By Alain Brossat
When Hannah Arendt wrote her long article “From Lies to Politics – Reflections on the Pentagon Documents”, inspired by the Washington Post revelations on the manipulation of opinion by the political authority on the Vietnam War, she could still oppose the lie of the State to the figure of the independent press and its vocation to reveal the imposture and to re-establish the facts: “Une presse libre et non corrompue a une mission d’une importance considérable à remplir qui lui permet à juste titre de revendiquer le nom de quatrième pouvoir” [A free and uncorrupted press has a mission of considerable importance to fulfill, which allows it to rightly claim the name of fourth power], she wrote. She emphasizes the “droit à une information véridique et non manipulée sans quoi la liberté d’opinion n’est plus qu’une cruelle mystification” [right to truthful and unmanipulated information, without which freedom of opinion is nothing but a cruel mystification].
Today, in the context of the new Cold War between the United States (with the global West as its suite) and China, a confrontation that is increasingly taking the form of a “war of the worlds” à la H. G. Wells, the latter hope of the defenders of the rights of truth in the political arena has, for some time now, been shattered. What Arendt calls the independent press, which is now a capitalist press in the hands of economic and financial powers concerned above all with their market share in the communications business, has long since ceased to be the remedy or solution, but is rather the problem or part of the problem.
Already, in her article, Arendt underlines the fragility of facts in the face of the logic of political action, in the face of the regime under which the latter is placed: the propensity to lie, she says, is consubstantial with action, “et l’action est évidemment la substance même dont est faite l’action politique” [and action is obviously the very substance of which political action is made]. Lying has always accompanied political action like its shadow, “la véracité n’a jamais figuré au nombre des vertus politiques” [truthfulness has never been among the political virtues]. In the political domain, the permanent temptation of falsification, Arendt reminds us, is not so much related to proven facts (as are, in part, those relating to the historical past) but on “a contingent reality”, moving and open to divergent interpretations. This “matter” on which politics aims to exert its action “n’est pas porteuse d’une vérité intrinsèque et intangible” [does not carry an intrinsic and intangible truth]. It follows “qu’aucune déclaration portant sur des faits ne peut être entièrement à l’abri du doute – aussi invulnérable à toute forme d’attaques que, par exemple, cette affirmation : deux et deux font quatre” [that no statement about facts can be entirely free of doubt – as invulnerable to any form of attack as, for example, this assertion: two and two make four].
But with all of this, she says, in an open society where there are checks and balances and other sources of discourse on politics in the present than that of executive or military, where critical thought has its own channels of expression, state lies, especially when they reach a certain state of saturation and violently collide with whole swathes of reality, can be exposed in the public arena – and it is here that the independent press in particular is called upon to play its role. By exposing dissimulations, deliberate lies, falsifications, by publishing documents that attest that the rulers lied in order to “save face” in the context of the Vietnamese disaster, the independent press, as part of the same movement, re-establishes the facts and redresses the harm inflicted on both public opinion (“the people”) and American democracy.
It suffices to examine the way in which a very sensitive issue such as the policy of forced assimilation of the Uygurs conducted by the Chinese central power in Xinjiang presents itself to us today, to understand that we have radically changed times, in comparison with the picture described by Arendt. The Xinjiang issue can be defined as particularly sensitive in more than one respect: as one of the major bones of contention in the new Cold War, first; but also in so far as it is exemplary of the difficulties we have in orienting ourselves in this dispute, of the obstacles we encounter in the quest for reliable information, giving us access to elements of reality and assured facts.
