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Uncovering China's secret internment camps with Rian Thum: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with historian and author Rian Thum about the one million Uighurs being held in concentration camps by China.

Did you know there are roughly one million people currently held in internment camps in China? One million people held against their will, facing no criminal charges, forcefully cut off from the outside world. This is the story of the Uighurs, a small, insulated ethnic minority in western China. The predominantly Muslim group has faced growing levels of Islamophobia and paranoia from the Chinese government. Right now, roughly 10 percent of the Uighur population has been "disappeared," held indefinitely in re-education camps where they are subjected to totalitarian indoctrination in an attempt to erase their identity, their language, their religion and their culture.

Rian Thum, who has spent his career studying the Uighurs, joins us to explain everything we know about the camps and how they came to be — including the prison-like surveillance state that Uighurs outside of the camps are forced to live in.

RIAN THUM: I mean, really, they're trying to make people less Uighur, or not Uighur at all.


RIAN THUM: Trying to stop them from speaking Uighur, the children are all being educated in Chinese, they're not allowed to speak Uighur at school. They're forcing people in the detention centers to say, "I'm not a Muslim."

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it's a kind of final solution in which you're not killing the body.

Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. You've probably heard the quote that I'm about to read. I'm sure you have, actually. It's so commonly invoked it's almost become a cliche. It's extremely profound, but it's profound in a way that it's been so casually thrown around that it becomes trite, and then almost like a weird, ironic joke to invoke it.

But I wanna just re-center it because it really, truly is profound, despite how much it's been used, despite how over-invoked it is, despite how dangerous it can be to draw parallels to this specific period of time in history. It's a quote by a man named Martin Niemoller who was a German clergyman, who was an anti-communist in the 1930s and a supporter of Adolf Hitler, who then sort of a little late in the game realized how terrible the Nazis were, broke from the Nazi party and was ultimately taken by the Nazi regime and sent to a concentration camp, which he survived and was liberated by the allies.

He would go on to be a kind of leading voice of reconciliation and penitence in the period after the war. And he started giving speeches about what he had witnessed in the rise of Nazism. And he said, "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. And then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

And I think the reason that that quote is invoked as much as it is is because there's a broad sense that what a government or regime will do to its most vilified, most marginal populations is what ultimately they might do to everyone. That the atrocities they may commit or the violence they may put to those who are at the margins of society may end up at the core of that state.

But it's also a lesson about political apathy and a lesson about solidarity and connection, that we are bound to each other, particularly in the context of the society, like German society of the 1930s, or American society now, or whichever society you choose, and you can't let a state do things that are horrible to some group of people simply because they seem not that essential to you or disconnected from you or in some cases maybe they're criminals or they're bad or they're undesirables in some way, which of course is always the propaganda and rhetoric of social control.

Now why am I talking about this? I'm talking about this because this quote, the famous Niemoller quote, has been knocking around my head as I have gotten increasingly obsessed with and concerned about something that is happening in the world very far away. Not in front of the cameras, not in a place that I really know anything about, in Western China, in a [region] called Xinjiang.

And it's being done by the Chinese state to an ethnic minority there called the Uighurs. The Uighurs, spelled U-I-G-H-U-R, or I should say transliterated as U-I-G-H-U-R, are an ethnic minority that are Muslim. And that Chinese state has undertaken a project that, I'm not quite sure the word to describe it, but you're gonna hear in this episode what they're doing.

The biggest headline is that there are a million people in concentration camps in China right now. There's a total population of 12 million Uighurs, and the ones that aren't in concentration camps are under a sort of dystopian form of 21st-century constant digital surveillance. That means that every single action is tracked. Their faces are being scanned as they move through the streets and fed back into central computers. Their phones are spying on them. They're required to have their phones with them. They can be grabbed in the middle of the night at any time. People have had loved ones disappear, never to be heard from again.

In the camps they are undergoing a regime of strict ideological reprogramming that is attempting to worm its way into people's brains and take from them their religious and ethnic heritage and strip it away and reconstitute something that is more essentially loyal to the Chinese state.

It is arguably the most ghastly human rights abuse happening in the world right now, one of the most ghastly human rights abuses. But it's more than that because it's simultaneously … distinct in what the Chinese state is doing, but it feels like a very dangerous experiment. What it feels like is a state reaching back into the worst ideas of the past, which is concentration camps, combining them with the methods of the future, digital surveillance, to create something new and terrifying and broadly applicable and exportable to many different regimes throughout the world that have "problematic populations" that the state might want to come for in the middle of the night if no one will speak up.

