pathology—and to great utility—to theorize state violence towards non-Han cultures. The application of this language in official discourse taps into a long history of what anthropologist Stevan Harrell called China’s “civilizing project,” treating people on China’s geographic and cultural periphery as inferior and therefore deserving of the colonial predation visited upon them. The pathology metaphor dwells outside the spotlights that beam down on colorful exhibits of ethnic minority cultures. “Sick” minorities cannot lure tourists or sell souvenir trinkets, so this imagery rarely appears in popular media. Yet, the C.C.P. has routinely portrayed religious and ethnic minorities as sickly patients and desperate addicts in need of the state’s salvation. As early as 1942, Mao expressed that “our object in exposing errors and criticizing shortcoming is like that of a doctor curing a disease.” Oftentimes, officials identify these “shortcomings” when examining ethnic and religious cultures, which the C.C.P. and mainstream Han society consider “backward” and in need of rectification. For example, “unscientific” Tibetan medicine was the target of Mao-era campaigns that sought to promote specifically Chinese treatments. In one poster from this era, visibly Han doctors in lab coats are treating chupa-wearing Tibetan patients on the steppe. More recently, Falun Gong practitioners have been described as “addicts” who can only be redeemed through psychiatric rehabilitation. Although disparate in time and place, these examples betray an evolution of the C.C.P.’s approach towards non-mainstream cultures: Collective impatience at “backward” ethnic and religious minorities’ failure to conform gives permission to officials to administer aggressive treatment.

A high-ranking official during the crackdown on the Falun Gong “outbreak” in the 1990s-2000s, Chen Quanguo has now emerged as the chief surgeon in Xinjiang. Under Chen’s rule, C.C.P. officials in the region have extended the lexicon of pathology to its recent efforts to incarcerate scores of Turkic Muslims, especially Uighurs and Kazakhs. The Party’s use of phrases such as “contracting illness” (ganran bingdu), “penetrate like an intravenous needle” (guanchuan diandi), and “cure” or “reform through criticism” exposes an escalation of the C.C.P.’s rhetoric: Turkic Muslims must be treated as patients. Indeed, the C.C.P.’s Islamophobia and strategies to deal with “extremism” were not “made in the West.” Rather, the Party has adapted and expanded its usage of the Mao-era term “targeted population” (zhongdian renkou) to Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims, whom officials consider to be existential threats to P.R.C. sovereignty and roadblocks to realizing its Belt and Road Initiative. This decision effectively squeezes these ethno-religious groups in the same socio-political and criminal category as individuals convicted of violent crime, drug addicts, political activists, and mental health patients. Using the pathology metaphor within the context of the “targeted population” label, the C.C.P. can simultaneously justify repression (i.e. provide a cure), apply this repression to large segments of society (i.e. treat an outbreak), and deflect blame from its own policies (i.e. offer an index case to an epidemiology that originates outside China).

The label zhongdian renkou or “targeted population” is a remnant of Mao’s social management apparatus that survives in the present. In 1953, the term, which was used only in tightly-knit law enforcement circles, replaced and extended the state’s blacklist system. Initially, the label identified “non-repentant family members of counter-revolutionaries, landlords in exile, various types of ‘class enemies,’ and ‘suspicious’ people from outside China.” More recently, the C.C.P. has employed this designation—replete with political rubrics that organize citizens into an official social hierarchy—to pan for delinquent citizens. In greater China, or neidi, the targeted population identifies (1) citizens deemed risks to national security, (2) individuals suspected of serious crimes, (3) individuals who have exhibited behaviors suggesting early signs of violence, (4) ex-convicts, and (5) narcotics users. Citizens branded with this label find themselves subject to heightened surveillance. Officials in charge of residence permits, or hukou, for example, routinely monitor two categories of every local resident: their “basic information” (i.e. details listed on the hukou registration form) and political activities. However, police must keep up-to-date records in eight data categories for individuals identified as the targeted population: basic information, political activities, financial status, interpersonal relationships, physical features, speech characteristics such as slang or dialect, personality, daily activities, and past digressions.

Uighurs may be thrown into the “targeted population” category simply because of their clothing, grooming habits, and religious devotions. To be sure, Uighurs have been targets of racial profiling and arbitrary arrests since before the 2009 Urumchi riots, but authorities did not formally re-interpret the targeted population designation until then Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian announced a “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. The first notable expansion of the “targeted population” was packaged in the region-wide “five types of people” and “Project Beauty” campaigns—a five-year, U.S.$8 million dollar multi-media initiative that promotes “modern” (i.e. secular) female fashion and educates women to discard their veils—which culminated in legislation introduced in 2015. The “five types of people” referred to women who donned hijab, lichäk, chumbäl, and jilbāb, young men who groomed “abnormally long” beards, and individuals who wore clothing featuring star and moon insignia in any public area.

Law enforcement in Xinjiang expanded the “targeted population” designation again in 2016. Under this revision, alongside the long-standing list that includes drug addiction and mental illness, Xinjiang’s “targeted population” includes the so-call “five grades” (wuji) and “10 types of people” (shi lei renyuan). “Five grades” people included:

  1. those who possess a real threat to society;
  2. have a tendency (qingxiang) to possess a real threat to society;
  3. are ideologically stubborn (wanggu);
  4. are ideologically or emotionally unstable; and
  5. common persons.

Meanwhile, the “10 types of people” referred to those individuals who:

  1. engaged in “three evil forces” groups but did not commit a crime;
  2. harbored (baobi), organized, or funded terrorist activities, but have not been convicted of a crime;
  3. committed acts that threatened national security, but were already released from prison;
  4. engaged in activities that threaten state security, including released criminals who had committed common crimes;
  5. engaged in crimes against state security;
  6. disseminated (on the Internet or otherwise) opinions (yanlun) about ethnic separatism and religious extremism;
  7. took advantage of social disorder to create rumors that influence social order;
  8. engaged in “illegal religious activities” such as delivering unsanctioned khutbah, or sermons, organized religious gatherings, and operated or attended private religious schools;
  9. printed, sold, distributed, or transported illegal religious articles, especially those who are repeat offenders;
  10. and expressed dissatisfaction with society and may pose a threat to national security or others.

In this re-interpretation of the “targeted population,” the C.C.P. blurs the already hazy legal parameters separating terrorism, extremism, and political activism by placing these crimes alongside drug addiction and mental illness. Theoretically, an individual who did not possess the correct ideological outlook or mental disposition would have received the same scrutiny from law enforcement as someone who was plotting a violent attack, protested Xinjiang’s veiling ban, or shared a religious teaching with a friend.

The criteria defining Xinjiang’s “targeted population” were broadened once again in 2017 when officials introduced a social taxonomy—referred to officially as a “social credit system”—that labels each citizen either “safe,” “normal,” or “unsafe.” These designations are based on metrics such as age, faith, religious practices, foreign contacts, and experience abroad. Freedom of movement, both physical and virtual (including the ability to freely travel, surf the Internet, and gain access to government entitlements), is determined by this point system. According to one account, each individual is initially provided a 100-point base score but is penalized points for such things as having relatives abroad, praying, criticizing the government, and even owning a compass. Individuals whose scores fall below the 60-point threshold risk detainment.

With infinite score combinations, the “social credit system” and ad hoc applications of the label “targeted population” place large numbers of Turkic Muslims, especially Uighurs, under tight surveillance and at a great risk for detention. In Atush county alone, according to the Party Committee of Xinjiang’s Department of Agriculture, one third of its 200,000 residents (66,000) were affixed a “targeted population” label and subjected to some form of “re-education.” A Han cadre sent to Azihan village in Atush described her duties visiting each individual identified as “targeted population.” Many refused to say much, according to the cadre, but she kept detailed records of these interviews anyway. One man who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for committing a crime that threatened state security simply said he hoped to live life honestly (tatashishi). Indeed, any individual suspected of not adopting the correct ideology or not faithfully obeying government policy, which the cadre reviewed at the end of each visit, would likely face “re-education.” The intensity of this re-education—i.e., government homestays, “vocational” schools, or internment—is determined by “the severity of the ideological infection.”

Once members of the “targeted population” are removed from society, they can begin a lengthy process of political and mental rehabilitation. Some detainees are required to study Mandarin, sing patriotic songs, watch “Red” movies, and attend classes about correct ideology and permissible religious practices. According to the November 12, 2018 edition of the Uighur language Xinjiang Daily, the most widely-circulated minority language newspaper in Xinjiang, internees at a camp in Hotan engage in a three-tiered sequence of courses. First, they study the common language (Putonghua), before advancing to law, and, upon satisfactory completion of these courses, they may engage in a trade, such as baking, cosmetology, hair-cutting, alterations, and agronomics (yéza iqtisadi). If detainees study these trades well, there are other opportunities available, such as print-making and painting.

However, a rigid curriculum alone will not remedy what the C.C.P. believes are deeply-rooted problems shared by thousands. In a Chinese-Uighur bilingual article entitled “Re-education Classes Are a Type of Free Hospital Stay for People with Ideological Illnesses,” the author insists:

Being “infected” [ganran] by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology but not receiving immediate “re-education” is similar to contracting an illness but not seeking a cure, or becoming a drug addict but refusing treatment. It is wishful thinking (jiaoxing xinli) to believe [you] will not be affected or shaken by [these thoughts].

State media recycles the language of pathology when describing the region’s concentration re-education centers. A January 2015 Tianshan report describes these programs as methods to “penetrate” (guanchuan) detainees like an “intravenous needle.” Similarly, a women named Patigül, interviewed by Xinjiang Daily remarked: “because my husband, Mämtimin, was infected [yuqumlanghachqa] by extremism, I never dressed up, and he didn’t let me make my own money. . . Now [through re-education], he dresses well, his hair and teeth are clean, and he has even influenced my own grooming habits.”

But allusions to pathology are not merely metaphorical: “re-education” often requires detainees to undergo psychological treatment. During an October 16, 2018 interview with Xinhua, Shohrat Zakir, Chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government, praised the “professional psychological counseling services” provided to detainees. These “services” take the form of invasive psychological evaluations. In fact, officials in Hejing County hosted a clinical psychologist to conduct one-on-one screenings with all detainees. At the conclusion of their psychological evaluation, detainees were provided a course of treatment that will correct (or exorcise, quxie fuzheng) their harmful thoughts and ensure they resist extremism.

One mental health counselor, himself Uighur, told Chinese reporters: “I think we are doing a really sacred [muqäddäs] thing [by working at a training center]. We are saving the masses [bir kishlär topi] and a generation of people. Once they study well and their mental state is healthy, they will be able to live happily in society.” Indeed, C.C.P. officials have not coincidentally adopted the language of pathology to describe so-called “extremist” Turkic Muslims. Rather, the adaptation and expansion of the term “targeted population” in the context of “re-education” conveniently place violent crimes, religious practices, addiction, political activism, and mental illness in the same socio-political and criminal category, virtually quarantining thousands of Uighurs as potential malignant tumors. Likewise, this decision emboldens the C.C.P. to administer an apoptosis approach to Turkic Muslims simply for asserting their ethno-religious identities. But, the C.C.P.’s therapeutic intervention is ill-advised, and it may lead to cultural erasure and decades of systemic violence.