Repression by Any Other Name: Xinjiang and the Genocide Debate

Is what’s going on in Xinjiang genocide? The answer is a qualified yes, but no hedging is needed for the equally serious accusation of crimes against humanity.

China can’t seem to shake the charge of committing genocide of the Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang. Yet its accusers cannot seem to make the charge stick. Skeptics, and not just those affiliated with the Chinese government, question whether the repression in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. Even if it is, many argue, asserting the charge can only make matters worse.

The truth is that the skeptics are wrong on both counts. The irony is, even if they were right, the debate shouldn’t matter.

The genocide charge will not go away anytime soon. It will instead dog the People’s Republic so long as it continues to engage in its massive and systemic violation of the Uyghurs’ basic human rights.

Among China’s well documented measures targeting the Uyghurs: unprecedented mass surveillance of the population, the destruction of mosques and cemeteries, bans on religious practices, forced labor, placing officials to live in the homes of Uyghur families, coerced marriages of Uygur women to Han Chinese men, and — not least — the incarceration of over a million Uyghurs in “reeducation camps.”

An array of nations and organizations have concluded that the worst of these policies amount to genocide. Canada, the U.K., Lithuania, and the Netherlands are among the states that have joined the United States in advancing that conclusion. An even larger group of NGOs have made the same determination. If anything, use of the “G word” will grow more intense as China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics approaches.

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But even as these calls grow, there has been pushback from unexpected quarters. Earlier this year The Economist magazine applied its own version of a “simple” dictionary definition to deny any a genocide in Xinjiang. Likewise, the otherwise progressive economics scholar Jeffery Sachs took a giant step beyond his fields of expertise to argue that China’s actions are not genocide even under accepted legal definitions.

Is what’s going on in Xinjiang genocide? The answer is a qualified yes, though one that is becoming less qualified as evidence and events unfold.

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The answer begins with the accepted legal definitions. Those definitions are found in the principal treaties on the subject: the Convention on Genocide and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. These pacts reflect years of drafting, dialogue, and negotiation by diplomats and legal experts around the world. They have been accepted as binding law by the vast majority of the world’s nations. They carry considerably more authority than the views of a group of editors in London misusing a dictionary.

These treaties define genocide as certain acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The specified conduct includes: killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; subjecting a group to harsh conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures to prevent births; and forcibly transferring children of the targeted group to another group.

There is ample evidence that China’s government has subjected Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population to more than one of the named genocidal actions. No credible person or organization alleges killing, still less of the sort that conjures up Nazi extermination of Jews. But there is strong evidence of several of the other actions that constitute genocide. Mass detention, pervasive surveillance, and the denial of culture and religion are hard to view as anything other than causing serious mental and even physical harm. Bounties for marriage that “dilute” the Uyghur population and the apparent reduction of the Uyghur birthrate qualify as measures to prevent births. It is also hard to see how the harsh concentration camps in this context exist without seeking a “collateral” benefit of decreasing the numbers of the disfavored group.

The closer question, most commentators agree, turns on intent. Are Beijing’s policies designed merely to turn the Uyghurs into patriotic Chinese citizens? Or do they aim for the added benefit of reducing their number – destroying them in part as an ethnic and religious group?

Neither the Chinese government nor the Chinese Communist Party has been careless enough to make clear public statements expressing a desire to destroy the Uyghur Muslims. Certain officials have made certain comments that come perilously close. One official, for example, did post a Weibo message declaring: “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins. Completely shovel up the roots of ‘two-faced people,’ dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end.” But if Chinese officials have approved the idea of reducing the Uygur Muslim population, the evidence remains shrouded by the secrecy and censorship of an authoritarian regime.

Yet intent, in international law as in daily affairs, can be inferred. As evidence leaks out and mounts, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the brutality, scale, and results of Beijing’s campaign against Uyghur Muslims does not have, among its goals, the desire of the government and party to reduce what it sees as a historically alien and disloyal population. That desire qualifies as an intent to destroy a disfavored group in part. And that is sufficient to meet the standard.

Then again, a charge may be valid and still best not be made. Some argue that even if China’s government is engaging in genocide, the accusation will do more harm than good. Talk of genocide can only insult and enrage any regime, not least China. Better to err on the side of caution to allow for engagement and negotiation that might ameliorate the situation.

The very heinousness of genocide belies this approach. Engagement may work in certain situations, such as trade wars. But the possibility requires some combination of leverage, good faith, and common rejection of “alternative facts.”

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China’s steadfast refusal to permit monitoring, along with its portrayal of happy Uyghurs merrily folk dancing, testifies to its position on alternative facts. More important, any regime that ventures anywhere near the neighborhood of genocide has forfeited a presumption of good faith. At the very least, it is hard to see how leveling the charge would make a regime more genocidal.

As for leverage, asserting a plausible charge of genocide has demonstrably upped the pressure on China. Rightly or wrongly, genocide resonates with a power that other human rights violations cannot match. One measure is the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which Xi Jinping desperately wants to match China’s 2008 showcase. The growing campaign to boycott the #genocideolympics threatens to dash that hope. The campaign could not have gained anything like the momentum it has achieved under any other banner.

That truth nonetheless has a downside. There are other violations that China has more obviously committed, and which in many ways can be even worse than some forms of genocide. Foremost among these are crimes against humanity, defined as a “systematic attack” on a civilian population through, among other things, forcible transfer of population; imprisonment in violation of international law; and persecution based upon ethnic, religious or cultural groups. The definition of crimes against humanity, like genocide, arose from World War II, but does not require proof of intent.

The international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands points out that not only do China’s actions in Xinjiang clearly amount to crimes against humanity, but that this charge should trigger the world’s anger no less than genocide. But so long as it does not, the alternative remains. In the end there is more than enough reason to err, if error it be, on the side of holding China accountable for a 21st century genocide.



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