I don't have any connection to the Uighurs. The odds are as you're listening to this that you don't either. It does feel remote. I'm not sure what the U.S. government can do, but I do know that all the reporting, and The New York Times did a great piece on Xinjiang the other day that we'll link to, indicates that the Chinese do pay attention to how much people are paying attention to what they're doing. And what they're doing is ghastly and monstrous and indefensible, and we need to hear about what is happening.

And so today I have a conversation with an expert on this. He's a guy by the name of Rian Thum. He's a professor at the University of Nottingham. And his entire academic life is based on studying the overlap of China and the Muslim world and the Uighurs. He's the author of a book called "The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History," and as you can hear from this conversation, he is deeply embedded and immersed in Uighur scholarship, in connections with people who are there and some of the human rights groups that are working on their behalf.

And he's able to tell the story of who exactly these folks are and what is being done to them. And it is a story that everyone in the world right now needs to hear.

You did your graduate work and your dissertation on Uighurs in China?

RIAN THUM: That's right, yes.

CHRIS HAYES: What was that work on?

RIAN THUM: My basic question was, how have Uighurs understood their own past over the last couple of centuries? How do they understand it today, and where did that understanding come from? That led me to do a lot of work on what outsiders might think of as religious activities because it turns out that until, say, 70 years ago, the most common way for an ordinary Uighur person to learn about their own local past was at a holy place, at a shrine where a famous Muslim hero was buried. So I spent a lot of time at shrines and a lot of time reading popular novels, historical fiction, things like that.

CHRIS HAYES: I wanna start super basic. I think this is one of the most important stories happening in the world right now. And it's inaccessible. The New York Times has just done some great reporting on it, but it's remote, I think, to people. And I want to just start with the basics like, who are the Uighurs? What does that word, that term connote?

RIAN THUM: Uighurs connotes an ethnic group. They are culturally a lot closer to their Central Asian neighbors, especially the Uzbeks, than they are to the Han Chinese majority ethnic group, the Han. Their language is related to Turkish. It's very close to Uzbek. The vast majority of the Uighurs are Muslims. There are about 10 or 11, maybe 12, million of them. So not so far from the population of, say, Sweden or Austria.

So it's a large group. And their home territory, which is the southern part of the Chinese region of Xinjiang, they are the vast majority of the population, though in the wider context of China of course they're a very small minority.

Image: Barbed wire protects the walls around a cluster of schools on the outskirts of Kashgar, in western China's Xinjiang region
Barbed wire protects the walls around a cluster of schools on the outskirts of Kashgar, in western China's Xinjiang region. Uighurs fear the Chinese government's expansion of compulsory Mandarin-intensive classes and boarding schools away from home will gradually erode their children's Central Asian ethnic identity and Islamic beliefs.Ng Han Guan / AP file

CHRIS HAYES: So in a broad sense they're a tiny minority of the Chinese population, but in the area they're concentrated, numerically they're the dominant ethnic group in basically a province that's in Central Asia.

RIAN THUM: Yeah. And that's something that I think gets overlooked a lot when people do talk about the Uighurs, which is that despite being considered by the Chinese government a minority, until 10 years ago, most Uighurs rarely met somebody who was not a Uighur. That was a pretty unusual circumstance.

CHRIS HAYES: What is the history of this? So this is an ethnic group that has its own language, right?

RIAN THUM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: That has kinship connections, linguistic connections to other Central Asian ethnic groups, by-and-large Muslim. What has been their historical relationship to the Han Chinese?

RIAN THUM: It's long and complex. A Chinese empire, the Han Dynasty, conquered the region that the Uighurs now live in before many of the Uighurs' ancestors got there. But that was a pretty brief hold on the land. Really the most salient history for the present is the conquest by the Qing dynasty of what they eventually decided to call Xinjiang in 1760.

In the thousand years leading up to that, that region had been ruled by other empires like the Mongols, for example, or had been a collection of little city states or, not too long before the Qing got there, there was a state that roughly covered the Uighur homeland. But yeah, for the last 250 years, the China-based state has mostly controlled this region since the 1760 conquest.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, so 250 years of being controlled by essentially a foreign entity, right? That's the fundamental dynamic here it seems to me.

