“They Just Want to Erase Us”: Triumphant Modernity and Catastrophic Witnessing in Debates About Genocide in Xinjiang

Stephen J. Hartnett, Andrew Gilmore


Combatting what it calls “radical Islamic extremism,” the Communist Party of China (CPC) has launched a social engineering program in Xinjiang, the western region of China, where more than 1.8 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui, and other non-Han groups—mostly practitioners of Islam and racialized as Muslim—have been imprisoned without due process. Human rights groups are calling this the worst ethnic cleansing since the European Holocaust, but the CPC has claimed the right to clamp down on “terrorists” and “separatists” by “deradicalizing” them in “vocational education and training centers.” Placing this campaign in a historical context, we argue it demonstrates how the CPC is implementing a colonialist version of “triumphant modernity.” To illustrate how activists are responding, we draw on accounts shared by refugees to document “the rhetoric of catastrophic witnessing.” This protest rhetoric debunks China’s arguments while advocating for indigenous rights and securing international support. The article builds on the genre of social justice activism within communication scholarship to add new international depth to our efforts to map strategies for advocating for justice.



China, human rights, refugee rhetoric, social justice, Uighurs

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