This is a transcript of The Conversation Weekly podcast episde: China’s plans for Xinjiang, and what it means for the region’s persecuted Uyghurs, published on January 27, 2022.
NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Dan Merino: Hello, and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.
Gemma Ware: This week, three experts explain China’s long-term vision for Xinjiang, and what it means for the region’s persecuted Uyghurs.
David Tobin: The underlying problem is the notion that Uyghurs were barbarians and became human by becoming Chinese in 1949.
Anna Hayes: Xi Jinping’s bigger goal here is the “China dream”.
Dan: And, what toxic heavy metals are lingering in houses around the world? We talk to a researcher who gets dust from thousands of vacuum cleaners mailed to them and tests that dust for safety.
Cynthia Isley: They’re present in higher concentrations in homes than we would find outdoors.
Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London.
Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly: the world explained by experts.
Gemma: What’s the latest communication that you’ve had with somebody inside Xinjiang, and what did they say?
Darren Byler: Well, it’s difficult to access Uyghur folks directly because of the surveillance system. So much of the information I get comes through Uyghurs who are contacting their family members in the region and them telling them about what’s happened to their families, what’s happened.
Gemma: This is Darren Byler. He’s an anthropologist who researches northwest China, and he’s based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in Canada.
Darren: Also conversations that I have with Han people, which are not Uyghurs, but have much more freedom to speak openly with people abroad. And so, you know, I’ve talked to people who have been there in the last few months and have talked about how some of the most violent and, sort of, stressful aspects of the system have begun to dissipate or have been pushed to the side in some ways. That there’s less people that are being detained at the moment than there were just like a year or two ago. Some of the older folks, you know, people that were in ill health have been returned to their neighbourhoods and are kind of on watch lists and are being monitored. But still there’s widespread family separation, hundreds of thousands of people are still missing. And so the situation continues even as it is sort of normalised in some ways.
Gemma: What different methods are the Chinese government using to persecute Uyghurs?
Darren: Well, I think we could probably put them in a few different categories. There’s targeting of people in terms of political framing of Uyghurs as potentially terrorists. They’re controlling people using biometrics; their faces, their fingerprints. There’s ways that they’re tracking people’s reproduction. They’re also using technological systems to go through people’s digital history and track them over time. And then of course, they’re using forms of cultural control, stopping people from producing Uyghur knowledge, from using Uyghur language. They’re criminalising immense aspects of what it means to be Uyghur itself.
I researched Uighur society in China for 8 years and watched how technology opened new opportunities – then became a trap
Newsclip: The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
Dan: In December, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, due to begin on February 4.
Gemma: The UK, Australia, and Canada soon followed suit.
Dan: The boycotts are limited. Diplomats from those countries will not attend the winter games, but the athletes will still compete.
Gemma: Also in December, the Uyghur Tribunal – an independent, unofficial tribunal based in London – found China guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghurs.
Newsclip: Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been detained by PRC authorities without any or any remotely sufficient reason.
Dan: All the while, China has continued to deny allegations of genocide and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, rejecting these claims as absurd.
Newsclip: China has slammed a United Nations declaration that accuses Beijing of human rights abuses.
Gemma: I’ve been talking to three experts who’ve carried out research in Xinjiang, to understand what’s happening to Uyghurs and the other Muslim minorities who live there.
It’s hard to get the full picture of how many people have been taken into camps in Xinjiang. Estimates range from one to two million. I asked Darren Byler what figure he thinks is the most accurate.
Darren: What I see in the internal police documents is that, you know, something between 10% to 20% of the people – adult Muslim population – have been taken. So, the numbers you just cited are within that range.
Gemma: What is life like in these camps from the information that you’ve been able to gain from your research?
Darren: What typically happens in the camps is people are put into these cells that are locked. They’re basically a medium security prison cell, which has bunk beds and have ten to 30 people within them. During the day they’re often asked to sit on plastic stools for many hours at a time and watch TV shows on this flat-screen TV that’s up on the wall, which are, you know, Chinese language instruction, and how to sing patriotic songs.
They’re being watched through a camera system at all times, the lights are not turned off. There’s just so much control, a lot of it automated through the surveillance system. You know, they’ll receive a command through a speaker system if they get up from the stools or if they cover their face while they’re sleeping. So it’s really using this kind of cutting-edge smart technology to control bodily movement throughout every aspect of their day, and I think that more than anything really wears people down.
And then of course, they also see the guards beating people as they escort people throughout the camp.