RIAN THUM: Yeah. This is a situation of outsider rule. A good number, perhaps most of the people who specialize in the history of the Uighurs would say that it's a colonial situation. For the first 150 years they ruled with a very light reign. But in the last century or so, there's been a lot more interest in controlling things on the ground and integrating the Uighurs more tightly into Chinese states.

CHRIS HAYES: Obviously China has these sort of, I think it's fair to say, colonial relationships with other different ethnic groups within China, most notably Tibet where there's this sort of colonial domination. It's a cause celebre throughout the world for independence and self-determination.

But there are other places where there's something similar. That's the case here. But it has intensified in the last, say, 10 years. What has happened to create the situation we have now?

RIAN THUM: This is really just the crescendo of a longer pattern of tightening restrictions on Uighur movement, Uighur cultural expression. And one of the reasons is just a change of leadership in China. Xi Jinping has brought a much more paranoid sense of the threats that the Communist Party faces in China and a lot more interest and willingness to clamp down on any kind of expression of resistance.

And when the party officials look around, it's really in Tibet and Xinjiang and I guess you could add Hong Kong that you see the most overt and regular expressions of dissatisfaction with the party's rule. How they interpret that explains some of the focus on Xinjiang. Tibet is not far behind in terms of the level of repression that people are experiencing there, not far behind Xinjiang.

But I think one of the things that explains the differing levels and styles of attempts at control are the way that party members understand what's happening. And one key ingredient there is Islamophobia — partly indigenous to China but also partly adopted from Islamophobic discourses associated with the war on terror promoted by the U.S. government. So that Islamophobic element makes them respond in a different way to the Uighurs than they would to the Tibetans.

CHRIS HAYES: I remember there were some Uighurs that ended up in Gitmo. They ended up being released, China wouldn't take them back, ended up in a Caribbean country. I forget where, I have an image in my head of them having ice cream the first day they were out.

RIAN THUM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: To what extent was there any actual secessionist or Jihadist strains indigenous to Xinjiang that the Chinese were concerned about?

RIAN THUM: That's a complicated question. There is a longstanding desire among many Uighurs for Independence. And there have been may times when people have openly expressed that, many times when people have engaged in acts or resistance from writing a poem all the way to killing a police officer. So that is real and one of the things that's happening now is that the Communist Party officials have started to take more seriously claims that dissatisfaction with Chinese government is widespread amount Uighurs. There used to be a lot of official publications that denied that there was anything more than a handful of unhappy people.

So there definitely is widespread desire for independence. We can't do Independent polls so we don't really know exactly what the level of that is. Most of the violent resistance that we've seen in the last, say, 10 years has been of an improvised sort. And it usually seems to come out of local disputes like somebody's land being taken or their home being invaded by police and then them taking revenge by going down to the local party office or local police checkpoint and attacking government representatives with farm tools.

The Uighurs who ended up in Guantanamo Bay, that's really a tragic story. They really were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It took a very long time for the U.S. government to come to that conclusion. I think that there was just an attitude that anybody in Afghanistan at that time who was both Muslim and a foreigner was likely playing for the wrong team and should be scooped up and imprisoned indefinitely.

All that being said, there are some groups outside of Xinjiang that align themselves with the Uighur independence cause who have also aligned themselves with terrorism-promoting organizations. So there is a Turkistan Islamic Party that produces videos out of Pakistan, Afghanistan and, more recently, Syria that is actually aligned with some of these global terrorism-embracing organizations. But they have pretty much no holdover popular opinion within Xinjiang.

CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear here, we just did a conversation with Patrick Radden Keefe about the troubles in Northern Ireland, and not that anything really would justify what China's doing right now, which we're gonna get to, but it just is not the case. There's not some essentially Uighur version of the IRA right now in Xinjiang that is organizing a campaign of systematic attacks and violence against the Chinese state in furtherance of independence. That does not exist.

RIAN THUM: Oh God, no. Within the borders of China, there is no organized resistance whatsoever. And there hasn't been anything that people who actually spent time on the ground in Xinjiang, those of us who have done that, there's nothing that those kinds of scholars recognize as anything more than a handful of people who got together and said, "Let's do something about the terrible situation," and then had some sort of improvised thing. For example, the family who crashed their car and killed a couple of people in Tiananmen Square. So you get these occasional awkward, amateurish, improvised acts of anger, but there's no kind of organized resistance of any sort.