Indeed, the first thing we experience here is our condition as hostages in the war of discourses – two apparatuses and two propaganda discourses confront each other, and everything leads us to challenge both of them just as rigorously. In the configuration in which Arendt’s reflections on lying in politics are situated, she can identify a vanishing point out of the saturation of public spaces by the lie of the state: the independent press will be able to play, on this stage, the very positive role in the American culture of the righter of wrongs whose intervention provides a kind of saving happy-end – it has, in extremis, saved “American democracy”, in spite of the dirty war lost on the other side of the world…
In the present configuration, on the contrary, what strikes us and exhausts us is the absence of such a line of escape, because we cannot have recourse to any authority (source of information producing a narrative that can be considered a priori as true about the situation in Xinjiang). All the transmitters of discourse, including those with a status that is in principle disinterested – academic or humanitarian – appear to varying degrees but distinctly “under influence”, that is to say, overdetermined by the speaker’s perspective, his or her position in the field of the global confrontation of which Xinjiang is the object at stake. Western academic discourse, in particular, is, as we mentioned in a previous article, particularly pre-empted by all sorts of ideological, sometimes caricatural, a priori.
When we try to form an opinion on the situation in Xinjiang, we feel that we are living under a regime of tyranny of discourse and communication apparatuses of a very particular type. Unlike in totalitarian conditions (what Czeslaw Milosz calls logocracies), it is not the monopoly of information held by a single power that kills information and with it any chance for the ordinary human subject to have access to reliable and truthful sources – on the contrary, we have access to a profusion of transmitters (as far as primary sources are concerned, it is in fact much smaller, and we have a lot of information that is not available to the ordinary human subject), written and oral press, TV, online news, social networks, etc., with a well-drawn front line – Western discourse on the one hand and Chinese state discourse on the other. All of these discourses are, to varying degrees of intensity, contaminated by propagandistic biases, whether this is the result of a concerted orientation or constraints such as the scarcity of sources and their fragility or bias. As Arendt notes, where the question of political lies begins to become considerably more complicated is where the speaker who speaks under the regime of an oriented, partisan discourse, seized by the war of the worlds, begins to believe what he or she is saying, where ignorance, autosuggestion and deception begin to become one. “The more fallacious and convincing a deceiver is, the more likely he is to believe his own lies,” writes Arendt.
The set of facts that constitute the situation about which we are called upon to opine and, eventually, to commit ourselves, is literally crushed under the bombardment into a carpet of discourses intended, in various ways, to condition global opinion. In this situation, we are led to form an opinion based not on facts and data that we have been able to ensure are firmly established, but on a fragile hermeneutic consisting of a critical analysis of discourse.
We are called upon to relate questions of plausibility (or implausibility) to issues of utility. What, for example, will lead us to reject the massive recourse to the notion of “genocide” in the discourse emitted by certain Western commentators, starting with the US administration and its direct supporters, is, first of all, two things: on the one hand, the very great improbability that a genocide strictly speaking (mass exterminations carried out on the basis of ethnic and religious selection in the present case) could be carried out in a territory to which all gazes are currently being turned without the possibility of accumulating irrefutable evidence, by direct and indirect testimony, undeniable data obtained through electronic and aerial (i.e. satellite) surveillance, various cross-checks, etc. The information that for now has served to qualify what is happening in Xinjiang as genocide comes exclusively from a few sources, for the most part overwhelmingly and openly partisan in their anti-China crusade (either authors such as Adrian Zenz or a few “think-tanks” with dubious sources of funding and interests of part), which base their analyzes on a few brushstrokes of reality (the few documents that the opacity of the Chinese regime lets slip or a few open-source satellite images that show buildings appearing or disappearing) that are later completed and interpreted by adapting that few elements of truth to the objective to be achieved and what the public opinion wants to hear (that is, in essence, what the process of creation of a “post-truth” fed by “fake-news” has become in recent years).
