‘This Kind of Attempt to Assimilate Typically Backfires’: Adrian Zenz

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has emerged a leading expert on the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in internment camps in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). After a Chinese diplomat denied reports about the camps, he began compiling information in February last year about the facilities and the surveillance infrastructure used to monitor residents of the XUAR, using the Chinese central government’s own official documents. Zenz now believes that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps�equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR�after initially putting the number at 1.1 million. He recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about how China’s policies promoting political indoctrination and cultural assimilation in the XUAR are breeding resentment and are likely to backfire.

RFA: You have stated that the Chinese government wants to exert total ideological control over the Uyghur people. Is that the end goal that the Chinese government hopes to achieve by locking up Uyghurs in internment camps?

Zenz: There are two aspects�there is ideological control and also ethnic and racial control. The Chinese want the people to put the [ruling Communist] Party first. The party must be number one. It must be the number one allegiance in their heart: ‘Love the Party, Follow the Party, Obey the Party.’ If you do that, you can also maybe go to church, go to the mosque�if [your faith] is not too serious or if it doesn’t influence your devotion to the party … And then the other aspect is the ethno-racial assimilation, which [aims to make Uyghurs] more similar to the Han, to speak the Chinese language so there can be closer communication. The Chinese want to understand the minorities and see them integrated, so there’s a strong focus on integration and this works together [with the ideological control].

RFA: Many Uyghurs believe that China has occupied their homeland and that in addition to ideological control, their real purpose is to completely re-engineer or transform the Uyghur people into something else, so that they will not be any different than the Han Chinese�make the Uyghurs think like them and accept Chinese control of [the XUAR]. What do you think?

Zenz: Ideological control means that people follow the party. By following the party, of course, they are part of China. They will be integrated in their belief, in their faith, because faith is the deepest part of people’s identity, so their faith must be in the Communist Party. And then, if that is the case, then the Uyghurs naturally also will be part of China, will be part of the Han culture. So I think that is why they put ideological control so high.

RFA: You have also said that China will not succeed in assimilating the Uyghurs. Why do you believe this?

Zenz: I think they will not succeed in extinguishing faith and deep identity because that’s the deepest thing that human beings have. And what has been shown historically is that when people try to do that, it has often sparked a greater resurgence of this identity. In some instances, people have succeeded in assimilating others, but as a slow process, over a long amount of time, and when they are not overly forced. Now the Chinese are really trying to force the assimilation [of the Uyghurs] very quickly, and I think that is producing trauma and broken identity and resentment, and those [feelings] are very dangerous and [the government’s plans] are very likely to backfire.

Of course, you could argue that over the long term they could succeed because they have the means to separate parents and children [by placing children in state run orphanages after their parents are sent to camps], and raise the children different from the parents. But even still, I think the children will always know, ‘We are Uyghurs, so what does that mean,’ and they will start to ask questions, and there’s a way of finding out, ‘We’re not exactly the same as the Han.’ So will they succeed or not? In some ways, I think it’s unlikely they will succeed. Assimilation is possible, but my point is that, in a wider sense, this kind of attempt to assimilate typically backfires.

‘They must feel respected’

RFA: What if the Chinese central government was to ask advice from you on how to make things better in the region? What would you tell them?

Zenz: They should go back to Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping gave the people freedom of religious belief to be different, but still be part of the country. He didn’t allow people to split off and form their own country, but he gave them a lot of freedom to develop their identity, to honor their ancestry, and there was some sense that minorities were respected again.

If China wants the Uyghurs to be part of China, they must feel respected and they must feel that they want to be part of China because it’s somehow beneficial for them … but the problem is that the Chinese have destroyed so much of that in the last two or three years, so it would be very difficult.

RFA: Some analysts believe the Chinese government is afraid of a Soviet Union-style collapse and the breakaway of the Uyghur people to form an independent state. With the current policies in place, do you think it will turn the Uyghurs away and lead to exactly what China wants to prevent the Uyghurs from doing?

Zenz: What the Chinese have done is promote Uyghur separatism by denying them their Uyghur identity. In order for the minorities to be part of China, they need to feel respected, they need to feel included, they need to want to be part of China. And I have met many minorities who are happy to be part of China. But with the Uyghurs, the Chinese have done the opposite and now it’s very difficult.

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