CHRIS HAYES: And yet the state, under Xi, has sort of escalated its paranoia and its tools of control. I think part of what makes what's happening in Xinjiang so unnerving is it seems like a kind of an avant-garde of dystopian surveillance control of a population, like the 21st-century version of the machinery that we saw built in the mid-20th century as a tool of fascist control along industrial lines being replicated along digital surveillance lines in China and Xinjiang. Let's talk about how they have sought to control the population.

RIAN THUM: Well, I mean, it's a pretty elaborate and far-reaching set of policies. Behind it all lies, of course, this program of mass internment, which right now holds roughly a million, maybe high hundreds of thousands, maybe a little over a million people, in addition to those who have been put through the criminal justice system.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait a second. There's a million people in internment camps?

RIAN THUM: Yeah. That's about 10 people of the Uighur population who have been taken away with no criminal charges, no trial, no appeal process and, in many cases, no information for their families. They just disappear, and people assume that they are in these internment camps.

CHRIS HAYES: Can you explain what that apprehension and disappearance is like? Is it a knock on the door? Is it that they come to your workplace? They snatch you off the street?

RIAN THUM: What I've heard is that it's a knock on the door. When this news first started to coalesce in the winter of 2018, I was hearing a lot of stories of people wearing long underwear and warm clothes to bed, so that if they get taken away in the middle of the night, they'll be dressed appropriately for the winter weather.


RIAN THUM: A knock on the door seems to be common ... but we don't have a great deal of information about exactly how that happens, because the people who are taken away have in only a very small number of cases gotten out to tell us what happened to them or what it was like.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's a million people seized by Chinese authorities seemingly at random ... and I'm sure they have some internal logic to them, put into internment camps, effectively disappeared from their family, from their friends, from their associates. That's the state of play right now.

RIAN THUM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Do we know what's going inside the camps?

RIAN THUM: We have some sense. These are indoctrination camps where people are taught the Chinese language. As of 10 years ago, only a small percentage of Uighurs could speak Chinese. So they're taught the Chinese language, they're taught the ideological writings of China's President Xi Jinping. They're taught how to not be what the Chinese state calls "extremist Muslims." These are, I think, the parts of the story that the Chinese state and outside observers would agree on. We also have reliable reports of torture for those people who don't comply. It seems that most of the time, people are not allowed to speak Uighur at all. In fact, outside of the class periods, they're often compelled to be silent. There seems to be a wide variety of experiences, but for the most part, it seems to be a kind of military-style discipline in the camps with a lot of reports of overcrowding.

Image: Citizens of ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan who fear relatives are being held in notorious "re-education camps" in China's Xinjiang region
Citizens of ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan also fear relatives are being held in notorious "re-education camps" in China's Xinjiang region. They appealed on Nov. 29, 2018 to the country's China-dependent government for help in freeing them. Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP - Getty Images

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, no reporter, right, has ever been inside these?

RIAN THUM: No, there was a tour led by the Chinese government for some reporters, I think Reuters were some of them, of a staged camp. We have some evidence that they made some alterations. They changed the kinds of people in the camp and made them young and of both genders. They added some sports, some basketball —

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus Christ

RIAN THUM: — equipment and stuff to try to show the world that this was a place where people have a really great time and get all these cultural and athletic activities to engage in.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, they cannot help but recall the very famous Nazi-led tours of the [Theresienstadt] ghetto to the International Red Cross that happens in the run-up to the Final Solution. I think there's a jazz band that plays and all sorts of cultural activities. "Look, we put them all in one place, but they have full access to everything they could possibly want."

RIAN THUM: Absolutely, and they've created the same kind of video documentation for this. It's very similar. In a few cases, because we don't have any good images of inside the camps ... I mean, we do have some good ones from earlier state propaganda, which really show them in a harsher light, but because we don't have any independent images, a lot of media in the West have circulated these faked images, just like they did with the famous Theresienstadt ghetto-concentration camp that the Germans put together. So yeah, there are a lot of similarities here.

CHRIS HAYES: One thing that's really unnerving when you say a million people is, how long have these been in construction and operation?

RIAN THUM: About two years. There are predecessors as far back as 2014, but the numbers don't get, as far as we can tell, into the hundreds of thousands until 2017. So it's just a massive building program in the short space of two years.

