Not only is China guilty of committing crimes against humanity on the Xinjiang Uyghurs, but it is frantically trying to suppress a U.N. report documenting these massive human rights abuses
By David Schanzer
August 21, 2022
Photo credit: BBC, 2022
I know there is a lot of discussion right now about anti-democratic tendencies in the U.S. with all the commentary about Liz Cheney’s defeat, the proliferation of 2020 election deniers in the GOP, the anti-rule of law critique of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, and widespread threats of violence against the FBI.
But today I am writing about what the Chinese government is doing to the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
This is an important issue for Perilous Times because the Chinese regime is engaged in the longest, deepest, most comprehensive set of crimes against humanity in the world today, the gravest human rights atrocity of the 21st century. The Trump and then the Biden Administration have characterized these actions as genocide.
Nonetheless, these mass human rights abuses have been ignored by much of the world (in deference to China) and have now taken a back seat—even in the West—to the war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine. For years, China’s systematic oppression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities has been an event of monumental importance that attracts only sporadic diplomatic and media attention. And that is just the way China wants it.
The big picture here is that China’s grand strategy is to replace the United States as the world’s leading economic and political power. It wants to topple the liberal world order based on the rule of law and respect for individual human dignity and replace it with a more China-friendly order holding that state oppression of a country’s own citizens is nobody else’s business.
Just as I have written that Trump’s attacks on democratic norms should disqualify him from another chance at the presidency, the same logic applies to China. If you don’t believe in human rights, and in fact engage in mass human rights atrocities on a daily basis, then you are disqualified from leading the world. To some extent, China knows that as well. Which is why the government is trying to cover up what it has done and continues to do to the Uyghurs.
Origins of the China-Uyghur Conflict
The Uyghurs are a Turkic speaking ethnicity with roots since the 6th century in what is now western China but was then referred to as eastern Turkestan. Sufi Islam became the dominant religion in the 11th century. The Qing dynasty conquered the region in the mid-18th century and Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) was incorporated into the Chinese Empire in 1848.
This history, plus differences in language, culture, and religion, resulted in Uyghur resentment over being ruled by the minority Han Chinese in the region, and the development of a separatist political movement among Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Over the course of the 20th century, Muslims at times gained quasi-independence from Beijing, but at others, separatist elements were successfully repressed by the state.
The conflict heightened as separatist movements were inspired by Turkic people gaining independent states in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Then, after 9/11, China sought to place its counter-separatist efforts within the “war on terror” paradigm developed by the United States. The U.S. initially rejected this concept, with President Bush warning China not to use the war on terrorism as “an excuse to persecute minorities.” But, in 2002, the Bush Administration eventually gave in to political pressure (perhaps connected with gaining Chinese acquiescence to the Iraq War) and placed the previously unrecognized East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) on certain terrorism-related sanctions lists. The position that Uyghur militants were terrorists was not maintained by the U.S. for very long. The government concluded that 19 Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo had no connection to al Qaeda and classified them as “non-combatants” in the war on terror. China’s request to repatriate these Uyghurs was denied and the 19 detainees were eventually released from custody and transferred to third-countries.
Secretary of State Pompeo delisted ETIM in 2020, noting that “for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.”
Soon after taking office in 2013, President Xi quickly signaled that he wanted to take a much harsher approach towards separatism in Xinjiang than had his predecessors, who hoped to take the steam out of the movement through a combination economic development and police actions against perpetrators of violence. Rather than perceiving the violence as merely episodic, Xi, believed separatism represented a much more dangerous challenge to centralized party rule that could easily spread and infect other regions and parts of Chinese society. Stability in western China was also crucial, in Xi’s eyes, because large swaths of his global international development initiative, the Belt and Road, would link to the economies of central Asia directly through Xinjiang. He also adopted a view, widely circulating in the West, that Islamist extremism was widespread and caused uncontrollable mass violence, claiming that “as soon as you believe in it…it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy, and will do anything.” In dealing with the Uyghurs, Xi argued, “we must be as harsh as them … and show absolutely no mercy.”
In 2016, Xi added to the justifications for the crackdown in Xinjiang, when he called for the “sinicization of religion.” Like his fears that ethnic identity could undercut state stability, Xi also saw religion as a threat to the authority of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) and the primacy of state Marxist-Leninist ideology. Xi’s call to bring all religion within tighter state control broadened the target of repression in Xinjiang from ethnic separatists to virtually any manifestation of Islam in the region.