Gemma: China calls these “re-education camps”, and there’ve been variously termed internment camps, concentration camps. Is there any sense of what do you need to do in order to leave?
Darrem: The state refers to them as closed, concentrated education and training centres. The way you progress out of the camps is you need to pass language exams, you need to pass ideology exams. There’s a point system that they use at times, which has to do with good conduct. But many former detainees told me that it was actually really arbitrary, in terms of how you got out. Mostly it had to do with a factory needing workers that was being built nearby, and so, you know, once the factory was ready, then they would transfer people out. So it really seemed to have more of an economic logic, and the workers being able bodied, as to whether people were transferred.
Gemma: And it’s mainly men in these camps?
Darren: I would say about two thirds of the people that are detained or are men, and most are between the ages of 15 and 55, but there are women that are held as well. There’s a disproportionate number of people that were transferred from the camps to factories that were women. Many of the people that were sent to prison were men.
Gemma: And what do we know about whether people have died in the camps?
Darren: We don’t have systematic data in terms of how many people have died. Many of the people I interviewed who were in the camps as detainees talked about seeing people that appear to be on the brink of death in their cells being taken away, some witnessed suicides. It seems like most of the deaths had to do with neglect, with being in ill health, with lack of hygiene and lack of healthcare in in the camps. And then you know, when COVID hit, we were concerned that that could spread and become systematic throughout the camps as well. It doesn’t appear that that happened.
Gemma: You said you’ve been told by Uyghurs that fewer people are being taken into the camps. So what’s happening now?
Darren: Well, what we’ve seen is that a number of camps have simply been turned into formal detention centres. So kanshousuo in Chinese, which is really the term that in the United States they would use for jails. And so it’s part of the formal incarceration system and, you know, in the Chinese case, most people that are held there are held as they’re awaiting trial. So a number of camps have just simply become these pre-trial centres. Other camps have been closed, abandoned. But in still other cases, they’ve actually been turned into factories themselves. And so it does appear as though the state was maybe acting more reactively to international pressure and wanting to close them more quickly than they were at least intending at the outset. It isn’t clear what the future holds, but you know, it seems as though factories and prisons are mostly the direction they’re headed in.
Gemma: And from the conversations you’ve had with former detainees who’ve come out, did they absorb what they were being told? Do they feel that they learned anything?
Darren: I asked that question to a whole bunch of them as part of my interview to sort of chart that, and most said that they didn’t learn anything when it came to Chinese language or even ideology, really. I mean, they learned enough to pass some exams. They memorised some characters, many of them said that they’d memorised 33 or 40 different songs. But in terms of, like, Chinese language fluency, and even understanding of Chinese law, that wasn’t really clear to them.
Really, what they learned was how to be submissive, how to understand their place as sort of really a criminal class. The guards would call them animals, so they understood that they were be being treated as subhuman and that they should sort of recognise themselves as that. So there’s, you know, a lot of shame, a lot of trauma that they carry with them.
People would tell me that the worst thing they felt was when they came out of the camp, having to denounce their past behaviour and other people that they knew in front of their community, and then being treated as an outcast. Once you’re transferred out, then you have to do the work that you’re assigned to do. You’re still being watched really closely. You can’t ask about the pay that you are, or aren’t, given.
Gemma: So we’ve talked about what life’s been like in the camps. What’s life like outside the camps?
Darren: So for people that weren’t detained, many of them had family members or people in their community who were detained. And so the status coercion was placed across the entire population of Muslim people, meaning that they could at any time be determined to be untrustworthy and taken to the camp.
The lines in terms of who is trustworthy or not are very porous and arbitrary, really depends on which official you’re talking to, which device is scanning your phone, and so that meant that everyone was terrified really by that threat. And the surveillance system really worked to exacerbate and amplify that terror and that part is ongoing. There’s checkpoints at jurisdictional boundaries where people have their face scanned and match the image on their ID. They often have their phone scanned at the same spot. If you’re on a watch list because you have a family member in the camp, you have people coming into your home to visit you and inspect your home, looking through your things to make sure you don’t have any religious materials. They’re testing you, you know, making you drink alcohol to prove that you’re not a pious Muslim. They’re asking your children to report things that you’re doing as a parent. It’s so invasive. It’s in all aspects of life. People talked about that system as one that was suffocating. That they felt like even though they weren’t in the camp, they were still within a sort of open air prison.
