Interview: ‘The fight against colonial racism is a global one, and it’s a noble one’


Vincent Wong discusses his research on ‘racial capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ in Xinjiang

Visitors pose for photos with a giant sculpture of a piece of Uyghur naan bread at the International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, during a government organized visit, April 22, 2021.

Vincent Wong, an assistant professor of law in Canada, researches racial capitalism, the process of extracting social and economic value from a person of a different racial identity. The theory asserts that racialized exploitation and capital accumulation are mutually reinforcing. In his 35-page article titled “Racial capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: analyzing the political economy of racialized dispossession and exploitation in Xinjiang,” which will appear in the fall 2022 edition of the African Journal of International Economic Law, Wong argues that the racial capitalism paradigm can be used to understand the governing logics of political economy behind the development and justification of technologies of repression in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). “The contemporary human rights catastrophe that faces Uyghurs and other non-Han Indigenous peoples in the XUAR is made possible through a latticework of overlapping legal, political, and economic imperatives: settler colonial policies, global economic integration (including the BRI), insufficient international environment and labor protections, the global war on terror, and private-public carceral investments,” he writes. Wong spoke with RFA Uyghur reporter Nuriman Abdureshid about his theory or racial capitalism, how it pertains to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and why Han Chinese abroad have an obligation to speak up about rights abuses in China’s far-western region. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

RFA: What do you want people to know about your latest article?

Wong: What I’ve tried to do with it is almost like a theoretical intervention to change the way we approach or we think about what is going on here and what are the connections of what is going on in terms of exploitation in the Uyghur heartland with other things that are going on in the world, so that it’s not an isolated [case], but [to think about it in terms of] what is going on in connection with other technologies and the logics of oppression and colonialism to better understand the dynamics. 

What I mean by ‘racial capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ without going into too much academic jargon is a particular outlook on governing in China that has emerged since the 1990s. I argue that communist government has moved away from its 1950s’ ideals of socialist multiculturalism, economics and equality towards all ethnicities and has moved towards market liberalization and developmental capitalism, [and] has created exploitative economic structures that have to be justified and managed. I argue that the way this is justified and managed is strongly in part to create racial relations. I argue that they mobilize pre-existing cultural differences — language differences, differences in religion, differences in looks — and create a racial relationship to justify these inequalities, to turn the region into a place where you could have resource extraction [and] labor extraction that [occurs] on a very oppressive and exploitative level. It’s a way of going beyond the human rights frame. The human rights frame is very important, but it just tells us what is going on; it doesn’t tell us much about why it’s going on and who is benefiting from these human rights abuses that dehumanize and subordinate people and that kick people out of their native homes and into prison camps — how race is being deployed for the profit of some and for the dehumanization of others. 

In a broad way, what I mean by ‘racial capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ is a theoretical lens to think more deeply about what is happening in Xinjiang [and] how it’s tied to what is happening in many other places in the world, but in different ways and with different histories. What I’m talking about is a particular form of colonial capitalist accumulation that is about the taking of land and resources and appropriating them from some other group and rendering those people exploitable to take away their rights. Then, it’s very easy to create a large labor pool in which we can exploit for profit for capitalist accumulation. 

I start with the fact that the relationship between China and this region of the world has always been colonial in nature, but it hasn’t always operated in exactly the same way. For many years, even though China has made a territorial claim to this region, it was largely segregated. You had Han who lived in generally Han areas, and you had Turkic Muslim folks and other ethnicities that lived there, and generally, there wasn’t a lot of assimilation. There wasn’t that much interaction. This changed a lot in the 1990s [with] prominent Han economic migration, what I call settler migration and the need to transform this land for Han Chinese economic purposes … [and] natural resource extraction especially in the Tarim Basin. To do this would be environmentally destructive and a hugely environmentally transformative natural resource extraction industry. In order for China to do this, it has basically followed the pattern of settler colonial capitalist structures in many other places in the world, including in Canada and the U.S. But the history is a little bit different in that there is the actual need to completely transform these areas. To take the land and to extract the resources require removing the people who have native claims to that land in a certain way, so you have to take them out in order to do this kind of colonial capitalist move. That’s part of the reason why you see the massive transformations of the Belt and Road Initiative. It was announced in 2013, but it really started in 2015 and 2016. Around the same time, you saw in 2016 and 2017 the massive increase in securitization in the boarding schools that were created [and the] concentration camps. But it’s not just the concentration camps. That’s what I’m trying to get at. It’s an entire system that’s created to take one group of people or people who are negatively racialized and to strip away their rights through the carceral system and to create a hyper exploitable group of labor for predominantly the benefit of Han Chinese settler interests. The genocide is a result of that. It has a functional operation within this colonial capitalist system.  