China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang
The campaign against the Uyghurs and other Turkic cultures in Xinjiang became a mass program of cultural annihilation between 2014-2017 and continues to this day. Journalists and human rights organization have impeccably documented a set of policies and practices that amount to systemic crimes against humanity with the unmistakable intention of erasing these cultures and identities from Chinese society.
These practices include, but are not limited to:
Mass detention of 800,000 to 2 million people without criminal charge (for the evidence, see (satellite images; photos; internal operating manuals; first-hand testimony).
Implementation of a massive, all encompassing, invasive surveillance system that provides the security apparatus with data on Uyghur movements, associations, activities, and communications;
The destruction of 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang;
Prohibiting teaching of Uyghur language as the native language in schools;
Population control through forced sterilization, IUDs and abortion (resulting in a 60% drop in birth rates from 2015-18);
Forced repatriation of Uyghurs living abroad;
Retribution against Uyghur activists abroad through threats against or detention of their relatives (for one well documented and gripping example, see the documentary “In Search of My Sister”);
Systematic rape of Uyghur women in detention camps;
Torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment in Xinjiang detention centers and prisons;
Abusive and disproportionate use of the criminal justice system against Uyghurs (there was a 700% increase in criminal charges in Xinjiang in 2017 with 21% of all prosecutions in China occurring in Xinjiang, a province with only 1.5% of the population);
Large scale forced labor camps in multiple industries in Xinjiang (just this week a UN investigator concluded forced labor was occurring “that may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity”).
The damage that has been done to the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples living in Xinjiang is devastating and irreversible, even if all these practices were to cease immediately. When asked at an event at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy last year “how much worse could it get” for the Uyghurs, Human Rights Campaign China Director Sophie Richardson answered, after a long and mournful pause, “there won’t be real Uyghurs anymore.” (see 1:18:14 of the recording). Richardson explained that Uyghurs may continue to exist as an ethnic group, “but nobody would have gone through school learning Uyghur, no one will have been able to worship anywhere but state churches, nobody will have been able to observe the holidays, the traditions, and the practices that the culture evolves around.”
China’s misinformation and cover-up
China’s strategy for addressing criticism of its human rights abuses has evolved as hard evidence of the atrocities has been revealed. At first China engaged in absolute denial that anything unusual was occurring, claiming in 2018 there was “no such thing” as mass detention centers. Then China admitted that detentions were occurring but claimed they were not abusive, but rather necessary for “re-education” of the Uyghur population in CCP ideology. With respect to allegations of forced labor, China calls it “vocational training” that is being provided for the benefit of the Xinjiang workers.
China engages in vigorous diplomacy around the world to tamp down criticism of its crimes, rewarding countries—like Egypt—that have cooperated in its oppression, and sanctioning countries—like the U.K. —that speak out on China’s “industrial scale” human rights violations.
China’s latest gambit is to use its substantial influence within the United Nations to block a report by the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights on abuses in Xinjiang that has been three years in the making. The High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, visited Xinjiang in May, after having been denied permission to travel there to investigate human rights violation claims since 2018. Upon her return, however, she conceded that she was accompanied by Chinese officials during her entire time in Xinjiang and did not meet any detained Uyghurs.
China claims that now that Bachelet has witnessed a “a real Xinjiang with a safe and stable society,” the critical assessment of China’s treatment of Uyghurs would “undermine the credibility of the Office of the High Commissioner.” Bachelet has stated that the report will issue before she leaves office at the end of August.
Publication of a U.N. report that substantiates the human rights abuses that have been occurring for the better part of a decade will be a landmark event and aid the efforts of activists and human rights groups that are trying to hold China accountable for its crimes against humanity.
If China is successful at repressing this report, however -- and with the war in Ukraine, global economic troubles, and internal political problems in the US and the UK focusing public and governmental attention elsewhere—China may very well get away the murder of a people.
[N.B. - In full disclosure, it is important to acknowledge that in 2018, at my request, I was assigned to teach for a semester in China at the Duke Kunshan University (DKU), a degree granting institution developed as a joint venture between Duke University and the Chinese government. I lived and worked in Kunshan for six months with my family.]