Gemma: What do your interviewees tell you about their thoughts about the future and how they see it for themselves in Xinjiang?
Darren: So, you know, I think people now feel as though if they haven’t been sent to the camp or imprisoned taken yet that they’re probably fine. I think that’s becoming something of a widespread feeling. This is based on interviews I’ve done with people who’ve travelled to the region recently.
But at the same time, they know that anyone can still be taken. It just doesn’t feel quite as imminent of a threat. So I guess in the short term, there’s been a little bit of a relaxation. I think the deeper trauma of family separation, of forced birth control – you know, ranging from sterilisation to other forms of long term birth control – that continues as well. The surveillance system is still there. You know, there’s a lot of anxious people still.
The children, I think, are the ones that we should be most concerned with because they’re being raised in this residential boarding school system, really separated from their parents and from the culture that they came from. It’s really producing a lost generation of Uyghurs who will be dealing with the fallout of what’s happened to them for the rest of their lives.
So that’s the future, it’s quite bleak I would say. They’re alive and, you know, it seems like the threat of mass death is now less imminent than it might’ve been in the past. That was a lot of concern that we had when the camps were first built is that people could simply be killed. Now, it seems like the state is sort of taking a more middle position, is being a little less aggressive when it comes to crimes against humanity.
Gemma: Why would China want to erase Uyghur culture, language, and future generations? To understand that, we need to understand the history of the region Uyghurs call home, and the way it’s been viewed by the rest of China.
David Tobin: The underlying problem in how Xinjiang is is governed in China is the notion that Uyghurs were barbarians and became human by becoming Chinese in 1949.
Gemma: This is David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield in the UK.
David: My research focuses on identity and security in global politics, with the focus on Han-Uyghur relations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Gemma: Now, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is what this region is called today. But it hasn’t always been called that, and it’s not always even been a part of China. So, give us a brief history of this place.
David: A brief crash course in Xinjiang history would start with the name East Turkestan. This tends to be the name that Uyghurs use. Turkestan just means land of the Turks. Turk includes, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, so there’s a multi-ethnic component to it. So the term today is usually seen as a loose geographical meaning, meaning that it’s just part of central Asia in the east, that borders China.
The region is not seen as culturally Chinese. Uyghurs speak a Turkic language, a different language family from Mandarin, and generally practice Islam.
It was never seen as part of the Chinese nation. It was a colony. It wasn’t called Xinjiang until 1884. The region was actually unified by the Manchu. Historically the region wasn’t usually ruled by one ruler, there were different kingdoms. So it became to be seen as Xinjiang rather than these different states.
So this gave us a new language to Uyghur nationalists, who then by the 30s and 40s established independent East Turkestan republics based on their identity as Turkic speakers, as practitioners of Islam. The region is really ruled by custom until 1949, so local leaders were largely kept in place. But this obviously changed with China starting to see itself as a nation state, not just a nation or a civilisation, but saying the borders of China should reflect our national identity.
So, in 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army arrive in Urumchi, this is called a peaceful liberation. It’s a bit of a paradox. In the Chinese narrative it’s always been part of China, yet we have to keep liberating the region because in practice, it wasn’t seen as part of the Chinese nation by Chinese people or by Uyghurs.
Gemma: In 1949, when the region became officially part of the People’s Republic of China, what was its ethnic and religious makeup at that point?
David: In 1949, the population of Xinjiang was approximately 5% Han. And now today the population is around 50% Han, though official statistics do vary. So the transformation since 1949 has been dramatic, particularly when we think about language. In 1949 and in rural Xinjiang, Uyghur language is the lingua franca. It’s intelligible with Kazakh and Kyrgyz. And at that stage in 1949, Han Chinese people would have had to learn to speak some Uyghur to be able to communicate with people. This is obviously now not the case.
Gemma: Did anything change in the way Uyghurs were viewed by the Chinese state when The Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong came to power in 1949?
David: Uyghurs were traditionally called barbarians by the Chinese state. In imperial history of China, you had the centre of civilisation in Beijing – or where the capital was – and as you get further from the centre, the peoples become more barbaric, “less cooked and more raw” as the terminology says.
But when Mao Zedong comes to power, he’s saying China shouldn’t be chauvinist. China shouldn’t be ethno-nationalist. It must be multi-cultural, it must find a new way to include minorities. So he said we shouldn’t call them barbarians, we shouldn’t use the animal characters that were used in their names when they are given names, they are humans.
