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The aggressive (and subtle) faces of coercion

No matter the injustices heaped upon them, liberty and freedom percolate beneath the surface.

Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, in July 2017

Can we force people to change?

Every day, we have abundant evidence of how that question is playing out in our democracies. Political science and polling data show two ideological sides growing increasingly agitated at their inability to change the other side. The frustration is leading many of us to talk less to people who are not like us. That makes change even harder.

Ann Scott Tyson’s cover story from western China this week examines the question from a totally different perspective, yet it offers lessons. Put simply, the Chinese government wants to change the Muslims who live in the western region of Xinjiang. So it is imprisoning as many as a million in “reeducation” camps to make them less “Muslim” and more “Chinese,” in the state’s eyes.

The portrait is appalling. Parents are taken from families with no sense of when they will return. Obedience is enforced at gunpoint. Fear is widespread. The campaign is what happens when the desire to change others is put above every other consideration. 

Does it even work?

Ann left Xinjiang with one overwhelming impression: China’s brutal program to stamp out what it calls the “three evil forces” among its Muslim ethnic minorities – separatism, terrorism, and extremism – is actually creating a state-sponsored version of all three.

Separatism: Xinjiang feels very much like an occupied country. Paramilitary police with body armor, shields, and riot shotguns are stationed along most city streets. As the state grows ever more invasive, the constant overreaching by authorities is reinforcing a psychological wall between the people and the government. The division between the Muslim Uyghurs and the Chinese Han ethnic group is growing.

Terrorism: Uyghurs never know when they will be taken away, potentially leaving children to be placed in a state-run orphanage. Almost anything can be used as a pretext for indefinite detention – a phone call from overseas or a text from the wrong person. Fear permeates life here. Today’s mass detentions have created an effective reign of terror.

Extremism: China is attempting to indoctrinate the population in Xinjiang with a zealous faith in the Communist Party – its own brand of extremist devotion. The party demands cultlike worship of leader Xi Jinping and reverence for his writings. Shrines to Mr. Xi are everywhere – including inside Xinjiang’s remaining mosques, where Xi’s words are posted in place of religious scriptures. Hymnlike paeans to the party blare from loudspeakers from dawn to dusk, louder than any call to prayer.

The situation in Xinjiang might seem impossibly distant. But it is just a variant of the debate on ethnic and national identity taking place the world over. And it shows where the most aggressive impulses lead.

Ultimately, however, it also shows that tyranny and oppression cannot snuff out individual liberty or freedom of conscience. No matter the injustices heaped upon them, liberty and freedom percolate beneath the surface. In that way, any stand for individual liberty or freedom of conscience, however small, can be mighty, because it forces us to acknowledge that our own rights are safest when we protect those of others.

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