And, on the other hand, this, which is not particularly novel, becomes a fundamental problem when the Trump administration (and now that of Biden) adopts at face value what these few sources assert, building its foreign policy based on it. And, what is worse, because of the bipartisan support of the anti-China cause in the United States, the media on both sides have reproduced such messages without the contrast that does exist on other issues of confrontation between Republicans and Democrats. Finally, what the US media unanimously reproduces is largely echoed by the media of many other allied countries. The rhetorical game of those who speculate on the use of the term “genocide” in this context is transparent: it is a question, in a context of strong antagonism between two power blocks, of morally discrediting one of the protagonists, of criminalizing it by placing it on the same level as criminal powers and states such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet regime at the time of classical Stalinism, the Khmer Rouge, Hutu Power… As such, at the same time that there is a goal to taint China as negatively as possible, confrontational poles are promoted within the immediate sphere of influence of China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, now Xinjiang), threatening the “Balkanization” of the country, as Jon Solomon defends, by encouraging any secessionist movement that weaken China’s hegemonic projection into the world.
But hermeneutical rigor is here obviously a temporary solution, insofar as it only allows us to dissociate ourselves from propagandist narratives. In the same way that we do not swallow the totalitarian egg, a little too big anyway, so we do not let ourselves get carried away when the Beijing propaganda tries to convince us that the famous “camps”, on which the whole dispute around the situation in Xinjiang is currently crystallizing, are nothing more than training centers intended to improve the level of education and skills of the Uyghur people – a version which, after the Western Orwellian dystopia, in turn feels a little too much like its “best of all worlds”… But by dismissing these caricatured accounts, one limits the damage, avoids forming hasty judgments based on worthless sources – one does not, however, manage to form a completely distinct idea of the situation.
Contemporary mediacracy strives to reconstitute its well-started credit of legitimacy by constantly posing itself as the defender and guardian of the consistency of facts in the face of “fake news”. But we can see here that it is a rhetorical trick: the “case” of Xinjiang shows in a striking way that, from the war of propaganda and communication devices, the facts do not come back unscathed. The idyllic and simplistic picture of the opposition of lies and roguish political liars to true discourses and respectable rectifiers of statements as representatives of a power with strong legitimacy in democratic societies (that of informing, precisely) is itself a lie and a falsification. What exactly, strictly speaking, is the campaign of forced acculturation undertaken by the Chinese authorities in Xingjiang is on the ground, we do not know. We can outline the situation in its broad outline, discern what it is not, but this general and vague picture is quite different from what we have been able to learn even from the exterminating ethnic cleansing carried out by the Burmese Army in rural areas inhabited by the Royingha population. It is, among other things, that we do not have the same reasons to be cautious about the testimonies collected among the refugees in the camps of Bangladesh as those of these Uyghur exiles in the United States, immediately embarked on the spiral of propaganda stakes and coopted by the corresponding agents.
In more than one respect, this situation of cognitive (“gnoseological”) impasse recalls that which we experienced during the First Cold War with regard to the Soviet camps. Likewise, any information about them was overdetermined by propagandist issues. The Western left was torn between those who considered that any information published about these camps served anti-Communist propaganda “objectively” and brought water to the mill of imperialism (the Western Communist Parties and their supporters, for the most part) and those who believed that, in relation to the criminal practices of a State on a large scale, the necessity of establishing the facts and denouncing the crime outweighed all other considerations. The debate raged with particular vigor among the former deportees of the Nazi concentration camps – those who saw in inmates of Soviet camps brothers in suffering, and those who wanted to remember, above all, that the majority Nazi camps had been liberated by the Soviet Army. Two cases punctuated this war of narratives, in France in particular, the Kravchenko Affair and the David Rousset Affair.
As surprising as it may seem today, this war was not about the interpretation of a given reality but rather about the establishment of the facts: for the Western Communist press of the time, Kravchenko was a fabricator, a forger, a political impostor and an ideological mercenary who made the nebulous motif of the Soviet camps the tool of his propaganda against the USSR; David Rousset, a former deportee having joined the reactionary camp, wrote the French Stalinist press, had invented the gulag (a term which was not “popularized” until later, during the publication of Alexandre Soljénitsyn’s book) in order to discredit the struggle of the communists.