When the CCP Chinese communist party came to power, they described almost all social issues in the region in terms of what they call an “ethnic problem”, the minzu wenti. And they thought the way to solve that ethnic problem, ie, how to fit different ethnic groups into China’s empire, was to classify the groups. So that was called the Ethnic Classification Project, where groups were identified using things like lineage and language records, people were asked “which group do you belong to?”. And this was in the framework that economic inequality is the root behind ethnic conflict.
So the idea was that developing the region would enable the region to not just economically catch up, but they would become Chinese. So, this shows how their regional policy did have an ethnocentric streak. There was a notion of modernisation that’s very similar to colonial motions of modernisation, that essentially cultures develop along a straight line. Deng Xiaoping even said the Han have a special responsibility to modernise Uyghurs.
Gemma: What’s happened between then and now in terms some of the big moments that have defined the way China and the centre have viewed Xinjiang?
David: The big events in sort of the the last 20, 30 years, of course, outbreaks of violence in 2008 before the Beijing Olympics, and the violence in Urumchi in 2009, between Han and Uyghurs.
What was different about them was it’s people-on-people violence, it wasn’t just institutions being attacked. So it was taken as a symbol of deteriorating ethnic relations, and it sparked debates amongst Chinese scholars of how to resolve the ethnic problem in a new era. This was largely a debate between the old school saying focus on economic development, and a new school saying we need rapid assimilation, we need to remove minority languages from education system, and we need to derecognise minorities. Xi Jinping’s policy, the language of smelting into rongzhu, that you should have no special rights for minorities, has been celebrated by those scholars as resolving China’s contradictions. So this is a new direction in policy, but it is based on the underlying idea that Uyghur ethnicity is a security problem that needs to be dealt with.
Gemma: There was violence in 2008 and 2009, and that was followed by more attacks in 2013 and 2014 in Beijing and Kunming which were blamed on Uyghur separatists. How much of what the Chinese state has done in Xinjiang since then is a continuation of that longer history of discrimination and persecution against Uyghurs?
David: This is the real underlying problem, that Uyhgurs are not really seen as human, and then when they start to be seen as human it’s only because they have to be integrated into China. It’s worth noting it didn’t have to happen this way. We could have had different turns of events, different leaders with some different ideas.
But when there is a narrative that a people are a security problem, it’s very difficult to turn that around on the ground when a people know they are targeted as a security problem. And once you have that narrative in official circles, how else can you talk about Uyghurs and Xinjiang without referring to Uyghurs as a security problem?
Gemma: You have spent a lot of time in the region and you’ve spoken to a lot of Uyghur people as part of your research. When you were there back a decade ago or so, were people using the word genocide at that point or is it only in more recent years that the diaspora that you’ve talked to have used it? How did they perceive China’s view of them as, as you say, as barbarians, as terrorist threats and more generally the policies that are happening to wards them in Xinjiang?
David: In Xinjiang, people used assimilation as a norm to explain Chinese policy. It was not necessarily an issue, whether this was genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, it’s not an international law debate; it’s just speaking from the heart. So one Uyghur I interviewed in 2011, I asked what he means by assimilation – do you mean total assimilation , or do you mean something more subtle? And he says, no, I do mean assimilation. So I ask him would you would tell us what the word is in Chinese – tonghua – to mean the same. Yep. He’s meaning assimilation. So it is largely a form of genocide in the language being used, and in Uyghur you could even say it as hanzu-leesheesh: to be made Han. So there was no claim that Uyghurs were going to be massacred. But the project of China being in Xinjiang is interpreted as an assimilation project and it is seen as colonialism.
Gemma: It’s not just the Uyghurs who see what’s going on in Xinjiang as a form of colonialism. In his 2020 book, The War on the Uyghurs, the American anthropologist Sean Roberts argued that the Chinese state’s actions in the region are a clear example of settler colonialism.
Anna Hayes: Settler colonialism in the form that we saw centuries ago, whereby states would colonise territories and they would overwhelm the indigenous population of that entity so that they could transform that territory into what they wanted it to be.
Gemma: This is Anna Hayes. She’s a senior lecturer at James Cook University in Australia and a fellow of the East Asian Security Centre. I called her up to talk about the economic strategy behind what China is doing in Xinjiang.
Anna: When you think of settler colonialism, you think of places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the very devastating impact that that had on indigenous populations in those places. And that has an economic driver in it. And that’s certainly something that I think we’re seeing in Xinjiang and when it comes to the economic strategy, how that’s playing out is through the belt and road initiative.
