“Seek Truth from Facts”: The Travails of Researching China 

UHRP Insights Polcing

December 19, 2023

UHRP Insights column by Ben Carrdus, Senior Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Researchers can hopefully be forgiven for never really fully grasping the intricacies of China’s polity. Yes, the fundamentals are plain enough: the Chinese Communist Party controls everything – the government, the judiciary, the military, the police, the media, academia, it has both hands on the reins of the economy, it keeps civil society on a strong, short leash, and it has no qualms about inflicting epochal atrocities upon PRC citizens when it deems it “completely correct” to do so. 

But trying to research how this control is applied soon becomes bewildering.

In the case of Policing East Turkistan, the basic intention was to describe the various police forces operating in East Turkistan, as well as their specific duties and their command structures. Essentially, who is carrying out the genocidal policies? How hard could that be? Pull together what’s sure to be a trove of good information on the Chinese Internet and supplement it with existing research from academia, NGOs, and second governments. However, the kinds of problems routinely encountered in any research project on China’s polity include:

a) Complexity. How do the functions of a “Party Committee” and a “Party Group” differ? By what ordinance is one CCP committee’s authority more senior than another’s? What mechanism allows a military committee in far-away Beijing to command the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) in the Uyghur Region? How do the duties of the heavily armed Special Police (that is, the Special Police within the People’s Police, not the other Special Police within the PAP) integrate with the duties of the rest of the PAP? What does the Ministry of State Security actually do, where does it fit in with all the other police agencies, and who even heads it in East Turkistan?

Full disclosure on my part, neither do I understand the equivalent complexities in my native UK, nor here in the US, but it would be a fairly straightforward process to research it if I wanted to, and furthermore, I wouldn’t have to shovel through a mountain of: 

b) Propaganda. There is a vast amount of information produced by Chinese officialdom on the Internet, but it’s entirely useless for the purposes of research. For example, at the time of writing, the top result1Excluding the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry, but Wikipedia is blocked in China. for a Google search using the terms “Xinjiang” (新疆) and the standard characters for “People’s Armed Police” (武警) is a ‘fun’ YouTube video of police training: “So dashing! The deputy chief of staff of a detachment of the Xinjiang Armed Police Corps took down three people with his bare hands in ten seconds!” And it’s followed by page after page of similar ‘information’ including countless cookie-cutter value-free reports on official speeches, award ceremonies, training exercises and endless references to “Xi Jinping thought.”

Nothing is allowed to interfere with the overriding theme of the propaganda that “Xinjiang is the Happiest Place in China” (Look! Everyone sings and dances a lot) – however wooden or however insulting2Note how at 3:03 in the video of the young man walking around the touristy version of Kashgar (which he insists is pronounced ‘Kashi’ per the Mandarin and not ‘Kashgar’ which he dismisses, in English, as “the American language”), he had to blur out the faces of two people following him – his ‘handlers’? State Security officers? Even the propaganda has to be censored. that propaganda may be. 

Chinese academia too is becoming less and less useful for research: in the example of researching policing in the Uyghur Region, the handful of materials made available nearly always have the name of the city under study redacted with an ‘X’. But even then, access to China-based academic databases from US-based servers is being deliberately limited in an apparent attempt to thwart research that would show China in a critical light. Which leads us to: 

c) Secrecy. That nothing incriminating about China’s policing of the Uyghur Region appears on the Chinese Internet is of course by design. In addition to multi-agency censorship and control of the media, there’s a National Administration of State Secrets Protection to help ensure, for example, that even such basic data as the number of serving police officers – in any corps and in any region – remains a “state secret.” There’s a local scion of the National Administration in the Uyghur Region which possibly had a hand in ensuring that information about a Uyghur researcher, Rahile Dawut, including such basic information as her whereabouts and eventual life sentence, was kept secret even from her family. 

There’s no secrecy to the fact that the CCP has a dread fear of losing control of information, and that it’s spending huge amounts of resources to reinforce its controls. But one of the most glaring ironies here is that the Chinese idiomatic expression “seek truth from facts” (实事求是) echoes so loudly through China’s political culture. Originating in the Han Dynasty, Chairman Mao revived it to express the belief that the CCP is on a quest for a pure, dogma-free truth for the benefit of us all. But the real truth is that literally, the last thing the CCP would want is people independently searching out objective information from which to draw their own un-dogmatic conclusions. 

Instead, we are expected to brush aside cases such as Rahile Dawut and the thousands upon thousands of other Uyghurs unjustly detained and imprisoned. We are invited to willingly ingest the vapid propaganda, and be unperturbed by the CCP’s iron-fisted domination of every single lever of executive authority available. And we are meant to dismiss the volumes of reputable research on human rights in the Uyghur Region – upon which “Policing in East Turkistan” is based – as “slanderous attacks” against the CCP, in preference for the CCP’s own self-serving propaganda.

Policing East Turkistan is a useful reminder that China is far more complex than just “the Chinese authorities,” and that a detailed, nuanced understanding of the Chinese polity is essential for accurately identifying responsibilities for the genocide.

But in the spirit of “seeking truth from facts,” all of the above and more only go to demonstrate that policing in the Uyghur Region is far more about defending the “completely correct” CCP than it is about serving or protecting the people there.