The big difference, however, with the challenge that the Xinjiang question represents for us, is that since the beginning of the 1930s, very many direct testimonies of people having crossed the Soviet concentration camp archipelago had been published in the West; testimonies from witnesses and survivors whose social and political profiles were very varied, autobiographical accounts often very detailed, and of high quality – so much so that despite the power of the Stalinists’ means of propaganda in certain countries (the French Communist Party was then at the height of its power), the existence of a Soviet concentration camp system was most attested by the usual means of historical criticism notably the cross-checking of testimonies, but other sources as well, such as the famous Smolensk archives seized by the Nazi army during the invasion of the USSR by the Wehrmacht. Simply, in this configuration of the Cold War and the confrontation of discourses, a whole section of opinion, in popular circles as well as among the intelligentsia favorable to the USSR, victorious in the war against fascism, did not believe in Soviet camps, did not want to believe in them, for ideological reasons – which, again, constitutes the most convincing demonstration in favor of what Hannah Arendt calls the fragility of political facts.
We find ourselves, with the question of the camps in Xinjiang, in a reversed situation, compared to that which prevailed at the time of the First Cold War, with regard to the Soviet camps: Western opinions, in all their diversity, are generally ready to believe today that a real concentration camp archipelago (with all that this implies if one takes this notion quite seriously) exists in this Chinese province and that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs – even millions – are languishing there, suffering the most degrading treatment, dying there – just as deportees died in Nazi or Soviet camps. Very few are those who are determined to demand more precision or data, intended to enable them to form a separate opinion of what these camps really are. This is because, in general, the Sinophobic discourse (carrying beyond hostility to the regime and reviving very old stereotypes) exerts an almost undivided hold on people’s minds in Western latitudes – a surprising situation in view of what the most basic democratic doxas teach us – the homogeneity or compactness of opinion on a subject of prime importance being supposed to be, in principle, the hallmark of totalitarian rather than democratic conditions. The fact that, during and now after the time of Donald Trump, the main object of “bipartisan consensus” was the demonization of China as the main national security threat (for the US world hegemony, particularly in Asia-Pacific, rather than for the US nation-state itself), speaks volumes on the dominant and dogmatic process of “othering” of China. Western opinion is not divided on the camps in Xinjiang, hardly anybody likes to quibble on the words and the comparisons used by the Western account of the situation in this province, for the good reason that, as the polls show, public opinion, conditioned by the new Cold War rhetoric, has an increasingly negative perception of China in general and its regime in particular.
This, in exactly the same way, but in the opposite direction, that part of the opinion, in Western Europe, refused to take note of the existence of the Soviet camps, by the very fact of its propensity to heroize the country, the people and the regime which had twisted the neck of Nazism.
What should the critical posture consist of here, in the philosophical and positive sense of the term? No doubt in the first place to require clarification; to say: when you talk about concentration camps, gulag and genocide in Xinjiang, what do you mean by that? How many deaths, what methods of extermination – by hunger, cold, epidemics, weapons, forced labor, gas? In the absence of such elements of comparison with other historical configurations, what leads you to risk this type of pacing together anyway? Where is your political interest in this arrangement of discourse?
And in the same way, it would be a question of asking the other party: if it is only about re-education and training programs, why camps – since camps, obviously, there are? Since when has been the camp (a heavy term, in all the languages of the world, one can imagine, with powerful negative connotations) firstly intended for educational tasks? Since when can a forced stay in a camp (obviously those in Xinjiang are not populated by volunteers) be considered a citizenship course?
Or again: is it true that mosques have been and are still destroyed in Xingjiang, a region whose indigenous population is Muslim? If so, for what reasons, for what purposes? Is it true that the celebration of Muslim religious holidays (Ramadan …) is routinely hampered by the authorities and gives rise to annoyance, intimidation, and even persecution? Is it true that birth control campaigns specifically targeting Uyghur women (and as such discriminatory) are being conducted in the region? Etc.
