The Chinese Communist Party Always Needs An Enemy
Xinjiang's detainees are the latest victims of a deep insecurity.
Loss of consciousness, reduced cognition, and loss of menstruation. Extreme bleeding. Death.
According to former detainee Mihrigul Tursun’s testimony in the U.S. Congress, these are the symptoms she and other women in the camps experienced after being forced to consume unknown pills and liquid in one of the mass detention centers set up by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. Her crime? Being a member of China’s Uighur ethnic minority group, according to a guard who beat her.
There are an estimated 800,000 to 2 million predominately Uighur Muslims detained in the Xinjiang camps. Many of them are elderly, and some are the region’s top intellectuals, the lore keepers and custodians of Uighur culture and history. Contrary to the claims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the detentions are not targeting terrorists or extremists. Rather, the CCP’s repression in Xinjiang is following a state security strategy that prioritizes the protection and expansion of the party’s own power—a pattern that, while it has reached its most terrifying heights in Xinjiang, underlies the CCP’s priorities inside and outside China.
The “Sinicization” of religion in Xinjiang is terrifying on its own, and it isn’t the only place where the CCP is lashing out against threats, real or manufactured, to its power. The CCP is not simply fearful of religious organization. It is also paranoid that alternate values systems might disprove its claim of holding the absolute truth and be used to mobilize an effort to secure a better future for China and its citizens. This is the same fear driving the CCP’s warnings that internal and external “hostile forces” (particularly Western liberal democratic ones) seek to infiltrate political parties, religious groups, and ethnic groups, as well as incite divisions in Chinese society.
Muslims are not the only “threat” the party fears. Catholic priests, Protestant pastors, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and Falun Gong practitioners are also on the target list. Also facing persecution are Hong Kong democracy advocates, economics professors, #MeToo activists, property owners opposing forced evictions, college students helping to organize labor unions, artists, and photojournalists, to name just a few. These groups share one thing in common: They can inspire or organize collective action, a privilege that the CCP seeks to reserve for itself. Even when such groups don’t seek to challenge the CCP, the mere potential for action is now seen as a threat.
This inflated fear of mass organization acts to cover up the CCP’s greater fear—that the party cannot control all of Chinese society, or even itself. Even high-ranking CCP members are not safe from purge and prison as internal political struggles come to a head.
The party leadership uses anxiety to shore up loyalty within the party and to convince Chinese society of its need for the party’s protection. Anxiety is a tool. Whether it is real or manufactured, or for the party’s internal consumption or the public’s, is almost irrelevant. There must always be an enemy to create anxiety.
The party’s efforts are focused on preventing the conditions that could lead to its own collapse—and thus, it tells Chinese people, the collapse of China itself. This notion is embedded in an aspect of state security called “cultural security.” Cultural security aims to eliminate ideological threats that political opponents could use as vehicles to challenge the party.
Threats to the party’s ability to control the narrative are perceived as existential ones. When others offer alternative narratives—especially when they act to guard the people from the party’s own abuses—this strikes at the core of the CCP’s legitimacy. Beyond the grassroots mobilization power of religion, feminist activism, and worker solidarity, these movements expose the CCP’s false narrative that Chinese culture and the Chinese people are somehow different and exempt from universal human rights.
The threats do not only emerge from society, but also from within the party itself and through its unending internal power struggles. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for a “fight against two-faced cliques and two faced-persons” who are truly loyal to the party. It is a justification given for the purges of high-ranking CCP officials such as Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, and others, whom Xi (truthfully or not) accused of being “engaged in political conspiracy activities.”
In a broad sense, the CCP’s mythology is both its most important tool and its greatest weakness. Ensuring narrative control requires creating the capacity to mobilize participation both outside and inside the party. It is why the party sometimes refers to its efforts in Xinjiang as a “People’s War”—the party’s political security requires mobilizing everyone around the idea of existential threat, as much as it aims to eradicate threats.
The CCP is constantly engaged in a process of mobilizing political support to preempt crisis. CCP propaganda has for decades promoted the idea that Western culture would erode Chinese society. The party claims the solution is the creation of what it calls a “spiritual civilization,” the ideal outcome of a party-guided ethics and morality system. It is the same rationale behind the creation of China’s “social credit system,” which aims to shape how individuals and entities are willing to act.
As much as the developments in Xinjiang and elsewhere expose the CCP’s weakness, it should be cautioned that weaknesses do not make the CCP’s political failure inevitable. In fact, as the Western democracies have been slow to learn, the combination of the CCP’s strength and weakness can help to successfully drive strategy. Weakness justifies an unending expansion of power, both domestically and internationally. This expansion of power is found in the growth the surveillance state, efforts to increase the military’s combat readiness, and in the expansion of Xinjiang’s massive gulags.
For policymakers and activists alike, dealing with this in the long term requires realizing that weakness does not make collapse inevitable but instead can be used to grow the CCP’s unchecked power. The global community has a moral imperative to respond to the CCP’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. Sanctions should be imposed at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and the camps must be closed. If Xinjiang’s camps and detention centers were closed tomorrow, however, the core problem would not disappear. The problem is in the nature of the CCP itself. It is in the CCP’s perceptions of threat, real or imagined, and it is in its never-ending effort to expand its power in order to protect itself.
This op-ed is based on the author’s Nov. 28, 2018, testimony at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.