As such, we should pause before impetuously tracing the practice of describing Islam as an illness, disease, or even cancer to “Western” politicians. While the United States-led “War on Terror” and subsequent global anxieties over Islam have undeniably emboldened the C.C.P. to act with impudence toward Turkic Muslim populations, we must also recognize a history of C.C.P. attempts to pathologize any culture that poses a political threat.
Indeed, the Party has applied the language of pathology—and to great utility—to theorize state violence towards non-Han cultures. The application of this language in official discourse taps into a long history of what anthropologist Stevan Harrell called China’s “civilizing project,” treating people on China’s geographic and cultural periphery as inferior and therefore deserving of the colonial predation visited upon them. The pathology metaphor dwells outside the spotlights that beam down on colorful exhibits of ethnic minority cultures. “Sick” minorities cannot lure tourists or sell souvenir trinkets, so this imagery rarely appears in popular media. Yet, the C.C.P. has routinely portrayed religious and ethnic minorities as sickly patients and desperate addicts in need of the state’s salvation. As early as 1942, Mao expressed that “our object in exposing errors and criticizing shortcoming is like that of a doctor curing a disease.” Oftentimes, officials identify these “shortcomings” when examining ethnic and religious cultures, which the C.C.P. and mainstream Han society consider “backward” and in need of rectification. For example, “unscientific” Tibetan medicine was the target of Mao-era campaigns that sought to promote specifically Chinese treatments. In one poster from this era, visibly Han doctors in lab coats are treating chupa-wearing Tibetan patients on the steppe. More recently, Falun Gong practitioners have been described as “addicts” who can only be redeemed through psychiatric rehabilitation. Although disparate in time and place, these examples betray an evolution of the C.C.P.’s approach towards non-mainstream cultures: Collective impatience at “backward” ethnic and religious minorities’ failure to conform gives permission to officials to administer aggressive treatment.
A high-ranking official during the crackdown on the Falun Gong “outbreak” in the 1990s-2000s, Chen Quanguo has now emerged as the chief surgeon in Xinjiang. Under Chen’s rule, C.C.P. officials in the region have extended the lexicon of pathology to its recent efforts to incarcerate scores of Turkic Muslims, especially Uighurs and Kazakhs. The Party’s use of phrases such as “contracting illness” (ganran bingdu), “penetrate like an intravenous needle” (guanchuan diandi), and “cure” or “reform through criticism” exposes an escalation of the C.C.P.’s rhetoric: Turkic Muslims must be treated as patients. Indeed, the C.C.P.’s Islamophobia and strategies to deal with “extremism” were not “made in the West.” Rather, the Party has adapted and expanded its usage of the Mao-era term “targeted population” (zhongdian renkou) to Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims, whom officials consider to be existential threats to P.R.C. sovereignty and roadblocks to realizing its Belt and Road Initiative. This decision effectively squeezes these ethno-religious groups in the same socio-political and criminal category as individuals convicted of violent crime, drug addicts, political activists, and mental health patients. Using the pathology metaphor within the context of the “targeted population” label, the C.C.P. can simultaneously justify repression (i.e. provide a cure), apply this repression to large segments of society (i.e. treat an outbreak), and deflect blame from its own policies (i.e. offer an index case to an epidemiology that originates outside China).