The Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims has resonances with Nineteen Eighty-Four that go well beyond the intensive use of surveillance technology.
Since 2014, in the wake of sometimes fatal violence attributed to Uighur Muslim militants, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pursued a draconian security offensive in its officially autonomous northwest province. The crackdown is an attempt to force Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim population to embrace the language, culture and political loyalties of China’s Han majority.
In the wake of recent reports of mass forced sterilisations, and drone footage of bounded prisoners being herded onto trains in Xinjiang, British politicians from across the ideological spectrum, including John McDonnell and Iain Duncan Smith, have denounced Beijing’s repression. Uighur exiles have submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court, requesting that Chinese officials be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have announced sanctions on four senior CCP officials for systemic human rights abuse.
Joanne Smith Finley of Newcastle University is a Xinjiang specialist, and has visited the region repeatedly since 1995. On her most recent trip in July 2018, Smith Finley told me, “the region was unrecognisable; there was such a tangible sense of fear and trauma”. When she arrived back in the UK, Smith Finley felt compelled to re-read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. She is not alone in making this link: it has become a staple reference in headlines about Xinjiang. In October 2019, Pompeo declared that in China’s far west, “the pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are coming to life”.