CHRIS HAYES: So part of what's really unnerving about this is, if the ostensible purpose is a kind of crash course in language and Chinese thought and Xi thought, then people should be coming out of that, right?

RIAN THUM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: There's something really horrifyingly sinister about people going in and not coming back out, but that's what's telling me, like very, very few people have gotten out. You have to wonder what exactly is the next step here?

RIAN THUM: Yeah. It's difficult to know exactly what the intention of the people in charge is. It's not even clear whether there is a long-term plan. We're in the dark right now. The kinds of people who have been taken into the camps are often people who don't need this kind of training. They're people who already knew Chinese. The Chinese state calls them vocational training centers sometimes. They're people who have advanced degrees and who have shown a lot of loyalty to the system that they're in already.

I think it's a mix. I think there are probably a lot of officials who really believe that this is an important indoctrination program that really might change the minds of people who think the wrong thoughts and are the wrong kind of humans and that they might be able to whip them into shape.

But of course, it also serves other purposes like keeping people off the street where they can actually respond to this oppression. They've been very explicit that they're targeting people who were born in the '80s and '90s. It's been very clear that they've targeted men more than women, although there are a large number of women in the camps as well. So there also seems to be both a disciplinary function to this and an attempt to just take people out of action.

CHRIS HAYES: So this is the camps, right? Then you've got the knock-on effect this must have on Uighur society, the life world of Xinjiang outside the camps. And then on top of that, you've got this crazy surveillance system in which they've converted the non-camp part into essentially a kind of Panopticon.

RIAN THUM: Right. The camp system, it's what makes everything work efficiently, all the rest of it. Now, we'll get to the rest of it, but the idea that you can disappear at any moment without the police having to charge you with anything, and the fact that you know ... many people who've disappeared, you almost certainly have someone in your family who has been disappeared, you've seen it happen, this is a strong motivating factor not only to follow whatever you think the rules are that the officials are propagating, but also to try to figure out whatever the next rules might be and to go beyond meeting their expectations —


RIAN THUM: — for submissiveness. So I'm seeing signs of a real change in how Uighurs respond to these rules. Whereas there used to be a sense that maybe you could find ways around rules that were really onerous or to meet them less enthusiastically, now people are just lining up, banging down the door to do exactly what the authorities want. This is what really makes everything else work.

Now what's the everything else? I mean, it's a long list. It's cameras on every street corner, which are equipped with facial recognition software that allows machines to process the images, rather than having people watch them. It's checkpoints every time you cross a jurisdictional line, where Uighurs have to show their IDs and get their faces scanned. It's GPS units on cars, required spyware apps on your phones. You cannot move without the authorities knowing where you are and what you're doing.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, what you're describing is complete and total 24/7 surveillance physically and digitally —


CHRIS HAYES: — across all spheres at all times for every single person, more or less.

RIAN THUM: Yeah, yeah. In the most extreme case, one person reported, I think it was to Human Rights Watch, that a camera was installed inside her house.

CHRIS HAYES: So the state just watches you inside your house ... There's crazy propaganda spyware, there're apps you have to put into your phone with propaganda on it?

RIAN THUM: Yeah, well the apps, they clean your internet for you. So they scan your phone for the information that you see, and they're supposed to prevent you from accessing negative information, but they also report on your activities on your phone. I mean, it's just a full-on spyware app that you're required to have on your phone.

CHRIS HAYES: What are the first-person testimonies from people living under these conditions like?

RIAN THUM: The people who are outside of the camps often talk about life there as an open-air prison or just as living in a prison. To be frank, we don't have much in the way of first-person testimony over the last two years because the international connections have gone silent. No one would dare now to talk about their experience on the internet. No one smart would dare to talk to a foreigner who's walking around in Xinjiang about their experiences.

CHRIS HAYES: They've cut off these 12 million people. They've got a million of them in camps, and the rest of them, they've effectively severed from the rest of the world.

RIAN THUM: Yeah. The first indication that those of us who study this and live outside of China got that things were getting really bad was around of the fall of 2017. We just started seeing connections go dark, just a whole ethnic group sort of withdraw themselves from the internet and from phone lines and just de-friend everyone on their social media and say, "Sorry, the weather's bad here. I can't talk." Then it just went dark. It was only a few months later that it became clear the scale of internment and disappearances that we were looking at.

CHRIS HAYES: How are we getting our information about what's happening there?

