In October 1955, the Soviet Union signed a secret agreement with China to provide it with a nuclear bomb by 1959. Not long after, Mao visited the Soviet Union for the second (and final) time. While there, he revealed in an impromptu speech his callous attitude towards the prospect of a third world war: “Let us imagine how many people would die if war breaks out. There are 2.7 billion people in the world, and a third could be lost. If it is a little higher it could be half. I say that if the worst came to the worst and one half died, there would still be one half left, but imperialism would be erased and the world would become socialist.”
The acquisition of nuclear bombs was greeted with much fanfare in China. And the Party is still proud of it. The development of the nuclear bomb, hydrogen bomb, and satellite proved, said Deng Xiaoping, that China was “a big country with great influence.” The scientists who worked on them were decorated with the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” award. I still remember visiting the China Art Museum in Shanghai a few years ago and seeing a painting—elegantly done in the traditional Chinese style—of a mushroom cloud.
Fortunately, the war Mao spoke of didn’t come about. In fact, the people who suffered most from China’s nuclear bombs weren’t “imperialists” at all—they were almost the exact opposite: the descendants of generations of people subject to Chinese imperial rule and oppression—the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Between 1964 and 1996, China carried out 45 nuclear tests in Xinjiang. Some of the bombs tested were 200 times as powerful as the one used on Hiroshima. A propaganda video made at the time boasted about “[China’s] first nuclear test surpassing the first nuclear tests of the United States, Britain and France” and provided spurious examples of how safe the tests were: “These chickens even laid eggs after the nuclear explosion. The monkeys in the shelter’s headquarters leaped only once when the fierce explosion occurred.”
The reality was profoundly different. In the early 2000s a British film crew, working with an extraordinarily brave Uyghur doctor name Enver Tohti, gave the world a glimpse of some of the appalling consequences of these tests. Thanks to the work of Tohti (no relation to another brave Uyghur, Ilham Tohti) and, later on, a Japanese physicist, some astounding figures of this damage can be guessed at: cancer rates in the surrounding areas being up to 30 times higher than normal, Uyghur children were born with a host of birth defects and degenerative disorders. One doctor estimated that eight out of ten children born in a hospital close to the test sites were born with cleft lips. The mother of a 17-year-old girl born with a degenerative bone disorder told the documentary makers, “This winter my daughter really suffered from the pain. Because she couldn’t bear it she kept saying, ‘Maybe we should cut my legs off, I really can’t bear the pain any more.’ I didn’t know what to do, I tried to hold her, comfort her. One time she even said goodbye to us, she said, ‘Bye mum, bye everyone. I can’t bear the pain anymore.’” Writer Nick Holdstock gives a compelling account of documentary’s background in a chapter of his excellent book, China’s Forgotten People, and the documentary itself is available online here.
This immense suffering has taken place against a backdrop of repression and fear. It is clear in the documentary that the victims and doctors are afraid to speak out. Tohti himself managed to escape to the West shortly before the documentary was aired. Protests have taken place about the issue, but the reaction to them seems to have varied from ambiguous as best to bloody at worst. One instance of the latter took place in March 1993, when Uyghur protesters at the nuclear testing ground of Lop Nur broke into a compound. There were reports of police opening fire and killing some protesters and arresting hundreds of others. However, the habitual covering up of the Chinese government means that events like these will long remain a mystery to all but those involved.
There is a bitter irony in comparing the Communist Party’s rhetoric with reality. The year Mao secured nuclear bombs from the Soviet Union was also the year Xinjiang was declared the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” As with Tibet, the “autonomous” label is simply doublespeak: it in fact means the exact opposite, as anyone who tries to enter or even gather information about these areas can see. Chinese state-run media often depict the Uyghurs as happy, outgoing country folk who love the Party as much as they love to dance. The truth is that their relationship can be summarized more honestly with one word: toxic.
 Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine (Bloomsbury: 2011), 13.
 Christian Tyler, Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang (John Murray: 2003), 167.