Gemma: Broadly, what is China’s belt and road initiative?
Anna: It’s an attempt to connect China to regions and markets far outside of the Chinese mainland, to put in trading routes and economic corridors that will link China through to the Middle East, Central Asia, to Europe. It also has maritime dimensions that sees China hoping to link down into places further field like the South Pacific.
Gemma: Tell us where Xinjiang fits into that plan and why it’s therefore so important?
Anna: So, for Xinjiang, it sits right in a strategic and pivotal location for the belt and road initiative. It is the gateway to the Middle East, it’s the gateway to Central Asia, it is also the gateway to Europe.
Gemma: And that’s because it’s literally the most western province, in the top corner of China if you’re looking at a map.
Anna: That’s right. And it’s massive. And it shares a land border with many different states. So it is a massive territory, it takes up almost the entire western part. So within China, there’s a real hope that Xinjiang will be massively transformed, it’ll be a hub of manufacturing, a hub of natural resource extraction – I mean, it already is – however, that will be expanded.
And cities in Xinjiang, like Kashgar, which is located in southern Xinjiang, and it’s long been the heart of the Uyghur homeland. It’s a beautiful, or was a beautiful, example of traditional Islamic architecture in Central Asia. But since really the late 2000s, the Chinese government in their attempts to develop Kashgar first, and now more radically to completely develop and transform Kashgar into just any other Chinese city. The old city of Kashgar has been smashed down and there’s a desire to rapidly increase the population of Kashgar as part of this belt and road push, and to have it as a central gravity of economic focus in the belt and road initiative. And they’ve identified nine bases that they want to have Kashgar centred around.
They include textile industry, the large scale metallurgical industrial base, a petrochemical base. They want it as a processing base for agricultural and sideline products, they also want to have export commodity processing and manufacturing base for the neighbouring countries. They also see it as playing a role in Halal food production and supply base for Muslim countries, as well as a buildings materials based for neighbouring countries. A trade logistics base, helping them get that China-Pakistan economic corridor really humming. And they also see it as being an international tourist destination because those little elements of old Kashgar that still remain, they’re wanting to make that a big tourism pull to the region.
Gemma: So all those different elements, is that happening yet or is that still the project in the future?
Anna: That’s still the project in some respects for the future. Other parts of it is already happening. In just the last couple of years, Kashgar’s population has already grown from 500,000 to 711,000. There’s the plan for it to have a population of over one million.
Gemma: Are these Uyghurs that have been brought from other parts of Xinjiang or are they people from outside the region who’ve been brought in?
Anna: They’re a mixture of both. And I think what we’ve already seen too in Kashgar is that a number of factories that have been identified, they do have dormitories attached to them. We’ve seen that with other factories around Xinjiang, that co-location of dormitories to provide the labour to the factories.
Gemma: Where do the Uyghurs fit into this economic strategy for Xinjiang?
Anna: I mean, it’s difficult to say, because you know, when you think about the connections that the Chinese government is wanting to pursue with economic and business arrangements with the Middle East, the Uyghurs were the ideal trading partners. And for many years prior, they had been. Until Xinjiang was really cut off to other parts of the world by the Chinese government, much of Uyhgur business and trade was with neighbouring states. So, they could have played really quite an instrumental role in connecting China to these other locations. But that is not the way that the government has proceeded.
Instead, I think what they are see is that the Uyghurs will make up the grunt labour force within this economic plan. And this is the other thing with the settler colonial society is that that’s typically how indigenous populations are used. They’re there to do the menial, you know, dirty jobs, alongside increasing numbers of Han Chinese who are migrating to the region because they too are a labour pool that is being used in the belt and road initiative within Xinjiang.
Gemma: Where does this fit into president Xi Jinping’s wider project for China, which I know you’ve written a research paper on recently?
Anna: I guess Xi Jinping’s bigger goal here is what he has called the China dream. It’s a dream that many leaders have long held, and it’s really the dream of China returning to a position of great power status, potentially superpower status in the contemporary age. That’s why Xi Jinping talks about it being a great rejuvenation of China and the Chinese nation. And by the Chinese nation, he’s meaning the Chinese people and there’s racial connotations within there as well.
The belt and road initiative kind of falls underneath that, and I’ve called it in my paper “interwoven destinies”. It’s the blueprint for achieving the China dream. So, it’s the economic strategy that Xi Jinping believes can get China back into that really strong economic position globally.
