Matthew Robertson | China Change
This article was first published in China Change website on June 18, 2018
On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.
— Mao Zedong
Extend special invitations to the Autonomous Region Women’s League Propaganda Troupe to visit… important villagers and education-transformation bases to hold ‘thanking the Party, listening to the Party, obeying the Party’ agitation campaigns… Draw the sword and be at the vanguard of stability maintenance…
— Party Committee of the Bayin’guoleng Women’s League
The party has a powerful ability to synthesize experience and come up with methods to deal with challenges. All the brutality, resources and persuasiveness of the Communist system is being used — and is having an effect.
— Party advisor on the anti-Falun Gong campaign
Since around 2014 in China’s northwestern border Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Chinese Communist Party has been engaged in an extraordinary campaign of thought reform, recalling the early years of the People’s Republic of China and subsequent political-ideological campaigns. Hundreds of thousands, and potentially up to a million, Uighur Muslims have been forcibly detained and put through grueling brainwashing sessions aimed at crushing their faith and forcing them to pledge allegiance to the CCP (via its constructions of nationhood and personal identity).
It is notoriously difficult to accurately assess the full scale of such political campaigns, given the secrecy and official obfuscation that surrounds them.Qualitatively, however, it is helpful to compare the current campaign of thought transformation in Xinjiang with the most recent similar campaign in PRC history: the systematic campaign of brainwashing waged against practitioners of Falun Gong. For a variety of complex reasons beyond the scope of this article, the anti-Falun Gong campaign has largely been forgotten in comparisons and analyses with what is now taking place in Xinjiang — though as Harvard scholar Elizabeth Perry wrote about it in 2001: “the launching of a full-scale campaign against a single organization of this sort is indeed unprecedented. Not since the Suppression of Counter-Revolutionaries Campaign in the early 1950s have we seen such sustained national attention directed to the threat of sectarian resistance, and never before have we witnessed an attack of this kind on but a single target.”
Falun Gong, a Buddha-school spiritual and meditation practice that had attracted tens of millions of practitioners through the 1990s, was marked for elimination in 1999 by Jiang Zemin. The decision to destroy the group was reached after years of internal debate between hardliners in the security apparatus and other, more sympathetic officials. Aside from an intense propaganda campaign aimed at vilifying the practice, the Party’s primary method for waging war against Falun Gong was ‘transformation through education’ — a kind of high-pressure thought reform (its own term of art, that involved liberal use of violence and torture against millions in custody. The campaign continues against an estimated 7-20 million practitioners, though at a lower intensity than the early years, to this day.
Judging by a number of the features described below, this campaign may have very well been the training model for what is now taking place in Xinjiang, where the Party has designated the practice of Islam by Uighurs as an extremist threat to regime that must be extinguished by the forcible reform of the thinking of each individual Uighur.
The following comparison is by no means exhaustive, though it does reveal many similarities in the Party’s methods, propaganda, and justifications for both of these campaigns. Such comparison is useful and important for illustrating continuities over decades in the Party’s extraordinarily invasive and brutal mechanisms of social and psychological control, extending to the private beliefs of tens of millions of subjects.
For the Greater Good
The basic justification for detaining innocent people against their will in both campaigns is that it’s in the service of the Party, the nation, and ‘the people.’
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, this rhetoric went through several phases. In the first place, the Party waged an explicitly ideological attack on Falun Gong. The front page of The People’s Daily was filled with diatribes on the ‘idealism and theism’ of Falun Gong, with the claim that Falun Gong’s teachings of Buddhas and gods, its principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, and the role of personal cultivation in transcending the mortal realm, were false, dangerous, and misleading.
Later, in October 1999, Falun Gong was for the first time called a ‘heterodox teaching’ (邪教 ‘xie jiao’). The term has been used since the Ming Dynasty to designate schools of thought that were not sanctioned by the state and thus considered a threat to state legitimacy. In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, the term was rendered in English as ‘evil cult’ — a misleading translation, perhaps, but one that had a profound impact on Western perceptions of, and sympathy for, Falun Gong.
