Genocide is a crime that has recurred throughout history, but that—one would hope—enlightened humanity would have put far behind it by now. But of course this is not the case. In the last decade of the twentieth century various ethnic groups were yet again corralled into concentration camps, and in some cases massacred. More recently—in abuses that have scarcely been reported, let alone punished—Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov has imprisoned and murdered scores of gay men: concentration camps used to persecute a minority, in Europe, again. And this is to say nothing of Rwanda, Darfur or Myanmar. Sadly, genocide seems to be a permanent feature of human societies: no religion or political ideology is clean. But perhaps the most evil of all the ongoing persecutions is that of the Uyghurs by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As Grayson Slover tells us in his new book Middle Country: An American Student Visits China’s Uyghur Prison-State, the genocide of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in China is unrivalled in its ruthlessness and repression. It is the most systematic attempt to utterly extirpate a group of people and their culture currently taking place. Slover’s book is both a first-hand account of the time he spent in Xinjiang (formerly, and sans Sinicization, East Turkistan) in 2019 and an analysis of the situation in China more broadly.
Slover is a very good writer, interspersing his evocative narrative account with rigorous, pertinent and well-researched analysis. This is a difficult balance to strike, but Slover mostly achieves it. Whereas, for example, Orwell left his analytical remarks to the second part of his account of English working-class poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier, Slover pauses his narrative throughout to provide us with the broader picture. Occasionally this feels slightly forced, but for the most part he is successful. Structurally and formally, Middle Country is a success.
In his descriptions of places and people, Slover’s narrative is understated yet vivid. This is his account of the view from the world’s most remote big city, Ürümqi:
We turned out of the station parking lot onto an elevated highway. As soon as I saw the view, I was grateful that the driver had picked this route.
The Tian Shan mountain range, with its snow-capped peaks and craggy contoured ridges, presided as an epic backdrop for the city’s glistening skyscrapers, high-rise apartment buildings, and impressive number of construction cranes. It was like a miniature version of Beijing placed in the middle of a mountain fortress; an interesting contrast that I had never seen anywhere on such a dramatic scale.
Slover’s analytical sections take in a great deal, from the memes that make up Xi Jinping’s Han Chinese nationalism (the eternal idiocy of ethnic supremacy gussied up in liberatory rhetoric) to the chilling ways in which the Chinese state surveils the Uyghurs. Slover drives home several points: the ideology of Xi’s CCP demands the complete submission of the population to a great dream of Chinese “territorial integrity” (read: imperialism) and to the Party; any independent culture aside from the officially approved one is therefore decried as separatism and insubordination; thus, the Uyghurs, with their ancient, varied culture, are a threat, and must be crushed—whether by force or by “re-education,” even of their children. Hence the schools Slover sees on his journey, which are little more than indoctrination camps. How to kill a culture? Kidnap and brainwash its children, for then the culture will die along with its intransigent adults, who will be replaced by Party automatons.
I wish I could avoid the overused word Orwellian, but there really is no more apt term for what the CCP is doing. Slover’s description of the surveillance state in Xinjiang and the economic, social, and political exploitation and subjugation of the peoples of East Turkistan merit no lesser adjective. And, more indirectly, some passages of his book are reminiscent of Orwell’s method. In a famous passage from Wigan Pier, Orwell is travelling on a train when he sees a remarkable sight:
At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,” and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.
This scene is a fictionalisation of an account described in Orwell’s diary. Orwell has been criticised for his imputation of particular thoughts to this young woman, and for his imaginative use of the facts. But is this passage less truthful because it changes certain features of the real event? Is the empathy of the writer with his subjects not the point of such first-hand reporting? Is Orwell’s view of what the young woman thinks not utterly believable, given her circumstances? In a similar vein, Slover ascribes thoughts and motives to strangers he connects with in East Turkistan. Describing some Uyghur dancers performing for Han tourists, for example, he says that they
wore practiced fake smiles, with no joy behind them. Admittedly, this deduction was based only on my own observations in the moment. I had no hard evidence that these women weren’t as happy as they appeared. But how could they be, having to showcase one of the treasures of their culture to a group of people who, in all likelihood, only felt safe enough to travel to Kashgar because of the very “counter-extremism” policies that were immiserating their community?
I couldn’t even know for sure that these women were here performing of their own free will. It was possible that they were doing it out of an ordinary desire to make a living. But more likely, they were pressured by the CCP to be there—made to play a useful role in bolstering the CCP’s narrative that the changes they have made in Kashgar are to benefit all of Kashgar’s citizens.
As far as I am aware, Slover’s account is empirical to a fault. But, like Orwell, Slover keenly observes the people and places he visits, and endows them with vividness. He is explicit about the subjective nature of his first-hand encounters, while his analytical sections are rooted in rigorous scholarship.
In one of the most disturbing parts of the book, Slover gives a chilling account of his interrogation by the authorities for getting too close to a Uyghur detention centre, and reminds the reader that each of us has almost certainly been unknowingly complicit in a genocide: “If your cotton clothes are made in China … If you like ketchup with your french [sic] fries, or tomato sauce on your pasta … If you get energy from a solar panel,” it is likely that Uyghur slavery is at least partially responsible for your comfort. Nobody is clean—not in our globalised world, where China’s economy is on the verge of becoming the planet’s biggest.
Nevertheless, Slover’s tone is far from that of a moraliser. His narrative is beautifully evocative, even as it poses very difficult questions. Mercifully, Slover leaves room for humour—for example, Xi Jinping is described as “an austere Party veteran and pomade enthusiast.” And in a moving centrepiece, Slover recounts a brief, friendly encounter with a young Uyghur girl named Aynur. Slover fantasises about the wonderful future this charming young lady might have, before giving a heartbreaking account of the horror that she is much more likely to face. It is to her, and those like her, that Slover touchingly dedicates the book.
Towards the end of the book, Slover, atop a hill overlooking a gorgeous lake and distant mountains, reflects on the inescapable ubiquity of the atrocity:
As I stood at that last clean step, fully immersed in the breathtaking beauty that surrounded me, and the tranquility of the private perch I had discovered, I forgot where I was.
But after a few peaceful minutes, reality reasserted itself. I remembered where I was, and the unspeakable things that were happening there. It was impossible to separate this moment of serenity from the context in which it was taking place. Nothing in today’s Xinjiang can be disconnected from genocide. Every item I’d held, every experience I’d had, and even every person I’d met was inextricably tied in some way to the atrocities being committed by the CCP …
Everything, even this pristine moment of solitude, was sullied by the darkness of the ongoing subjugation, enslavement, and ethnic cleansing of the Turkic peoples of East Turkistan.
Just as everything in East Turkistan is tainted, so too are all of us, directly or indirectly, so long as this genocide continues. This is not the only example of the power and evil of the CCP. We should not forget their crimes in Hong Kong. (I wrote about the situation for Areo here and corresponded with the democracy activist Joshua Wong shortly before his re-imprisonment). The CCP is among the gravest threats to liberty in the world today—perhaps tying with a resurgent jihadism as the pre-eminent threat. Slover’s book is a deft rebuttal of the CCP propaganda that they are fighting Islamic extremism in Xinjiang and should silence those who would argue that the Uyghurs’ persecution is not uniquely terrible. Just as the mostly Muslim people, and especially the women, of Afghanistan are currently under assault from Islamic fascists, the mostly Muslim Uyghurs are under attack from the totalitarians of the CCP. In these cases, the same fight takes on two different forms: the fight for human freedom against subjection.
Slover provides a helpful list of what each of us can do to aid the Uyghurs. Among other things, he recommends donating to the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the Campaign for Uyghurs, the Xinjiang Victims Database and the Uyghur Tribunal. The proceeds from Slover’s book, he tells us, will go to such organisations. I received a free review copy of the book but have donated to the groups listed above in recompense: I implore you to do the same.
Another of Slover’s suggestions is to use your voice to raise awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs. His unique and essential book on the subject certainly does that (this review counts as my own small contribution) and will help in the battle against the worst ongoing manifestation of the greatest crime of which humanity is capable.