Gemma: So if you see that the China dream is this bigger top level strategy, the belt and road initiative is a fundamental part of that. And then within the belt and road initiative, what’s going on in Xinjiang is a core element. It puts Xinjiang really kind of as a crucial crux point of that China dream.
Anna: Absolutely. And this is one of the critical things about it all; is that for the belt and road initiative to work, Xinjiang has to work. And so that’s why we’ve seen really intensive focus, and repression, and crack down, and the forced labour, the mass detention of one to two million Uyghurs, because Xi Jinping has to make Xinjiang work.
Gemma: Today, five years after reports of internment camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang first emerged, researchers, activists and lawyers have compiled mountains of evidence of persecution of Uyghurs. Much of this evidence was put before the Uyghur Tribunal in London. This unofficial tribunal was established in June 2020 at the request of the advocacy group the World Uyhgur Congress. Its verdict, which was not legally binding, was published in December. I asked David Tobin to explain what it found.
David: The main findings were that the party state is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. This includes torture, extra-legal detention, and moving populations against their will. It also found that the party state was committing acts of genocide, specifically that contravene the UN Genocide Convention article 2D: imposing measures to prevent births within the group. These consist of forced abortions, birth restrictions, and insertion of IUDs and sterilisation that were targeted specifically at Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in a disproportionate manner compared to Han Chinese.
How an independent tribunal came to rule that China is guilty of genocide against the Uyghurs
Gemma: OK. What’s the wider significance of this, say at the UN level?
David: The weekend after the Uyghur Tribunal’s verdict was announced, a UN spokesperson announced that the tribunal has brought to light more information that was deeply disturbing. They are due to release a report. No date was given, but clearly this has resonated at the UN level. That this is not a single report anymore, this is not a single academic perspective. This is an academic consensus, and it’s now looking like reaching a legal consensus
Gemma: What do you think China’s end goal from this point is, and when would it stop persecuting Uyghurs in the way that it is now?
David: The CCP’s end goal here is the great revival and ethnic fusion. But that requires Uyghur identity to become Chinese. So that’s the type of state that’s being created, where Uyghurs become a minority in Xinjiang, they’re under surveillance and most of the population are in either forced labour or – what we see – the camps transferring people to prisons across China.
Gemma: And do you think there’s any way of stopping that in its tracks and reversing that process?
David: The only way this will change in the short term is if Xi Jinping sees that it’s no longer in China’s interest to pursue these policies. How that happens will be multifaceted and will probably happen through random events. There will be pressure, the UN; that I think would pressure China in a way that we’ve not seen before, primarily because when the UK and the US denounce China’s policy it’s dismissed in China as in continuation of imperialism or imposition of Western values. When you have non-western states, when you have multilateral bodies, saying “no, we also think this is genocide and wrong”, that is when China’s image as a non-colonial power dissolves. And that is what threatens Xi Jinping’s reputation.
Gemma: Darren Byler, David Tobin and Anna Hayes have all written articles for The Conversation about the situation in Xinjiang. We’ll put links to those in the show notes.
Dan: Now we’re turning to our second story, this one on the contaminants found in dust. Cynthia Isley is a researcher from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where she’s been studying house dust from around the world. I spoke to her to find out what toxic trace metals could potentially lurk inside your home.
House dust from 35 countries reveals our global toxic contaminant exposure and health risk
Cynthia: I’m Cynthia Isley and I’m originally an environmental engineer, and I recently completed a PhD in Environmental Science as well. I’ve been working with Macquarie University now for the past two years as a postdoctoral researcher in environmental science. And I’ve been looking at dust.
Dan: Why are you looking at dust?
Cynthia: Well, we started out looking at people’s soil. People were concerned about growing vegetables and about their children playing in the soil. About whether that was safe, whether their soil contained contaminants that might be getting on their kids’ skin, and getting into their food if they’re growing food in their gardens.
But people started asking questions about the indoor environment then, as well. And so we started the companion program, DustSafe, which looked at at the indoor environment. And quite simply people just send us their dust and we take a look at it and tell them what’s in it.
Dan: Are you saying people literally just did some vacuuming, took a little bag of that dust that they vacuumed up, and sent it to your lab?
