The best books on the concentration camps in Xinjiang

Nick Holdstock Author Of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State
By Nick Holdstock

Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.


I wrote...

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.


It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.

The books I picked & why

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Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

By James Millward,

Book cover of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

Why this book?

Millward’s book should be the starting point for anyone seeking to understand the complex history of the region, not least how this part of Central Asia, which has been home to so many peoples, and part of so many different empires, ended up within the People’s Republic of China. Its rich, nuanced account doesn’t shy from the challenge of presenting the encounters between many different cultures, languages, and identities, encounters that resulted in both violence and accommodation. Written in lively, readable prose, and with a keen sensitivity to both the ironies and tragedies of the region’s history, the book offers an even-handed assessment of the claims that the region can be said to exclusively ‘belong’ to anyone. 


Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China

By Jay Dautcher,

Book cover of Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China

Why this book?

This book is an ethnographic account of Uyghur suburban life in the mid-1990s, which might sound very far removed from the political and humanitarian crisis going on in the region today. Yet the portrait it offers of Uyghur family life, market trading, informal socializing, and forms of religious devotion has arguably never been more important, given that the Chinese state has been targeting precisely these benign, everyday practices and beliefs in recent years by separating children from their parents, sending officials to live with Uyghur families, and destroying traditional Uyghur homes. Reading it is an immersive, often funny, experience, which should make people understand the consequences of the state-sponsored violence these communities have been subjected to.


Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

By Tom Cliff,

Book cover of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

Why this book?

Since 1949 the demographics of Xinjiang have been altered radically by waves of migration of Han Chinese, initially with the paramilitary bingtuan organisation, but in recent decades by economic migrants. Cliff’s book is an important reminder of how their presence functions in a neo-colonial fashion, and the influence that their needs and concerns have on official policy in the region – which to put it simplistically, is to keep them happy. Though he emphasises that Han in Xinjiang are far from a homogenous social group – something that often gets forgotten or obscured – the common viewpoints and concerns that emerge from his interviews are a sobering reminder of the difficulties in finding common ground between Han and Uyghur in the region.


The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

By Sean R. Roberts,

Book cover of The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

Why this book?

Roberts is one of the foremost authorities on the ‘terrorism’ issue in Xinjiang. The strong argument of this book is that the Chinese government has opportunistically used the US-led War on Terror as an excuse to repress all forms of dissent in the region by grossly exaggerating the threats they faced, which eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his view, the concentration camps, destruction of mosques, attacks on Uyghur intellectuals, and attempts to marginalise the Uyghur language amount to a ‘cultural genocide’. The book provides a concise and forceful recapitulation of Chinese policy in the region over the last two decades.


In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony

By Darren Byler,

Book cover of In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony

Why this book?

Byler’s concise book is a vital read because it foregrounds the experiences of people detained in the camps, stories that overlap and cohere into a raw portrait of systematic brutality and dehumanising routines. Into these are woven an account of the digital surveillance technologies that underpin the network of detention, many of which are not unique to China, the difference between its use of them and many Western countries’ being only a matter of scale. The book also offers an important section on the increasing role of forced labour in Xinjiang, emphasising the need for greater scrutiny and accountability of supply chains that potentially rely on goods and labour from the region.


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