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Leftist defense of persecution of Uyghurs triggers a fierce response from professors

An open letter signed by 35 international academics called out a Monthly Review article that denied the persecution of China’s Muslim minority

A group of international scholars have signed an open letter to a New York-based socialist magazine, condemning the publication of a report they claim is dismissive of China’s crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

“We wish it were the case that talk of the internment camps was a myth, fabricated by the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA. But it is not,” read the letter, addressed to the Monthly Review, alluding to a denialist conspiracy theory that the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang is fabricated by American spy agencies. The letter condemned the Monthly Review’s article displaying “agnosticism, let alone denialism, towards what is clearly a shocking infringement of the rights of Uyghur people.” 

Since 2017, the Chinese government has implemented a vast system of prisons, camps and surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang to control its Muslim minorities, in the name of combating terrorism. Beijing’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims has been criticized by world leaders and been the subject of significant international media attention. 

But more recently, a backlash has built up momentum, largely pushed by ultra-left defenders of the Chinese government and Beijing’s state media. It seeks to downplay the atrocities gripping Xinjiang, and paint Western coverage of Uyghur oppression as a plot designed to spark a new cold war. 

The Monthly Review article, “Sinophobia Inc: Understanding the anti-China Industrial complex”,  was originally published by Qiao Collective, a diaspora Chinese media platform aimed at “challenging U.S. aggression towards China.” The open letter in opposition to the article was signed by an international group of 35 academics. They criticized the report’s claim that China’s activities in Xinjiang are a part of a legitimate anti-terrorism campaign, and rejected the argument that the Chinese Communist Party has been subjected to “double standards” because the same criticism is not leveled at the Western war on terror. 

The letter condemned both U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns and China’s activities in Xinjiang. “China’s deradicalization discourse represents a deliberate appropriation of Western counterterror practices,” the letter read. It also criticized brutal Islamophobic policies in the West as well as in China. “Uncritically invoking China’s “terrorism problem,” and downplaying the severity of Beijing’s response to it, paints a left-wing façade on a global discourse of counterterrorism that poses a threat to Muslim communities everywhere,” the letter said. 

The scholars also drew attention to some of the most extreme aspects of the Xinjiang regime, including arbitrary incarceration on a massive scale, combined with the building of a network of camps, “workhouse style” training and factory programs and the mass separation of families. “The link here between capitalist expansion and the oppression of indigenous communities is one the left has long been familiar with. To fail to recognize and critique these dynamics in this case is a form of wilful blindness.” 

The publication of the letter marks a significant moment in which scholars on the left have come together to dispute some of the most potent narratives that seek to distort the reality of the Xinjiang humanitarian crisis. “The link here between capitalist expansion and the oppression of indigenous communities is one the left has long been familiar with. To fail to recognise and critique these dynamics in this case is a form of wilful blindness,” the letter said. 

International coverage of the brutal crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uyghurs has often been dismissed by Chinese state pundits and leftist international voices as an unfair display of hypocrisy and western imperialism. The letter published by the Uyghur academics addressed and rebuked these arguments. 

The lead author of the letter, David Brophy, a historian of China and Inner Asia at the University of Sydney, declined to comment.

Academics and journalists alike have frequently been accused of American collusion when they draw attention to the Xinjiang crisis. “The Chinese state media organization, the Global Times, has accused me of forming part of the “backbone” of a group of scholars who were secretly working for the U.S. intelligence agency,” said Darren Byler, an expert on Xinjiang at the University of Colorado, Boulder and a signatory to the open letter. “I am deeply critical of American militarism and I have never worked for the U.S. government.”

Byler, who said he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the group, added that he hoped the letter would make it more difficult for leftist “scholar-activists” to continue to promote Xinjiang-related disinformation. “I do not know how leftist activists will respond, they may continue along the path they have already begun. I think inside the academy this letter will become a touchstone for principled leftists.” 

The Monthly Review has not yet acknowledged the letter, and did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Darren Byler’s institution. It is the University of Colorado, Boulder, not the University of Boulder, Colorado.

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell