China’s Use of Psychological Warfare Against Uyghurs

China’s Use of Psychological Warfare Against Uyghurs

Foreign Policy Journal, 21 September 2018

By Mamtimin Ala – The unholy war that China is currently waging against the Uyghurs is, in essence, political, not psychological.  The Chinese government is claiming that the Uyghurs are not compliant with the Chinese nationalist regime, portraying them as terrorists and separatists to the international community.  They are utilizing deceptive propaganda to justify the war they have waged against the Uyghur people.

This war has two goals: to mislead the international community over its systematic repression of the Uyghurs and to reengineer the psyche of the entire Uyghur population by forcing them to conform to Chinese identity. This latter aim is based on the time-tested belief that psychological techniques are the best weapon to achieve a political goal.

The usefulness of psychological techniques in war is not a new concept to the Chinese mindset. As old as was in the 6th Century BC, Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese general and military strategist, outlined the importance of psychological factors for winning a war.  Sun Tzu is the first military theorist to talk about psychological warfare in terms of how to use deceptive measures to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of the enemy. For him, psychological warfare requires a sophisticated mental capacity to rearrange the reality to fit into one’s interest to win a war through the subtle use of lies, rumors, fear-mongering, and propaganda.

At the heart of this warfare lies a conscious endeavor either to win over hearts and minds of the enemy without fighting or, failing this, to destroy their current psyche and create a new one altogether.

Mao Zedong, a great admirer of Sun Tzu, masterminded the relentless thought reform campaigns in China to transform the psyche of Chinese citizens into indoctrinating and, resultantly, internalizing Marxism-Leninism and Maoism from 1951-1952. The psychological techniques used in these campaigns include but are not limited to confessions, self-criticism, political incantations, struggle sessions, indoctrination and other techniques.

In these campaigns, the people were initially considered politically untrustworthy and ideologically weak, needing an intervention. Hence, they were forced to accept that they are ideologically wrong; they have to go through a complete transformation through education in support of Chinese Communists. Only Communists can deliver them from the seduction of dangerous, subversive and revisionist thoughts on to the correct pathways.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping led his country through far-reaching market-economy reforms while constantly provoking the nationalist feelings of the Chinese people to keep their attention away from the real political issues at stake—to reform one-party monopoly and to embrace democracy.

In the same line with his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping took many bold steps to reinforce the control over the minds of the Chinese masses as well as to re-introduce the old techniques of psychological warfare in new realms—to defeat his political enemies in the name of fighting against corruption, to project a megalomaniac sense of the Chinese dream (中国梦) on the international stage to glorify his self-image and to subdue Uyghur dissent once and for all as potential obstacles to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

The thought reform in China is based on a pre-understanding that to be on the wrong ideological pathway is a pathological issue that must be cured. The origin of pathologization of non-or anti-Marxism can be traced back to Mao’s ideas as expressed in his speech delivered on 8 February 1942 with the title of Oppose Party Dogmatism where he spoke of the dangers that “the fanaticism and one-sidedness of petty bourgeois revolutionaries” could pose to the Communist Party. To eliminate these dangers, Mao suggested, in an uncompromising way, that these bourgeois revolutionaries must be told that they are ill and that they must get treatment.[1]

For Mao, as well as for his successors, being a counter-revolutionary is a sign of mental illness; and only the Communist “doctors” are able to cure them as a patient. The relationship between a doctor and a patient in this political context is power-imbued, never based on mutual consent and cooperation but on sanctified intimidation and dictatorship. The Communist “doctors”, therefore, do not consider the appropriateness of their diagnosis. Instead, it gives the “doctors” a certain sense of immunity against self-reflection and self-criticism, thanks to the conflated oath of Hippocrates: “do no harm.” They do harm to others under the delusion that they are actually doing good to them.

What they are doing is perceivably morally justifiable. However, this delusion stops them questioning the consequence of their behavior, leaving them morally inept and blind to the crime that they are committing.

For a Communist, the mind is potentially an unreliable space, falling prey to and engendering dangerous ideas. In this sense, to change a society must start with an individual; to change all individuals must start with a profound change in their mindset through an external intervention, which usually ends up in a revolution.

It should then come as no surprise that Communists are always suspicious of the mind of the people, which, in its invisibility, does not lend its contents to scrutiny.  This, therefore, has a potential for becoming an opaque zone where anti-Communism tendencies can find a hiding place more easily.

When intensified, the suspicion of Communists turns swiftly into fear and even into paranoia. This influence of fear and suspicion, then, leads Communists to seek a more drastic method to delve deep into the minds of the people, not for the purpose of conquering their minds by making it visible and predictable, but for their own self-protection from the unbearable weight of suspicion and paranoia.

Congruently, Uyghurs are currently living in an enforced police state utilizing cutting-edge technologies as face and voice recognition, DNA profiling, surveillance cameras and a variety of spy software technologies on mobile phones. Under constant surveillance, Uyghurs feel that they are being observed by the omnipresent eyes of the Big Brother, to use an Orwellian term, and they can’t escape from the gaze of the Chinese Government.