Making the argument that this is what is happening now is situated in a longer colonial history. Since the Chinese government, the Communist Party, took over in 1949, this is the way that they’ve been talking about it. By tracking the history of the Bingtuan [the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as XPCC, which is a state-owned economic and paramilitary organization in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] and its modern establishment in 1954, you can see how the colonial project has developed and evolved through this one organization which is almost 90% Han Chinese. It says that it is a colonial paramilitary organization. I tracked the history of its origins because it has shifted a little over time. In the beginning, it had three frontier order goals: the development of land and commercial interests, the settlement of primarily Han Chinese settler migrants in the area, and frontier security. This organization had a very different, almost a subsistence, military form for a very long time until 1988 when it had an enormous transition. The idea that it was going to be playing a much stronger, more powerful role in the transition from a centrally planned socialist economy into a much more developmental capitalist economy and to connect the economy of Xinjiang with global trade, global markets and global capital markets. So the XPPC then blew up and became incorporated. It has over 3 million people right now and controls an enormous kind of GDP and an enormous variety of commercial and land interests. This has been increasing ever since the late 1990s. The Bingtuan is also creating many cities that are preplanned Han Chinese settler cities similar to other settler colonial projects in history and are essentially colonial urban land grabs. To have a settlement city for XPCC commercial folks and their families, they have to displace the native populations. We’ve seen this over the last five or so years. The XPCC system has very powerful and large cotton and tomato interests. It has a weird kind of rivalry with the XUAR regional government because they are supposed to be on a similar level. They are like colonial rivals. Drawing the history of the Bingtuan tells us a lot about the colonial relationship between settlers and Uyghurs and other non-Han folks.  

RFA: There have been reports on how the Chinese government is totally changing Uyghur identity, including culture and the way of life. How do you see this? 

Wong: Han settler tourism is an industry that is really growing. The [Han Chinese] want to go to Xinjiang and spend their money to see certain kinds of cultural commodities, whether it’s in the north or south. They want to eat the food, see the dances, and to a certain extent see some of the more beautiful mosques. They want to see the traditional clothing. We see this in many places in which there is kind of a colonial imperative. You can have cultural identity, but only if it is commercialized and put into this box to sell, and it’s completely depoliticized from the history, from the colonial relationship, from the relationships of power and exploitation. So, racial capitalism is a really helpful lens. It occurs because it makes money, because the tourist industry wants to sell a vision of Xinjiang that is both safe, interesting and culturally relevant with the dancing, the costumes and the food. But it’s stripped of the cultural struggle, the ongoing fight to save language rights, the ongoing mass incarceration and exploitation of the Uyghur people, the ongoing removal of Uyghur people, and other negatively racialized people from their native land who are put into carceral institutions and unfree labor arrangements. Racial capitalism gives us a tool to understand this better, and who profits from it and why. This is the power of colonial racism and colonial racial discourse. That is so powerfully obvious when you talk to somebody who is different culturally. It says all Uyghur people, all Turkic Muslim people, are potentially terrorists. They’re infected with this extremism tied to their regular everyday activities in terms of their Islamic religious activities or the way they look or, or whether they decide to grow a beard or what they wear. The government is going to go in and help these people become good Chinese citizens. That is the evilness of this colonial civilizational language. If you call it out for what it is, I think it becomes obvious. But the government is able to package it in a way that obscures what is actually happening.

RFA: Why did you tweet that you feel you have an obligation as a Han Chinese to write about this? 

Wong: Of course, the personal is political. But it’s also that the situatedness of humanity is really important. Not many people are talking about this or seeing the horrendous things that have happened in the last five years. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s an escalation of a previous problem. They are not seeing it as a problem of rising Han ethno-nationalism. People call it different things like chauvinism and Han supremacy, but it’s similar to the rise of ultranationalist politics in a lot of places. In neighboring India, we’re seeing Hindu supremacy create a certain politics there. We see the reemergence of white supremacy in a lot of places. So, I think because of the way that China is perceived as somehow different, completely outside of global patterns and ultra-nationalism, this is an import created by under Xi Jinping, a rising sense of ultra-nationalism and not just Chinese ultra-nationalism, but Han Chinese ultra-nationalism privileging and normalizing that those perceived characteristics of Han Chinese as above others in the Chinese ambit right of power, and therefore more civilized. These are many of the same arguments that other colonial projects make. So, as a Han Chinese person, it is super important and incumbent on us who do not agree with this and are really staunchly opposed to it to step into our identity and say that they should not be doing this. It is absolutely atrocious morally and ethically and economically. From our positionality, we are going to be part of the solution, we’re not going to be part of continuing the problem even though the system is supposed to be to the benefit of our group identity. 

RFA: What’s your message to Han Chinese living abroad? 

Wong: As Han Chinese people, we have to step into our identity to fight against what we see as Han ethno-nationalism, the impacts of which are felt most starkly in places like Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. The fight against colonial racism is a global one and it’s a noble one. When you’re part of this fight, it doesn’t matter which race or what nationality you are. It might take a long time, but I believe we will win the struggle. There are a lot of allies out there in the fight against colonial racism, the type of colonial racism that Uyghurs, Tibetans and others face right now. History tells us that even the most powerful and oppressive empires eventually fall and wain away because of organized resistance by people who are fighting oppression. There’s nothing in history that can’t be changed, and there’s nothing about the present condition of what is going on that can’t be changed. 

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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