RIAN THUM: As hard as it is to get individuals to be able to give information, we have some good sources. So the Chinese state talked about it a lot in the beginning. In 2017, and even in early 2018, there were a lot of officials bragging online showing their superiors that they were doing a good job building internment camps and keeping these threatening minorities in line. So we got a lot of data from them about what happens. We have some journalists who have had some success just calling police stations and asking them questions. Police will often assume that it's state media calling them and so will answer more honestly.

They will tell crazy things like, "Well, we know we have a quota of 40 percent to arrest to send to the camps, and we realize we've only hit 12 percent," or whatever it is. "But we're working really hard, and we promise we'll get to the 40 percent." Or they'll tell the reasons that they use to choose who goes into the camps. Reasons like not greeting an official on the street, quitting smoking, not watching TV, not having a smartphone, which indicates that you don't want to be monitored. There was a while when everyone was switching to flip phones. Having WhatsApp on your phone, these kinds of things. So we get information from the police. We do have close to a dozen people who have gotten out from the internment camps. A lot of them are ethnic Kazakhs who are also targeted by this. Kyrgyz are also targeted. Some of them have managed to get out, because they have ties to the country of Kazakhstan, which has helped them to a small degree.

CHRIS HAYES: So there are some actual first-person accounts. There are people who have been in the camps—


CHRIS HAYES: — gotten out, and then spoken to international human rights reporters and such.

RIAN THUM: That's right. Human Rights Watch has a wonderful report where they talk to something like 40 people, both relatives of people who were in the camps and people who had been in the camps themselves. There has been some good reporting, interviews with the handful of people who are both out and speaking publicly. Because of course once you get out, there's a lot of good reason not to speak publicly, because the authorities threaten people's family members if they talk. They even have an agreement that's been reported that you have to sign saying you won't talk about your experience inside the camp.

So we do have a lot of first-person testimonies. Sometimes they're a little hard to parse, because people generally go through two stages. They seem to usually go to a thing called a detention center first, where it's decided whether they're going to go to the criminal justice system and eventually prison, or whether they're going to go to this improvised extralegal internment system. And in those detention centers, it seems to be where we're seeing the highest prevalence of torture. Once they get to the internment camps, it looks to me like maybe the torture is a little less common. Although there are plenty of reports of beatings and torture in those as well. But yeah, we do have some first-person accounts.

Ethnic Uighur women leave a centre where political education lessons are held in Kashgar
Ethnic Uighur women leave a center where political education lessons are held in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept. 6, 2018.Thomas Peter / Reuters file

CHRIS HAYES: I guess part of what I'm wrestling with here is bigotry and oppression like this outside the context always looks insane and irrational. Like why? Why is the Chinese state doing this? Someone from on high ... I mean, when you talk about Chinese officials bragging about it, when you talk about reaching their benchmarks, like someone has absolutely laid down the decree that this is a priority for the Chinese state in this province. What is driving that?

RIAN THUM: That someone is probably Xi Jinping himself. We have an appointment of a new top official to Xinjiang in August of 2016. It's really only after he arrives that all this stuff takes this turn toward a hard totalitarianism. I think it's always dangerous to speculate on the motives of individual actors in an opaque system like this. But I think it's pretty clear that Xinjiang is a place where there is more active displeasure with the Chinese government, with the Communist Party of China.

And the Community Party of China is perpetually concerned with the security of its rule, both for reasons of self-preservation and because security on the ground is one of the ways they justify their power. Why should this organization be the one that makes the decisions in China? Well, one of the reasons they'll give is that, "We create social stability. We're the ones who will prevent the horrors of the 20th century from coming back again. We're the last line between chaos and order."

I think they see that there was violent resistance in Xinjiang as of 2014. Over 200 people, mostly government representatives, were killed in acts of violent resistance to Chinese rule. I think they see that and they ask, "Why?" And they have a set of racist understandings of who the Uighurs are that's ratcheted up by Islamophobic ideas that they've taken from West that says that being Uighur is itself a kind of disloyalty to the Chinese state, and that being a Muslim is itself a threat to the Communist Party's hold on this territory.

I mean, really, they're trying to make people less Uighur, or not Uighur at all. They're trying to stop them from speaking Uighur. The children are all being educated in Chinese. They're not allowed to speak Uighur at school. They're forcing people in the detention centers to say, "I'm not a Muslim."

