This post is part of a symposium on China and the Political Economy of the International Legal Order.
In response to the ongoing dominance of liberal human rights legalism and parochial Cold War binaries in the discourse surrounding securitization, mass detention, and social re-engineering in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), I published an article this past year asserting that these developments signalled the emergence of “Racial Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics.” In it, I argue that the massive campaign of suppression and securitization in the XUAR beginning in 2017 cannot be properly understood without foregrounding the long-standing colonial relation between Han settler institutions and non-Han native populations, the effect of the Global War on Terror in the identification of Uyghur physical and cultural markers as proto-terrorist, and the rapid integration of the XUAR into global capitalist relations, particularly as a key trade, agricultural, and natural resource hub within the Belt and Road Initiative.
Since the article’s publication, several readers have asked me to expound on my decision to apply the lens of racial capitalism lens to this issue. Reflecting on this question is, I believe, integral to a deeper understanding of racial capitalism itself, particularly outside the direct ambit of white supremacy. Though its contemporary theorization emerged from Cedric Robinson and other scholars of the Black Radical Tradition, racial capitalism has also been adopted as a core tenet of Law and Political Economy scholarship, which developed in the U.S. as a response to the dominance of neoclassical approaches to law and economics. However, it is important to keep in mind that the idea of racial capitalism itself is neither an idea somehow restricted to U.S., nor an idea that can be provincialized solely within the processes and structures of Western colonial and neo-colonial expropriation and exploitation.
Rather, as Robinson sets out in his historical and materialist analysis of intra-European racial constructions, examining the very origins of capitalism reveals its inherent tendency to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into “racial” ones to justify violent inequalities. This analysis foregrounds racial capitalism’s contingency as an organizing principle on a global scale—one that is sharpened through colonial encounters, and continually reproduced in new ways that legitimize social hierarchy under ongoing processes of capital accumulation. As Darren Byler writes in the context of the XUAR, “[a]s social institutions and market forces build structures of power over life, what might otherwise be characterized as ethnic difference in non-Euro-American contexts comes to take on the symbolic and material violence of racialization.”
My own decision to examine recent developments in the XUAR through the lens of racial capitalism was not made on the basis of a pre-existing commitment to the view. Rather, it was made as part of the process of searching for a theoretical orientation that could accurately and comprehensively explain the empirical facts of the situation–particularly the processes, material interests, and social, economic, and legal conditions that made possible the systemic and violent subordination of Uyghurs and other non-Han native peoples in the XUAR.
Adopting this theoretical approach also allowed me to historically situate the immense expansion of discriminatory securitization and forced assimilation in the XUAR—not as an aberration, but as the next logical extension of a chain of Han settler capitalist development strategies since at least the early 1990s. From the Opening Up the West Campaign and the corporatization of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps to the transformations associated with the Belt and Road Initiative and the People’s War on Terror, the extrajudicial camp system and coercive proletarianization of Uyghur labour beginning in 2017 simply put an exclamation mark on what had already been a decades-long betrayal of the Communist Party’s initial commitment to socialist multiculturalism and economic equality.
In exploring racial capitalism with “Chinese Characteristics,” the later phrase reminds us of the importance of situating any application of theory within its specific historical and social contexts and realities. This is relevant not only to racial capitalism, but also to another key tenet of LPE scholarship: what Corinne Blalock, following Quinn Slobodian, describes as the “encasement of markets from political contestation.” China has similarly seen widespread depoliticization with respect to markets and economic development, but which followed from a vastly different historical trajectory after the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening era. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that Chinese officials frequently use neutral sounding economic justifications such as development, poverty alleviation, increasing “language ability,” and enhancing “employability,” to rationalize harsh XUAR policies.
This false separation between the political and the economic undermines our ability to both understand and contest the connections between developments in the XUAR traditionally seen as “political” (e.g. counter-terrorism, policing and surveillance, mass incarceration, restrictions on freedom of religious and language rights, and coercive birth control policies) with developments traditionally associated with the “economic” (e.g. rapid expansion of the fossil fuel industry, extraction of vast amounts of data by AI surveillance companies, and rural surplus labour programs). When we reject this dichotomy, it becomes clear that law and policy significantly influence the conditions of possibility by which these developments are conceived and incentivized.
Encouragingly, some of this analysis is slowly making its way into international jurisprudence on the situation in the XUAR. For instance, the International Labour Organization’s Committee of Experts’ 2022 report on China’s compliance with its convention against labour discrimination called attention to the mutually reinforcing relationship between racialization and a zealous counter-terrorism legal regime (as reflected in China’s 2015 Counter-Terrorism Law and associated Religious Affairs Regulations, as well as the 2016 XUAR Implementation Guidelines for the Counter-Terrorism Law), stating that “terrorist profiling practices based on a person’s ethnicity, national origin or religion in as much as they generate a climate of intolerance…is conducive to discrimination in employment and occupation and forced labour practices such as those alleged in the observations of the ITUC.”
Related and urgent connections between processes of racialization and state-sanctioned differentiated vulnerability to premature death (evoking Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s influential articulation of racism) have also been seen in some grassroots protests following the November 2022 deaths of at least 10 Uyghurs from fire in the XUAR capital city of Urumqi and the confirmation of Xi Jinping to an unprecedented third term as President. For instance, the popular Chinese overseas student platform “Noturlilpink” (不粉红) appealed for an additional protest demand to “close the Xinjiang camps,” citing the erasure of the uniquely severe structures of repression and persecution that face Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other oppressed groups under Han chauvinism.
A final reason to favor an analysis of racial capitalism is that it foregrounds the importance of settler colonialism in our analysis. As a Han Chinese law professor struggling with the integration of LPE ideas into the Canadian legal academy, one of the critiques of LPE scholarship I sometimes encounter (echoing similar critiques around U.S.-centric critical race theory scholarship) is its inattention to settler colonial capitalism. Whether fair or not, this response reminds us that critiquing processes of settler colonial accumulation, particularly in the extractive industries, should not be seen as an accommodation or merely an additional vector of LPE analysis, but rather undergirding the very essence of what it means to do this work in settler colonies like the U.S. or Canada.
Doing so is an important way of push back against right-wing think tanks such as Canada’s MacDonald-Laurier Institute, which finds itself almost unopposed in arguing for increased encroachment of unceded Indigenous lands to ram through TMX and Coastal GasLink LNG pipelines as a response to what is cast as the looming threat of China. It is not a coincidence that Canada prioritizes exploitation of the Alberta oil sands just as China prioritizes exploitation of the Tarim Basin oil fields–and similarly perceives native peoples as obstacles to be removed in the name of development and energy security. Racial capitalism allows us to render visible how inter-imperial rivalry and forces of colonial extractivism conspire to existentially threaten the lifeways of peoples resisting colonial subjugation, from the Uyghurs to the Wet’suwet’en.
Yet these types of nuanced connections and the emancipatory contestations and solidarities that they engender remain too few and far between. Deprovincializing racial capitalism and investigating its different manifestations throughout global value chains and capitalist relations will play a key role in diagnosing and ultimately undoing these structures of oppression and violence–in China and beyond.