The Party’s rhetoric on Falun Gong is often extreme in its vilification: one of the widely promulgated picturebooks meant to incite hatred of the practice depicts Falun Gong and its founder as suicidal lunatics (dowsing themselves in gasoline, hanging themselves, running around with meat cleavers), or as the grim reaper (in one case leading a young child to her doom), or as goblins, reptiles, and even a caterpillar being severed at the base of the neck with the hoe of a mustachioed proletarian farmer.
The Party has similarly adopted a dual-track approach to attacking Uighurs: the legitimacy of their beliefs are both ridiculed and denigrated, and the population is attacked as a dangerous threat to society in need of harsh reform.
Much of the brainwashing of Uighurs is done under the official rubric of so-called ‘de-extremification’ . As an article in Chinese Cadres Tribune instructs, “restraining extremism is a new requirement in ethnic-religious work for safeguarding long-term peace and social stability in Xinjiang,” citing a Party Central Committee’s Xinjiang Work Conference.
The definition of this activity is stated in a matter-of-fact manner by Baidu Baike, the Wikipedia of China: “De-extremification is a preaching activity carried out in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to attack religious extremist crimes and contain the spread of religious extremism.” Part of it includes creating propaganda — stage plays, banners, posters, songs — in the form of “rich and interesting cultural activities that the masses of every ethnicity delight in, in order to satisfy the normal religious needs of the masses.” In other words, replacing the practice of Islam by Uighur Muslims with a set of Party-concocted and controlled activities considered ‘normal.’
In practice, the so-called ‘de-extremification’ as it is carried out involves mass incarceration, total environment control, and brutalization aimed at erasing Uighur identity and belief.
Calling Regular Religious Beliefs ‘Extremist’
The extreme methods the regime has adopted to attack these groups would be impossible to justify unless, of course, the targets themselves were ‘extremists’ who posed a threat that had to be neutralized. Their normal religious and spiritual beliefs are thus pathologized as a danger to themselves and society. This discourse appears in both campaigns.
Falun Gong is said to destroy families, collect money, and cause social chaos. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the discipline, is said to exercise literal mind control over those who practice it. The aspirations of quietude and dis-attachment from the cycle of desire found in actual Falun Gong meditation and practice? This “persuades people to give up all ‘desires, ideals and pursuits’…and concentrate on Falun Gong exercise to ‘transcend the secular world,’” thus spreading a “negative and idealistic philosophy of life among the people,” People’s Daily said. A propaganda image in the “Criticise and Expose ‘Falun Gong’ Picture Book” book shows practitioners “meditating contentedly, oblivious as their lives crumble around them.”
In the case of Uighurs, the threat to society is claimed not to be through inactivity, but alleged terrorism. “The number of violent terrorists in custody under 30 years old is 54.9%,” says a November 2015 paper in the Journal of Xinjiang Police College. “Because they are naive and unsophisticated and their worldviews are still in a period of formation, they are easily subject to the allure and coercion of extremist so-called ‘jihad martyrdom to enter Heaven’, they listen and watch violent terrorist videos and madly carry out all manner of violent terrorist criminal acts.”
Chinese police journal articles on the attacks against Uighurs in Xinjiang invariably make reference to 911, the global war on terror, and the supposed common struggle China faces in dealing with its own domestic terrorist population.
A similar tactic of rhetorical association was used to justify the anti-Falun Gong campaign, identifying Falun Gong as a cult along the lines of the Branch Davidians or Scientology, so as to forge dark, stigmatizing associations in the minds of potential sympathizers, and allow the torture and brainwashing to proceed unimpeded and unremarked upon.
The new labels concocted by the Party are used to replace the self-definition of the target groups. “Extremist Religion is Not Religion,” one Xinjiang Daily headline barks, just as People’s Daily announces that “Falun Gong Is An Evil Religion, Not a Belief.”
Thus, the world is told that Uighurs = terrorists and extremists, and Falun Gong = cultists, and that the Party is dealing with the problem in a firm but humane manner.
Hitting Them Where it Hurts
The religious character of both Falun Gong and Uighur Muslim beliefs has given the CCP a rich menu of choices for attacking, humiliating, and degrading their targets. Party security operatives have latched onto what their victims consider sacred images, ideas, or practices, and proceeded to defile them and, most importantly, force the target populations to defile them, as a way of weakening their will, engendering helplessness, and breaking their faith.
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, police in train stations attempted to identify the Falun Gong practitioners traveling to the capital to protest by placing on the ground an image of the founder of the practice, Master Li, who is considered a holy figure, and forcing them to trample on it. Those who did so were allowed through, while those who refused were identified and incarcerated. Similar ‘tests’ are conducted on Falun Gong practitioners in detention, to ensure that they are truly ideologically transformed.
The attacks on the religious practices of Uighurs include: bans on beards that are too long and on veils, both of which are “deemed to promote extremism”; attempts to stop Uighurs fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan; forcing Uighur shopkeepers to sell alcohol and cigarettes;]and even restrictions on Uighur funerary practices through ‘burial management centers.’
In a surgical provocation clearly intended to infuriate and humiliate, a guard in a newly build brainwashing center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, told detainees that Uighur women historically eschewed underwear, braided their hair to attract partners, and were promiscuous.
“It made me so angry,” a detainee interviewed by Gerry Shih said. “These kinds of explanations of Uighur women humiliated me. I still remember this story every time I think about this, I feel like a knife cut a hole in my chest.”
Blaming Foreign Forces
No political-ideological campaign in China would be complete without the invocation of hostile foreign forces, meddling behind the scenes and misleading the masses. This propaganda narrative is being used in the case of Uighurs, as it was against Falun Gong.
In the case of Uighurs, the People’s Daily says that “we must be vigilant of foreign forces using religion to infiltrate and conspire to carry out the ‘four transformations’ and ‘splittism.’” Party media regularly reports that the incidents of domestic terrorism in Xinjiang — often, it seems, by desperate Uighurs seeking revenge against the regime for previous injustices — are said to have been plots hatched by foreign terrorist groups.
Of Falun Gong, Xinhua writes: “According to those Western anti-China forces which have never given up their attempt to ‘Westernize’ and ‘break up’ China and those domestic and foreign hostile forces which do not want to see a prosperous and powerful China, the Falun Gong cult organization is a political force which may be able to create disorder in China and to subvert China’s state power.”
In both cases, a certain awkward tension can be detected between the two sets of claims against each target: they’re accused simultaneously of secular goals (splittism for Uighurs, vague political ambitions for Falun Gong), and also quite conflicting religious goals (Islamic martyrdom for Uighurs, ritual suicide to enter heaven for Falun Gong — a concept that is, of course, not part of the practice).
Apparently, it is the sheer magnitude and ferocity of the propaganda that is relied upon to square those circles.
Brutality Concealed Under the Color of ‘the Law’
Though both the campaigns involve arbitrary incarceration, violence, torture, theft of personal property, and deep violations of individual psychological sovereignty through thought reform, mostly conducted through extralegal public security mechanisms, they have been justified in the language of the law. In the case of the anti-Falun Gong campaign, there was a more sophisticated attempt to actually codify the Party’s actions in legislation and judicial interpretations of this legislation (though any lawyers who sought to challenge the constitutional basis of this are violently ejected from courtrooms and in some cases subjected to the same methods they were objecting to).
The true nature of what goes on in the detention facilities constructed for dealing with these problem populations is never revealed in official sources. Official accounts of thought reform in Xinjiang, like those uncovered through the dedicated efforts Canadian law student Shawn Zhang, make broad reference to activities like ‘military training,’ ‘education of gratitude toward the Party,’ ‘singing red songs,’ and even the pedestrian categories like ‘professional ethics’ and ‘safe manufacturing.’
These prosaic expressions conceal the more tawdry and brutal reality of the experience. Gerry Shih documented this in an interview with Bekali, a 42-year-old Kazakh citizen who was swept up in the campaign while in Xinjiang for business. Bekali was strapped to a “tiger chair,” a common torture device used in Communist Party imprisonment facilities; he was also hung by his wrists against a wall, forcing him to stand on the balls of his feet. He was denied food, and had his religion and people insulted, and was locked in a room with 8 others. Another prisoner, Kayrat Samarkan, reports that prisoners were put in an iron body-suit as punishment for disobeying guard commands, while others were locked in a tiger chair for 24 hours.
A typical Falun Gong torture report reads similarly: “[James] Ouyang was arrested again in April after going to Tiananmen Square to show his support for Falun Gong,” The Washington Post wrote in 2001. “This time, he said, police methodically reduced him to an ‘obedient thing’ over 10 days of torture… [He] was stripped and interrogated for five hours. ‘If I responded incorrectly, that is if I didn’t say, ‘Yes,’ they shocked me with the electric truncheon’… the guards ordered him to stand to face a wall. If he moved, they shocked him. If he fell down from fatigue, they shocked him.”
Other medieval, hair-raising torture reported to be in wide use against Falun Gong to elicit repentance statements include bamboo under fingernails, burning the legs with a hot iron, scolding with boiling water, electric batons repeatedly inserted into vaginas and mouths, and more.
Tales of this kind of extreme torture do not appear to have emerged from Xinjiang, though it may only be a matter of time. The need to hit transformation rate targets set by higher-ups likely contributed to the level of brutality used against Falun Gong, and given that similar quotas are being dictated in Uighur transformation work, security cadres may find that more violent methods are required to achieve their ends.
What’s clear in both cases, at least, is that the transformation campaigns have been carried out in a premeditated, systematic manner, with a vast build-out of re-education centers or extensions and renovations to existing centers. Adrian Zenz has been able to hint at the scale of the operation in Xinjiang by analyzing bid proposals for re-education center construction, and it is well documented that similar facilities were custom built or expanded for the express purpose of transforming Falun Gong — the build-out of a ‘prison city’ around the Masanjia Labor Camp by Bo Xilai, for instance, is a notorious example.
‘It’s For Your Own Good’
According to the Communist Party, the subjects of their coercive ideological ministrations are, simply put, idiots. This is another crucial justification for locking them up and brainwashing them.
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, Falun Gong practitioners are claimed to be weak-willed, uneducated failures at life who were taken in by the slick messaging of a qigong guru. (The Party could of course not justify the detention and thought reform of individuals with levels of post-secondary education far above the general population in China, or who were themselves Party cadres, intellectuals, businesspeople, and so on.)
As long as the vast majority of Falun Gong practitioners were just simpletons who had been taken in, they simply required the nurture of the Party to break out of the mind control, return to embrace of the Party, and once again be productive members of society.
Uighurs are also talked down. Those in detention are said to “have not been through systematic education; their level of knowledge is low, their manner of thought naive and prejudiced, shortsighted, delusional and conceited; they are unable to distinguish right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and evil; they lack their own views and emotions, blindly following others and easily accepting of illegal religious activities and the reactionary propaganda of ethnic splittist ideology.”
Therefore, of course, “the vast majority are lured or forced into involvement in violent terrorist activities.” They’re thus invited, through participation in Maoist-inspired rituals like singing red songs, small group sessions, self-confession, and repentance, to join ‘the big socialist family’.
There are numerous other similarities between the two campaigns, both in technique and justification. This includes: the use of oral agitators; the ‘bangjiao’ or ‘assistant’ system, where individuals already transformed are assigned to targets who they then accompany, persuade, and sometimes discipline, in order to transform them; the obsessive taxonimization of targets for allocating transformation resources against; the incessant sloganeering; the use of retired cadres as ideological bastions; the dichotomization of ‘science’ versus belief; the mobilization of ignorant members of the citizenry against the targets; and tragically, the widespread use of transformed individuals part of the target population, who have adopted the new Party-created identity, and now join the Party in assimilating more of their former brethren.
This battery of techniques was first used against their own new members in Yan’an, then later against intellectuals, rightists, and ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ Falun Gong practitioners, and others in the New China. Now, the Party brings over 70 years of practice and refinement of these techniques to a minority Turkic people in Xinjiang.
Just as in the Falun Gong case, the goal of all this activity seems simple enough: to erase the religious (and in the Uighur case, cultural and ethnic) identities of the target peoples and forcibly assimilate them into the Party’s vision of normalcy. In other words, to make every Chinese subject legible, homogeneous, and manageable.