In this purposefully crafted mindset created by the Chinese Government, fear is the only factor that is common to both Uyghurs and Han Chinese.  Uyghurs are afraid to be caught by the surveillance cameras for any reason, whereas the Han Chinese are scared to be attacked by Uyghurs who are in the grip of fear over his own life, creating imaginary psychological enemies within both against each other.

In this context, the Chinese government has ingrained the perception into the psyche of the Han Chinese in East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang) and beyond that all Uyghurs are a suspicious enemy.  They are infected with viruses of terrorism and separatism that could enable them to be vicious and dangerous at any time, potentially turning into a knife yielding enemy or a suicidal attempt to harm others. The Chinese Government’s notion of catching ideological viruses sounds a conspiracy fantasy. But it is actually a serious allegation of—or better, well-thought entrapment for, the Uyghurs.

In August 2015, for unknown reasons, Chinese authorities suddenly relaxed its tough policies for Uyghurs to apply for and obtain passports. In some odd cases, authorities even forced the Uyghurs in Kashgar, Aksu and Hotan regions of Xinjiang to obtain a Chinese passport as a requirement, and to “see the world.” With the Chinese passport as an unusual or surreal promise of freedom, many Uyghurs flocked, happily, to various parts of the world, in particular to the Muslim countries, including Kazakhstan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But beginning October 2016, authorities started to recall passports with the alleged reasons of “collective management.”[2]

Right after this recall, the authorities created a list of “26 sensitive countries”, including the above named countries, which were all an attractive travel destination for the Uyghurs. Then, the authorities started to target those Uyghurs who had gone to and/or who had had connections with these countries with the unverified, indeed unprecedented, suspicions that they were possibly infected with dangerous Islamic ideas (i.e., viruses) in those countries.

This is how the authorities deliberately conflated the exposure of human body to a virus with that of human mind to an ideological virus to justify its upcoming suppression of the Uyghurs on a massive scale. The significant difference between these two types of exposure was purposefully obliterated.

Furthermore, to visit an Islamic country was equated with being contracted with viruses of Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism. This simple equation made China’s solution to the Uyghur issue equally simple—just as a body infected with a virus needs to be cured, so does a human mind infected with an ideological virus.

The imagined threat of ideological viruses has created a deep sense of collective insecurity and paranoia among the Communist Party elites. Grappled with this collective paranoia, Chinese leaders have determined that Chinese society must be purged of these viruses.

This concept of the purification of their social milieu is evolved into an obsession – the only way to disperse the intricacies of this paranoia is to completely separate Uyghurs from Han Chinese – to put them in a segregated place where they are quarantined for “disinfection.”

This is how the establishment of the concentration camps became justifiable in the psyche of the Han Chinese, making it a political necessity.

In line with this necessity, in recent years, China has brought out of the psyche and into reality these concentration camps in East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang), one of the world’s cruelest programs, naming it reformation through education.

In reality, the reformation through education process is the execution of the psychological warfare that Mao initiated first among intellectuals, and then expanded into all areas of social and political life before and during the Cultural Revolution. Key to this process is the implantation of new ideas into the supposedly dangerous, infected, and backward minds of the Uyghurs through the brainwashing techniques in an institutionalized environment.

For this purpose, the Chinese government has rapidly established hundreds of what is euphemistically called re-education centers which are actually the Nazi-style concentration camps.

The United Nations claimed in August 2018 that it has credible reports China is holding approximately one million Uyghurs in these secret concentration camps. The operations of the concentration camps are concealed from the eyes of the external world except for a few testimonies given by survivors who have escaped or been released. The world of the concentration camps is a Kafkaesque world where Uyghurs are locked in a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, and meaningless fate. They are not fully aware of why they are detained, apart from their political “sin” – they are detained because they are not Chinese or Sinicized enough.

As part of their psychological warfare, the methods that the Chinese authorities are using inside camps are coercive, including political indoctrination, ideological purges and mass propaganda. Detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and Chinese law by heart and listen to political lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping and write self-confessional reports. Failure to do so results in heavy punishment.

These practices are purposefully repetitive, making the life of the detainees, if it is still proper to call it a life, meaningless and broken deep inside. Moreover, it transforms the thought process of a detainee into something restricted and predictable. The concepts or words that detainees are forced to use and embrace gradually shape the scope and content of their perceptions. In the end, the thought process will be domesticated to internalize what the Communist doctors expect of them to think and require them to perceive.

Brutally delineated by the perimeters of these measures, the Uyghurs’ perceptions choose the promise of survivalism over the futility of defiance.

This thought control process, internally, elicits the re-enforced sense of survivalism, making the detainees accept the reconstructed reality that there is only one way to act, speak and think. Anything other than this means torture, solitary confinement, and death.