Cynthia: Yeah, literally we just want the contents of their vacuum cleaner. We’ll take it. Dog hair, pieces of toys, glitter, paper and all. And what we do then is we put it through a sieve. So, we sieve out the bits of Lego and hair and larger fragments of food and things. And we’re just really interested in that very fine dust. That is what we end up breathing when that gets kicked up in the air in our homes, and that’s what we’re analysing.
Dan: What were you kind of wondering about was going to be in there?
Cynthia: Well, initially we’ve really been looking at potentially toxic trace metals. These are metals that we know can impact our health.
Particularly we know things like lead impacts children’s brain development and their nervous system development, and can lead to effects on their cognitive abilities. And it can lead to lower scores at school and eventually to lower socio-economic outcomes later in life. But even as adults, and things like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s can actually be influenced by exposure to these trace metals at very low levels. So whilst most of these things are part of our natural environment, they tend to get concentrated in our homes and we want to basically minimise our exposure.
Dan: Where were you getting dust? Was it just Australia or was this a global project?
Cynthia: When we kicked this project off, we started with two global partners and one of them is from Northumbria University in the United Kingdom and another one from Indiana Purdue University in the US, but as people have gotten to know about our program, we’ve actually picked up samples from 35 different countries.
So we have partners in Mexico and China. We’ve also had people joining from Barbados and New Caledonia and Iran, and they’ve typically just sent their dust here to us in Australia or to the UK to be analysed.
Dan: And then what do you guys do? So you mentioned you filter out kind of the toys and dog hair, but then how do you actually start doing science on this?
Cynthia: So we just put it in a little plastic cup basically, which has a Mylar film on it. And we use a device called XRF, which stands for x-ray fluorescence, and that just basically shoots energy into the sample and it bounces back and we get a read out with different peaks on it telling us what metals are in that sample, and that’s what we use.
Dan: How long have you been running this programme, and how many samples have you guys got?
Cynthia: So we started in 2016 and I believe we’re up to about three and a half thousand samples now. So we send every participant their own report.
Dan: Okay, so let’s get into the results here, Cynthia. So you’ve got 3,500 samples from 35 countries. What are you guys finding?
Cynthia: Well, we found metals, everywhere we looked there’s metals. But that’s natural, they’re part of our Earth’s crust, part of our soil. But what we find is that they’re present at higher concentrations in homes than we would find outdoors.
And there was one exception to that; manganese was lower inside homes than outdoors, but everything else was higher. And the reason for this is that the parts of soil that we end up bringing indoors through the wind or on our feet and pets are probably those very fine portions of the soil, which is where these metals are concentrated.
Dan: Were there any kind of trends you noticed between countries?
Cynthia: Yes, there were definitely differences between countries. Unfortunately, Australia had the highest levels of lead, which was a bit shocking for us. I’m not sure if that’s because, you know, we did include mining and smelting towns. And New Zealand had high levels of arsenic.
What really did surprise us though, is we were expecting to see a real kind of divide between high, middle, and low income countries on what was in their dust, and we didn’t see that at all. We saw that really apart from a few kind of variations with individual metals, dust was kind of fairly similar the world over.
There was an exception in Ghana. We saw a lead source there that we weren’t seeing anywhere else. And so I did a bit of investigating into where the samples had come from. And most of them had come from these one or two towns where they do a lot of e-waste recycling. So you can imagine they’re burning wires and circuitry, and this is going into the air and then coming down right across the town and in people’s homes as dust.
Dan: So we’ve got these places that have a particular unique source, say a town that recycled e-waste. But if the rest of the dust is kind of all more or less the same, where are these contaminants and heavy metals coming from?
Cynthia: I think about a third of our dust comes from skin cells and hair and things that we shed as people. But the sources we were looking at were specifically these metal sources, and no matter which country we looked at, we tended to find the same three sources in almost all of the countries.
And the first one was a lead source. And that was coming from the fact that we used leaded petrol in Australia for 70 years, and possibly longer in some other countries. And that quite literally got into our homes over those 70 years into the ceilings, into carpets and all the nooks and crannies, and into our soils as well, that gets walked into our homes. And the other source of that lead is from older homes that would have used lead paint.
The second source was building material source that was high in things like copper and zinc. And, you know, you can imagine just degradation of, you know, your roofing and your wiring and other things over time would cause that.
And the third was a soil source. So that was very high in manganese, in particular. So it was just interesting that we saw those same three sources in basically all countries.
Dan: Was there any kind of urban-rural divide?
Cynthia: Yes. For the countries that we know the locations of the samples from, it was quite clear that inner city samples are more contaminated than rural samples as a very general rule. And I think this is because of the history of traffic and industry in those places.
