The Ominous Metaphors of China’s Uighur Concentration Camps

In an exercise in victim blaming for which cultural theorist Susan Sontag argues medical metaphors are especially conducive, Chinese officials have warned: “If you were careless and caught an infectious virus, like SARS” (a scenario that led to mass medical detention in China in the recent past), then “you’d have to undergo enclosed isolated treatment. Because it’s an infectious illness.”

Chinese officials are thus defending the camps as quarantine cells that will safeguard China from the Uighur epidemic while eliminating religious and cultural pathogens.

The human body has long served as a metaphor for state and society both in Western and Chinese thought. And medical analogies have proven central in the political calculus of extrajudicial detention. With a pseudo-scientific endorsement, policy-makers around the world have classified unwanted populations as parasites or social pathogens that need to be cured, physically isolated or excised completely.

First Concentration Camps
The first concentration camps in contemporary history, established by Britain during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), were directly inspired by plague quarantine camps in India and South Africa. The goal was to “cleanse” besieged towns of “disease, crime and poverty” by introducing wartime refugees to sanitary enclosures administered by British medical officials.

The Soviet Union likewise consigned “parasitic classes” to the gulag, while earlier generations in China referred to political prisoners as “convalescents.” Even today, xenophobic voices in America associate Latino migrants with “tremendous infectious disease.”

The biological metaphors revealed by the Chinese government’s recent document leak, however, find their most sinister analogies with Nazi Germany.

“The battle in which we are engaged” against the “Jewish virus,” Hitler proclaimed, “is of the same sort as the battle waged…by Pasteur and Koch. We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew.”

A germaphobe, Hitler imagined fighting “battles against a veritable world sickness, which threatens to infect the German people, a plague that devastates whole peoples.” In this imaginary landscape, Nazi apologists invariably depicted concentration camps as sanitary spaces that isolated Jewish “parasites” in the name of racial hygiene.

The genetic emphasis of Nazi racism ultimately meant “curing” Jews was an impossibility. By Hitler’s logic, outright extermination — or “euthanasia” in sanitized state-speak — was the only recourse. China, by contrast, holds out hope that Uighur camps, or “re-education hospitals”, can cure their “patients” and thus “clean the virus from their brain.”

Yet like cancer, Chinese Communist officials fear, “there is no guarantee the illness will not return.” And just because an inmate has “recovered from the ideological disease doesn’t mean they are permanently cured,” the documents reveal.

The language of disease justified some of the twentieth century’s worst crimes. If left unchecked by the international community, China is poised to continue that tradition in the twenty-first century. And where China leads, others are likely to follow.

Aidan Forth is Assistant Professor, History, MacEwan University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.