China has built a vast network of extrajudicial internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang, where Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are made to renounce their culture and religion, and are forcibly subjected to political indoctrination. After long denying the camps’ existence, the government now calls them benign training centers that teach law, Mandarin and vocational skills — a claim that has been exposed as a disingenuous euphemism and an attempt to deflect criticism for gross human rights abuses.
But the camps, especially their ambition to rewire people, reveal a familiar logic that has long defined the Chinese state’s relationship with its public: a paternalistic approach that pathologizes deviant thought and behavior, and then tries to forcefully transform them. The scale and pace of the government’s campaign in Xinjiang today may be extraordinary, but the practice and its methods are not.
As far back as the third century BCE, the philosopher Xunzi argued that humanity was like “crooked timber” and that an individual’s character flaws needed to be scraped away or straightened out in the pursuit of social harmony. Mencius, a rival thinker, believed for his part in the innate goodness of human beings, but he too stressed the importance of self-improvement.
In stark contrast to Western liberalism, Confucianism — and Chinese political culture more broadly — hinges not on individual rights, but on the acceptance of social hierarchy and the belief that humans are perfectible. In Chinese thought, humans are not equally endowed; they vary in suzhi (素质), or quality. A poor Uighur farmer in southern Xinjiang, for example, sits at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder; an official from the ethnic Han majority is toward the top.