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it's a kind of final solution in which you're not killing the body. Like —


CHRIS HAYES: — you're not extinguishing the person, the Uighur, the Jew. You are trying to essentially strip away their Uighur-ness through totalitarian indoctrination so that you get rid of the identity, the ethnicity, the language, and the religion and the culture, and you make it all disappear. You just scrub it off people.

RIAN THUM: Right. Because it seems that their analysis of why people are resistant to the Community Party of China in this region, their analysis is that it's because of the ideas in their head, because of their culture, and because of their religion. Not because of, you know, under-representation in the government, not because of the discrimination that they suffer, not because of the widespread unemployment that that discrimination leads to, but rather, simply because they have the wrong culture. So yeah, they're trying to take the Uighur-ness out of the Uighurs, for the most part, without killing them.

And I should emphasize that, so far, we don't have any reports of anything that looks like mass killings, although some people are dying in these camps.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the thing that I keep thinking about, that keeps haunting me. The reason I've been wanting to talk to you is I know this is going on. It's sort of in the corner of my head, what if the Chinese state just said, "Well, you know what? The indoctrination's not working. We're just gonna execute 1,000 of these folks a day."

RIAN THUM: Yeah, that really worries me, too. I think at some point, they are going to confront a failure of indoctrination. There's ... You can make people submit, but it's very difficult to make them think differently. It might have some success, but there's bound to be a large percentage of this million or so people who they determine to be failures and irredeemable, and I'm worried about what happens to those people.

You've brought up the Holocaust a few times, and I think there's one place where that analogy is really important, and that is in examining intent and plans for the future. The German concentration camps, it was something like four of five years before the majority of the population in them was Jewish, and it was eight or nine years before they were connected to a program of mass killing. The reason I bring that up is that goals can change, and the function of these things can change, especially when you're looking at such a massive system that has no appeal system, no regulation, no oversight. Who knows what the future holds? And we've already seen that the rest of the world's reaction to this has been rather slow. I don't think there will be time to react if it does take an uglier turn.

CHRIS HAYES: What chills me to my bones is, as far as I can tell, they're doing it in plain sight and getting away with it in plain sight, and by that, I mean the camps, not something beyond that. But this totalitarian surveillance state they have erected on the backs of the Uighurs, outside the camps and the camps themselves, which are, I think ... the largest internment camps that exist in the world at the moment.


CHRIS HAYES: What has international reaction been like?

RIAN THUM: It's been pretty anemic. I would say that the U.S. has been something of a leader in terms of individual officials speaking out. The vice president, the secretary of state, people in both parties, leading legislators in both parties, have all made very strong statements about this ... And the most commonly proposed action from the U.S. is a series of sanctions called Magnitsky sanctions. That requires approval at the very top, and we don't have that yet. Trump has not —

CHRIS HAYES: You're saying the White House?

RIAN THUM: — pulled the trigger. Yeah, I mean it has to be President Trump himself, as far as I understand it.

But other countries around the world have [made] far less than the noise we've heard from American officials.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, [Saudi leader] Mohammed bin Salman was just in China, if I'm not mistaken.

RIAN THUM: Intractable. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: The guardian of the most holy spots of Islam basically said nothing, and I think might have even said, "Hey, look, we've all got our internal problems" ... He said something that essentially hand waved at, "Hey, look, everyone's got their jihadis they gotta deal with, so I feel you," essentially.

RIAN THUM: Yeah. Pretty much. It was, "We all have our troublesome populations that we need to take care of." I forget how he said it. But yeah, he gave a pretty explicit nod to what was going on and to his —

CHRIS HAYES: Approval.

RIAN THUM: Approval, yeah.

And we can add to that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which claims to represent Muslims throughout the world, which received a report from an internal committee that was very explicit about what was going on — described a really awful situation for the Uighurs; it was quite accurate — and then, a few months later, turned around and made an official statement saying that it appreciated the ... What was it? The sort of warm treatment of Muslims in China by the government of China.

CHRIS HAYES: What gives here? Is it that people don't wanna ... I mean, there's two things that seems to me. One is Mohammed bin Salman certainly doesn't want anyone else on the outside criticizing what he does inside Saudi Arabia, so it's a kind of laissez-faire approach. But also, it just feels like everyone, and the same with the U.S., it's like we gotta ... the trade connection with China means we gotta deal with them whether we like them or not. That's kinda true for the rest of the world, too.