The Uyghurs outside of the camps in East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang) are not exceptional to these methods, albeit slightly differently.

According to a recent report of Human Rights Watch entitled Eradicating ideological viruses”,“Turkic Muslims living outside are subjected to movement restrictions ranging from house arrest, to being barred from leaving their locales, to being prevented from leaving the country. Inside, people are punished for peacefully practicing religion; outside, the government’s religious restrictions are so stringent that it has effectively outlawed Islam. Inside, people are closely watched by guards and are barred from contacting their families and friends. Those living in their homes are watched by their neighbours, officials, and tech-enabled mass surveillance systems, and are not allowed to contact those in foreign countries.”[3]

China continues to deny claims made during a UN panel that they are incarcerating Uyghurs unlawfully under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Instead, it defends its persecution of Uyghurs in the camps with a classic pretext that all measures are utilized to improve stability and solidarity.

“China protects the religious freedoms of its people. All ethnic groups in China enjoy full religious freedom, according to the law,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, stated in a media conference this year.[4]

The devastating impact of re-education campaigns is not only placed on the Uyghur detainees, but also on their families. The campaigns have further destroyed the most delicate fabric of Uyghur society—the Uyghur families as a most important social fortification against the ongoing assault of Sinification. The enormous and perhaps irreparable damage has been done to the Uyghur families through the separation of children from parents who enter the camps.

Chris Buckley stated in an article in The New York Times, titled “China is detaining Muslims in vast numbers. The goal: ‘transformation, that “the mass internments also break Uyghur families by forcing members to disown their kin or by separating small children from their parents. So many parents have been detained in Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang, that it has expanded boarding schools to take custody of older, ‘troubled’ children.”[5]

Often these children end up in orphanages; some have just disappeared, and some have been the target of organ-harvesting or baby stealing. Uyghurs have, in this sense, been reduced by the Chinese government to a constant and dominant psychological state of intergenerational trauma. The separation of so many of the Uyghur families on mass is creating a slow dissolving of the Uyghur identity, culture and society.

Chinese authorities are extremely skillful at public propaganda through deception. The core of this propaganda is to invert the order of causality so as to give the domestic and international public a distorted message. In the name of the people’s war on terror as part of the Strike Hard campaigns, they are suggesting the cause of the harsh crackdown on Uyghurs is due to the alleged fact that Uyghurs have deep ties with global terrorism. The Uyghurs who were caught in a wrong place at a wrong time, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, are the evidence China utilized to showcase to the world that “terrorist” instincts of Uyghurs must be eradicated through as what Mao would call in that speech “using poison as an antidote to poison.”

Actually, it has been the Chinese perpetration of psychological warfare for political suppression that have left the Uyghurs hopeless and helpless, spiritually encouraging them to turn to their religion as the only solace and justification for their existence, which could otherwise be meaningless and unbearable.

The Uyghurs outside China are indirect victims of this trauma, albeit vicariously at best and interconnectedly at worst. The Uyghur diaspora have noticeably been traumatized with the tragic stories of the camps, to which they have been exposed almost on a daily basis. Some of them feel that they are still running away, in their nightmares, from the horror associated with their homeland as Ms Zulfia Erk told in an interview with The Australian in an article called “Mother pleads for help to end ‘Uyghur nightmare’”: “I feel helpless and hopeless. We are seeking a peaceful life but our life is not in peace, mentally we are not in peace. All night I have to fight with my nightmares and then I know the world doesn’t care.”[6]

Indeed, it must be recognized as early as possible that the Uyghurs in diaspora need psychological support in the decades to come to recover from this unprecedented and unimaginable intergenerational psychological trauma. It is a condemning fact that they will continuously live in the haunting grip of the frightening impressions of the camps. What they are going through is not only a humanitarian crisis but also, more profoundly, a psychological crisis unprecedented in the modern world in a strictest sense of the word.

It is not an exaggeration that the Uyghurs inside China will continue to be traumatized across generations and for decades to come, even if they are released from the camps altogether today, as the holocaust has taught us. These camps are facilitating the infliction of unspeakable suffering upon Uyghur detainees, stripping them of their humanness and attempting to rob them of their identity and dignity through denunciation of their native culture, language, religion and values.

It is now premature to estimate or comprehend the level of psychological, social, financial and cultural damage inflicted upon them by this intergenerational psychological trauma. The only way the Uyghurs will be released from the concentration camps is through international pressure which is too weak and uncoordinated at this stage.  It is then we will be able to know, to a certain extent, the level of the damage in question.

However, by then, most of the detainees may have been perished or disappeared.  The Uyghurs outside of the camps may find it too traumatic to see their dear ones who are utterly psychologically crushed deep inside and have lost their sense of identity, irreversibly.


[1] Mao Tse-Tung, “Selected works of Mao Tse-Tung”, Vol 3, Pergamon Press, p. 56.

[2] “China: Passports Arbitrarily Recalled in Xinjiang,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 21, 2016,