Dan: OK, so now you’ve got me really freaked out about all the dust in my house. What do I do about it? Should I just vacuum more, should I turn on an air purifier? How do we deal with this?
Cynthia: We’ve shown that if you vacuum once a week, that your levels of things like microplastics really reduce. And, in terms of metals, if you have wooden floors like I do, if you follow up that vacuum with a mop, rather than just leaving it, then you get rid of all of those fine dust particles. And also putting mats at your doors, and I try to make people take their shoes off. That really does make a difference as well.
Dan: Did you come across any sources of contamination that were unexpected or weird?
Cynthia: We had one situation where the people couldn’t understand where their lead was coming from, and their blood lead was just going up and they were getting sick.
And we actually found a pepper grinder that was made of lead. They were very happy and they definitely have gone from being quite unwell to quite well as a result of our program.
Dan: Now, of course, I gotta ask you, what’s next?
Cynthia: We’ve got every sample that we’ve analysed, we’ve stored in these little plastic cups, and we’ve come back and looked at some of them for things like PFAS, which is the perfluorinated chemicals you associate with firefighting foams and things. And found quite a lot of PFAS in homes, which is a little bit scary.
And we’re thinking of looking at things like pesticides as well. And one thing that another researcher is doing with our samples, is they’re looking at anti-microbial resistance and having such a broad range of locations to look at they can study the prevalence of anti-microbial resistance in different places. And in the UK, they’re looking at what they call the microbiome project. So they’re looking at specific bacteria that occur in our homes.
Dan: Well, Cynthia, thank you so much for sharing the story of the work on studying the story of people’s lives through their dust.
Cynthia: Thank you.
Dan: Cynthia told me that if you want to submit your own vacuum cleaner dust for her and her team to analyse, you totally can. Head to 360dustanalysis.com to find out more.
Gemma: Elsewhere on The Conversation this week, we’ve been covering the buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and the global response to it. Here’s Matt Williams, breaking news editor for The Conversation in the US, with some of his picks.
Matt: Hello, I’m Matt Williams. I’m the breaking news editor at The Conversation based in Queens, New York.
Ukraine is dominating the headlines, obviously, and our coverage over the last couple of weeks is reflecting that. We’ve run a number of pieces trying to bring context or a historical perspective to the current crisis.
The big news this side of the pond was the announcement on Monday by the Pentagon, that some 8,500 troops had been put on high alert to deploy to Europe in a counter to Vladimir Putin’s manoeuvres just across the Ukraine border in Russia. We used this as an opportunity to run an article by Michael Allen at Boise State University and Carla Martinez Machain and Michael Flynn, both of Kansas State University, all of whom track American troop movements.
Their article for us looks at how US military presence in Europe has dwindled over years, from a high in the late 1950s to today when there was a fraction of that number deployed. The big drop in numbers came after the end of the Cold War. In short, there just wasn’t the need without the perceived Soviet threat.
The crisis in Ukraine may see reverse in this trend. As the article notes, rather than the US troops heading towards the UK and Germany as they were in the height of the Cold War, this time they’re probably heading further east, potentially to NATO member states like Poland to Romania, both of which border Ukraine.
We try not to look at the crisis purely through Western eyes. To that end, we ran a piece by Cynthia Hooper, who is a historian at the College of the Holy Cross, who takes a keen interest in media strategy.
She’s scoured the Russian TV and print media to see how the crisis is going down in Russia. What she finds is that while Western headlines talk of an imminent invasion and a countdown to war, the state-controlled media in Russia has a completely different take. They see the headlines in the Western press as hysteria, nothing more than a panic attack on behalf of the West.
Moreover, she knows that Russian media are suggesting that, in pushing the line that Putin is poised for war, the US is using the crisis as a distraction from its own domestic problems. There’s going to be plenty more Ukraine stories in the coming days. So keep reading the conversation for more analysis, and thank you.
Gemma: Matt Williams there at The Conversation in New York.
Dan: That’s will do it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode, and thanks to The Conversation editors Dale Berning Sawa, Justin Bergman, Sunanda Creagh, Stephen Khan and to Alice Mason for our social media promotion.
Gemma: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. And you can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email by clicking the link in the show notes.
Dan: And if you’re enjoying The Conversation Weekly please leave a rating or review where podcast apps allow you to.
Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.
Dan: I’m Dan Merino, thank you as always for listening.