RIAN THUM: Absolutely. And, you know, for Saudi Arabia, they have concerns that maybe their alliance with the U.S. and with the West in general is weakening, and maybe they're in danger, and so I think it's a bad time for this to be happening because they're looking to China as a possible counterweight to Western pressure.

Pakistan has a long-standing, very tight relationship with China, with a lot of economic entanglement, a lot of loans from China and a big port project, and they have been pretty staunchly turning a blind eye to this. There's an economic incentive for everyone to not anger China.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, the sort of closest analogue we have here is Tibet, and obviously, Tibet has been a cause celebre throughout the U.S. and much of the Western world. It was the focus of protests in the Beijing Olympics when the torch was running through the world, and huge concerts. And the Dalai Lama is obviously feted everywhere.

I guess my questions is, has that worked? I mean, when you compare what's happening in Xinjiang to Tibet, does the amount of international concern, organization and activism act as a kind of binding constraint on the Chinese Communist Party for its actions in Tibet, and would something like that do the same in Xinjiang?

RIAN THUM: I think it already is. Binding constraint might be a little generous, but certainly, it raises the cost of the kinds of repressive treatments that the rest of the world condemns. You know, I think ... China has already suffered a very large reputational cost that I don't think its leadership is aware of yet. Its leaders are not really in a position to get good, honest criticism from anyone, not least their citizens, but of course any of the people they talk to are generally not in a position of talking about what they really think.

I think they're unaware of the huge reputational cost that this is having. I mean, it really casts Communist Party rule in a bad light. It's really popped the bubble on this myth of a meritocratic, soft autocracy, which was an idea that was pretty popular five years ago —

CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.

RIAN THUM: — for understanding China.

CHRIS HAYES: And now it's —

RIAN THUM: And it's disappearing.

CHRIS HAYES: And then you talk about this, and it's like 1984, worse. I mean, even in 1984, the lead character, Winston Smith, is essentially guilty of thought crimes and tortured with a cage of rats on his face to rid him of his thought crimes, to take the bad ideas out of his head and replace them with the good ideas that the party believes in. That is what happens in that book, and what you are describing actually happening every day to a million people is not very far from that.

RIAN THUM: No, it's not, and the technological elements and the destruction of history and memory, I mean it's ... The parallels are really frightening. Of course, the difference is this is ethnically aimed. This is a racist policy, so it doesn't apply if you're a Han. It only applies to Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uighurs and a few other cases.

CHRIS HAYES: Are there things that people who are listening to this can do? Are there things that can be done that will raise the temperature on this, that will make it harder for the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state to continue this approach?

RIAN THUM: The main thing that we need is wide public awareness and attention. On the one hand, writing to your senator of congressman is powerful. The U.S. is a powerful country, and there is legislation that is drawn up that is very likely to pass. I'm not sure why they haven't put it to a vote yet, to give some repercussions to China for this. It's really hard. How do you make a dent with a regime that's as powerful and as unresponsive as China is?

This is something I struggle with myself, and I'm really not sure what to tell people. You know, tell your friends. Tell your family. Share the documents. Do some research. Get the word out. You know?


RIAN THUM: For me, it's becoming very difficult to use products that have connections to Xinjiang. Most of the ketchup you use relies on tomatoes from Xinjiang. I think we need to consider very carefully whether we want to support an Olympics that will be held in China in 2022 when they're doing this to one of their ethnic groups. I can't support it, and I would hope that people involved in the Olympics would consider this.

But we're in the beginnings of a reaction to this, and I'm more of a scholar than an activist so I have to plead ignorance on what exactly we could do.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that was really useful, actually, what you said. Rian Thum is the author of “The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History.” He's a professor of history at Nottingham University, and he does research on the overlap of China and the Muslim world. Rian, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

RIAN THUM: Thank you for taking about this.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Rian Thum at the University of Nottingham for sharing his expertise with us. We'd love to hear your feedback. We got great feedback from you on my conversation with Patrick Radden Keefe, both about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and also the Sackler family.

You can email us, tweet at us #WITHpod. We'd love to hear from you. We are always looking for new guest ideas. That queue constantly needs to be refreshed because we bang these out week after week after week, just because we love you so much and we wanna keep the content coming. Just keep it flowing into your ear holes.

Related links:

"The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History"

"How China Turned a City Into a Prison"

"Eradicating Ideological Viruses"

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