It is over the course of requests for clarification referring to what is being said and written about the situation in the region that a picture of what is happening and at stake in Xinjiang can emerge – a massive campaign of forced assimilation, acculturation based on authoritarian procedures and brutal means – but which, however, are not those of ethnic cleansing consisting in forcibly evacuating a population from the territory in which it lives, at the cost of “exemplary” massacres (Srebrenica); nor, a fortiori, of a genocidal program consisting in wiping out this human group from the face of the earth (the Rwandan “paradigm”). In view of the specific characteristics of this situation, the neo-colonial, neo-imperial feature of this operation is distinct. The Uyghurs are treated by a power imbued with its political prerogatives on a background of racial presumption as subordinates, as they would be a backward population, in the grip of backward religious prejudices, and seen, in the post-9/11 context, like a population associated with a dangerous religion, carrier of terrorist ferments (a fear and a stereotype fueled by acts of terrorism that indeed happened at the hands of some radicalized Uyghur groups before the project of the camps became a reality).
This is undoubtedly a detestable policy, doomed to failure and, in more than one way criminal, in the means which it employs as in the ends which it assigns itself, a policy among others which thrives on a background of Islamophobia which is, unfortunately, only too familiar to us. But this is by no means sufficient reason to pass it off as what it is neither nor could it be – an exterminationist and genocidal enterprise. This issue is very much like the Covid 19 – an issue too serious for it to lend itself to propagandist outbidding and its cynical and vulgar instrumentalization by the cold war mongers. It is here that the question of words and concepts appears vital: it is first of all important to say what the policy of the Chinese central power in Xinjiang is and what it is not, and to use the terms, expressions and concepts adequate for this.
Everything else is hustle and bustle – the sphere in which the mercenaries move.
 It will be remembered here that whoever, in the present world, has played an identical role by publishing information and documents revealing the turpitudes of the administration and the US military apparatus is treated as a high-level criminal, assimilated to a terrorist and hunted down accordingly – Snowden, Assange…
 This banal expression (“forming an opinion”) should be understood here as something that brings into play a little more than the curiosity of the modern subject and his desire to keep informed of the events of the day. It is obvious that the situation in Xinjiang matters to us insofar as it calls for all kinds of diagnoses and forecasts concerning both the present and the future of the Chinese regime and that of the ongoing “war of the worlds”.
 Victor Kravchenko, Soviet defector of Ukrainian origin and author of the world bestseller I chose freedom (New York, 1946); the publication of the book in French was the occasion of a Homeric polemic between Stalinists and anti-communist “liberals”. David Rousset, Trotskyist activist, resistant, deported to the Nazi camp of Buchenwald and author of The Concentration Universe, one of the first analyzes of Nazi camps. In 1949, he published in Le Figaro littéraire, a conservative daily, an appeal by former deportees from Nazi camps intended to draw public attention to forced labor in Soviet camps. The communist press then raged against him, including former communist deportees, which led to a resounding libel lawsuit.
 On this point, see the classic work by Merle Fainsod: Smolensk in the Age of Stalin, Fayard, 1967.
 It would also be important to historicize the issue of camps, local deportations, punitive and “re-educational” disciplines currently implemented in Xinjiang by including them in the genealogy of the punitive systems put in place by the regime since the so-called Liberation of 1949. The figure of the camp obviously occupies a prominent place there, but all these camps are not what in the West we call concentration camps. Rather, some are labor camps and centers of “recovery” and ideological re-education where conditions are quite different from those which prevailed in a Nazi concentration camp or in Siberian isolators in Stalin’s time. See for example on this point the testimony of a former detainee of this type of camp in Michael B. Frolic: The people of Mao, scenes of life in revolutionary China, translated from English by Jacques Reclus, Témoins / Gallimard, 1982, chapter X: “He who loved dog meat”.