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.
But individuals are malleable, and if suzhi partly is innate, it is also the product of one’s physical environment and upbringing. Just as the wrong environment can be corrupting, the right one can be transformative. Hence the importance of following the guidance of people deemed to possess higher suzhi — the people Confucius called “superior persons” (君子) and the Communists now call “leading cadres” (领导干部).
So even a lowly Uighur farmer can improve her suzhi — through education, training, physical fitness or, perhaps, migration. And it is the moral responsibility of an enlightened and benevolent government to actively help its subjects improve or, as the China scholar Delia Lin puts it, to reshape “originally defective persons into fully developed, competent and responsible citizens.” During its seven decades in power, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has repeatedly tried to remold recalcitrant students, political opponents, prostitutes and peasants alike.
During the many centuries of imperial China, the family was the incubator of social order, with fathers guiding their sons and husbands guiding their wives according to a rigid set of rituals. If the family was in harmony, the entire community could be, too. On the other hand, any misdeeds could be punished with beatings, servitude, exile or death by strangulation, decapitation or slicing.
Today, the transformative logic of ganhua (感化) — the reformation of vile character traits through examples of moral superiority — underpins China’s education system, incarceration theory and even the work of the United Front, the C.C.P.’s shadowy influence machine, whose agents try to court or co-opt nonparty members and Chinese living overseas.
For example, inmates often are isolated when they first arrive in prison and then are gradually reintegrated into the group. They are slowly coerced into obeying prison personnel, thug-like cell bosses and reformed prisoners. Various tactics are deployed to that end, both inducements (more food, sleep or human contact) and punishments (deprivation, torture, ostracization). The experience of shame, guilt, remorse and confession is supposed to bring about the prisoners’ conversion and renewal. This process is intentionally destructive: It is, the contemporary philosopher Tu Weiming has explained, a necessary journey of “pain and suffering” in the pursuit of human improvement.
In theory, the harshness of the process was supposed to be tempered by the voluntary desire to improve oneself and by the expression of empathy toward people who fell short. But C.C.P. apparatchiks, in their pursuit of authoritarianism, have sidelined those mitigating factors. Their forging efforts have largely relied on coercion rather than moral persuasion, and their often ruthless methods have killed tens of millions of Chinese citizens over the years.
Many of the people the C.C.P. has tried to reform were subjected to “administrative sanction” (行政处罚) rather than criminal proceedings and placed in camps where they underwent “re-education through labor” (laojiao, 劳教). The laojiao system was formally abolished in 2013 after it was criticized for violating individual rights, yet re-education continues today — and not only in Xinjiang — under the guise of compulsory legal and moral training or tutelage. Both the ordinary and the famous can be subjected to it, often against their will and without legal recourse.
In 2014, the actor Huang Haibo underwent six months of “custody and education” after he solicited a prostitute. The star actress Fan Bingbing disappeared for several months this year — then publicly confessed that she had committed tax fraud and praised the C.C.P.
It’s a grass-roots effort, too. In the name of “rural revitalization,” C.C.P. officials in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang are calling for “the standardization of peasant thought and behavior.” The program is just one part of a national, three-year action plan by the party’s Central Committee “to raise the ideological and moral suzhi of Chinese peasants in order to refresh and revise their simple and honest character.”
When applied in Xinjiang, Tibet or other borderlands, ganhua seems to amount to a “civilizing project,” as the anthropologist Stevan Harrell has said, which aims to create a uniform populace under the banner of a single “Chinese nation” (中华民族). But it is more than that. In the 1960s, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called Chinese-style thought control — with its dogmatic belief in absolute truth and compulsion to mend the incorrigible — “ideological totalism.”
As Lifton noted, ideological totalism in China is not a continuous process, but a cyclical phenomenon. It elicits a mix of emotions. Some subjects comply, others withdraw; a few may even be enthusiastic at first. But over time the suffocating nature of repression also tends to breed resentment and resistance, and those in turn can bring about even more repressive methods of control.
During the Maoist era, various reformation campaigns petered out as both detainees and their overseers suffered from hunger and exhaustion. One wave of repression would abate but then another would appear, with a different target: The so-called rightists who were released in 1959 on Mao’s orders were labeled counter-revolutionaries and hounded just a few years later, during the Cultural Revolution.
Starting in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s agenda of economic reform helped return Chinese society to a more even and pragmatic keel — at least until the Tiananmen crackdown. But now President Xi Jinping seems to be intensifying repression again — against ethnic minorities, intellectuals, lawyers, Christians, labor activists, even Maoist students.
Yet ideological totalism seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction. It is costly. It encourages abuses of power by local party officials, who reap rewards for maintaining stability. Those abuses undermine both the rule of law and social trust.
Over time, ideological totalism risks corroding the state’s legitimacy. And “once the public begins to lose trust in the government and ceases to identify with it,” the Chinese scholar Yu Jianrong has written, “panic sets in and complete social chaos is unleashed.”
It is the regime’s fundamental insecurity — the fear of rebellion and eventually China’s dismemberment — that drives it deeper and deeper into the private lives of its citizens, only alienating them. The repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang is just the extreme manifestation of the C.C.P.’s virulent — and unsustainable — pursuit of total control.
James Leibold is an associate professor of Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne.