Settler colonialism and the XPCC

Update, September 2021: Dr. Darren Byler, who has lived and worked in Xinjiang and speaks both Mandarin and Uyghur, published this month an essay that uses his interviews with Uyghurs in China to illustrate the transformation of Xinjiang and the dispossession of Uyghurs for the purpose of China's economic growth—growth that left most Uyghurs behind.

It is important to emphasize that in a frontier space like Xinjiang, acts of expropriation — legalized land grabs, the takeover of banks and schools, coerced labor, and so on — are not simply a neutral function of state capital in service to the economy. It is not quite the same as state seizure of farmers’ lands in other parts of the country, which is more a function of social inequality and profit maximization. Because they occur on the ancestral lands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, these processes of dispossession are what establish a relationship of domination over people who are marked as different because of the language, faith, and ethno-racial phenotypes.

Some argue that China's relationship to Xinjiang is equivalent to settler colonialism. The name Xinjiang itself quite literally means "new frontier", but I'll avoid harping on that fact in lieu of substantive look into the relationship between Han-dominated China proper and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Kohn & Reddy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy note that the term colonialism itself can be tricky to define:

Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. One of the difficulties in defining colonialism is that it is hard to distinguish it from imperialism. ... Like colonialism, imperialism also involves political and economic control over a dependent territory. The etymology of the two terms, however, provides some clues about how they differ. The term colony comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. This root reminds us that the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin.

I somewhat lean toward the belief that Xinjiang meets the threshold of some form of colonialism. It is an area governed by a culturally distinct group with significantly more economic and political power than the native majority. Its natural resources are generally sent back to the inland, and economic growth there disproportionately benefits the powerful minority who have settled in the region. Through the XPCC and recent Uyghur population control measures, the central government of China seeks to maintain a critical mass of this Han minority for the sake of continued control over the region.

At the same time, it is obvious that this colonialism is not of the seafaring European type, and that the Chinese connection to Xinjiang is quite so far-fetched as, say, the United Kingdom's to India. Adam Jones in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction notes that nation states "were generally created by processes of imperial expansion followed by internal colonialism. The designated or desirable boundaries of the state were first imposed on coveted lands through imperialism, then actualized, rationalized, made 'legible' and exploitable by the imposition of members of the dominant group or its surrogates upon adjacent or nearby territories and populations." (pp. 90–91) Internal colonialism seems to be a more accurate representation of China's relationship with Xinjiang, but those who fully reject Chinese claims to Xinjiang may see this as too conceding to the Chinese view. Regardless of how we label it, this post attempts to show threads of settler colonialism that run throughout China's interactions with Xinjiang in the modern era in a very condensed (and amateur) form.

(This post builds upon the discussion made about birth rates here. To recap: Xinjiang has undergone an unprecedentedly rapid drop in birthrates since 2017. This drop is heavily concentrated among non-Han, and in particular, Uyghurs, and there is significant evidence that this is the result of mass incarceration, reeducation camps, and coercively imposed birth control, including forced sterilization.)

A brief history of the region

First, a note that I am not a historian, nor am I exceptionally well versed in the long history of the region now called Xinjiang or Central Asia in general. One such scholar/historian, Tom Cliff, however, provides a useful framing of the region:

The nature of China’s Northwest frontier over time has three key elements. Firstly, throughout the history of the Chinese Empire, the Northwest frontier has been continually in flux (Gaubatz, 1996, p. 20). Secondly, the frontier has always been a region, not a line, and as such formed a transitional buffer zone around inner China (Waldron, 1990, p. 42). The third point is that the ‘‘Chinese conception of the heartland was ethnic as well as spatial...[so] regions of largely non-Chinese population remained consistently outside the perceived core area, regardless of their proximity to the heartland’’ (Gaubatz, 1996, p. 24). Thus the innermost parts of the Western Regions, those closest to the core area, may have been in effect integrated with the core area and consequently not frontier zones, but not characterisable as core either because of their low Han population.

An official history of Xinjiang, as relayed by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can be found in this English summary. I am not going to attempt to go through it line by line. In brief: the official view is that Xinjiang has been under Chinese influence since the Han dynasty (approximately 200 BCE). The view emphasizes the continuity of authority China posited over the region, glossing over interventions and full conquests by others, including the Tibetan Empire, various local non-Han kingdoms, or the Dzungar Khanate, against which Qing waged a series of wars culminating in the conquest of Xinjiang in the mid-18th century. Control was hardly centralized; the Qing would have to re-conquer the region in 1877 after a fifteen-year rebellion, after which Xinjiang as a province was formally established. During the Japanese invasion of China and subsequent Chines Civil War, two small, short-lived East Turkestan Republics existed, the first from 1932-33 and the second from 1944-1949.

In October 1949, Mao Zedong sought to gain control over Xinjiang, which at that point was held by the KMT allied with the Second East Turkestan Republic. In a meeting with a CCP delegation in the summer of 1949, Stalin expressed his support for the endeavor (Russian/English):

5. О Синьцзяне. Тов. Сталин сказал, что не следует оттягивать занятие Синьцзяна, потому что оттяжка может повлечь за собой вмешательство в дела Синьцзяна англичан. Они могут активизировать мусульман, в том числе и индийских, для продолжения гражданской войны против коммунистов, что нежелательно, ибо в Синьцзяне имеются большие запасы нефти и хлопка, в которых остро нуждается Китай. Китайского населения в Синьцзяне имеется не более 5%, после занятия Синьцзяна следует довести процент китайского населения до 30% путем переселения китайцев для всестороннего освоения этого огромного и богатого района и для усиления защиты границ Китая.

5. About Xinjiang. Cde. Stalin said that one should not put off occupation* of Xinjiang, because a delay may lead to the interference by the English in the affairs of Xinjiang. They can activate the Muslims, including the Indian ones, to continue the civil war against the communists, which is undesirable, for there are large deposits of oil and cotton in Xinjiang, which China needs badly. The Chinese population in Xinjiang does not exceed 5%, after taking Xinjiang one should bring the percentage of the Chinese population to 30% by means of resettling the Chinese for all-sided development of this huge and rich region and for strengthening China's border protection.

* One of easily the top ten most annoying arguments I have gotten involved in on Twitter was with someone who who insists that the translation of the word as "occupation" here—done by a native Russian speaker—is wildly deceitful. (The PLA moved 240,000 troops into Xinjiang; most, but not all, opposing forces surrendered peacefully.) Here are a few examples of United Nations documents translating the word in question, занять, and its derivatives as "occupy/occupation", for context (it could also be translated as 'to take'). Regardless, the point here is actually the second paragraph about the Han population. Twitter is so annoying.

Xinjiang under the PRC

The Han population in Xinjiang

Li Xiaoxia, the highly-cited Party researcher who writes frequently writes in defense of government policy in Xinjiang, provides a useful graph showing the Han and Uyghur populations in Xinjiang since the founding of the People's Republic in her essay attempting to explain away the drop in birthrate:


It would seem, then, that Mao very much agreed with Stalin's advice; by the 1970s, there were almost as many Han as Uyghurs. Li herself more or less admits one of the reasons the government nowadays ought to be concerned population growth and composition in Xinjiang is functionally because of that dip in Han we see beginning in the last 10 years while Uyghurs continue to grow. In her 2017 paper, she says the population of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is too high, causing two problems, one of resources (which she goes on to write very little about), and one of governance and stability:


The population issue in Xinjiang has always been a point of general focus, having to do with the long-term peace and stable governance of Xinjiang. At present, the main understanding of Xinjiang’s population issue [is that] from a political perspective, Xinjiang’s population and family planning work have always been the key target of the "three forces" [of terrorism, extremism, and separatism] and international anti-China forces. Under the pretense of human rights, they deny the impact of Xinjiang’s population and family planning policies on economic and social development [i.e. refuse to admit the success of the policy]. From a societal perspective, first, the growth rate of the ethnic minority population is too high, which causes a rapid increase in total population; increasing natural and social pressures on resources, the environment, and employment; difficulty improving the quality of the population; and difficulty alleviating poverty, which affects social stability. Second, the population gap between ethnic minorities and Han is widening, resulting in more obvious single-ethnicity sentiment settlements in certain areas. The lack of interaction between different ethnic groups and cultures results in the superimposition of the three factors of ethnicity, religion, and region, thereby strengthening the single-ethnicity sentiment and weakening Chinese national identity, affecting long-term peace and stable governance. Therefore, controlling the growth rate of the ethnic minority population and adjusting the regional ethnic population structures are held to be an important way to achieve long-term peace and stable governance in Xinjiang. The population growth or demographic structure of Xinjiang is related to Xinjiang's population policy. This article aims to analyze the population changes in Xinjiang over the past few decades from the perspective of the development and composition of ethnic populations, focusing on the impact of the policy on population changes after the implementation of the family planning policy, and discussing the possibilities and effects of policy adjustment.

While nominally concerned with a lack of integration among different ethnic groups, Li omits any substantive reference to a key Xinjiang institution somewhat reminiscent of the East India Trading Company: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).


The XPCC is a critical part of the geography and politics of Xinjiang, occupying large swathes of land which are overwhelmingly Han and deliberately, according the author I discuss below, avoid interaction with Uyghurs outside of securitized contexts. Li's omission of XPCC enclaves shows that her concerns of "integration" are one-sided; she does not care about Han living near Uyghurs as much as she cares about Uyghurs living near Han, and that difference is crucial. Han don't need stabilizing.

To define the XPCC, I'll draw on work by Dr. Bao Yajun. Bao was dispatched by the CCP to study the XPCC in the late 2000s and later served as a fellow at Harvard, where he wrote this report. The Qiao Collective, a loose group of staunchly pro-PRC individuals who deny the existence of any sort of systematic oppression in Xinjiang as imperialist propaganda, amusingly include Bao's report in their compendium of resources on Xinjiang (it's a bad compendium, I did a brief thread on it here after reading through it the first time), without evidently understanding the its implications. Bao, it should be noted, is strongly supportive of the XPCC system. To summarize some more salient points:

  • The fundamental aim of the XPCC is "to ensure that sufficient Han Chinese settled and remained in Xinjiang, thus demonstrating the sovereignty of the centre and maintaining the security of Xinjiang" (p. 4).
  • The organization is overwhelmingly Han—86%, versus 36% for all of Xinjiang—and prefers to recruit Han from outside Xinjiang to grow its ranks (4).
  • The XPCC is one of "two parallel governance structures" in the region, in addition to the actual Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government; even so, Beijing "plays a central role" in the XPCC (5).
  • The XPCC is organized along military lines and while not an army proper, it maintains "about 100 thousand trained militia" independent of police forces which are mobilized in the event of an emergency (6).
  • The central government devotes huge resources to keeping the organization afloat, paying them at a rate higher than public employees of the XUAR (10).
  • While Bao thinks their grievances are "largely unjustified", he acknowledges that it is deeply unpopular among Uyghurs, who think "XPCC is exploiting Xinjiang resources and reducing Uyghurs’ employment" (10).

So, we have a quasi-militarized organization composed of an imported majority out-group. It is deeply unpopular with the indigenous minority of the region. It is a deliberate, state-backed body and composed of both volunteer settlers and those dispatched by the state. It operates autonomously as a parallel government. It exists not because it is necessarily profitable, but because it serves the security interests of the state.

For a fully translated recruitment ad of the XPCC from early 2020, see:

XPCC recruitment advertisement

Is Xinjiang a colony?

It should be obvious that Xinjiang is not a colony in the classical sense of the term (but do any such classical colonies still exist?). It is a resource-rich region that exports most of its mineral wealth (particularly oil and rare earth elements) to the more prosperous core, and into which Beijing prioritizes the immigration of majority-ethnicity people, but at the same time, the central government massively underwrites not only the XPCC but also the XUAR government itself, and considers the region to be a core territory. The XPCC builds infrastructure and can serve as a conduit for investment and growth that benefits Uyghurs (but to a lesser extent than Han, according to Liu & Peters 2017).

I am of the "if it looks like a settler duck and quacks like a settler duck, it's a settler duck" view. While certainly an important discussion, I don't consider the applicability of colonialism in Xinjiang as critical to understand the mass repression going on there. Given that the purpose of this project on my blog is specifically about the ongoing crackdown, I am actually just going to pass the buck direct you to the few works below (all open access or viewable with a free JSTOR account) if you're particularly interested: