These are strange days for campaigners and activists working to raise awareness of the Uyghur genocide in China. While I daresay not one among them would begrudge the Ukrainian people the tremendous outpouring of international support they have received, these campaigners might be entitled to a certain frustration. The Uyghur plight led to plenty of attention and precious little action, and nothing remotely like the united front seen in recent months. But this united front could be cause for optimism. We’ve seen the West (mostly) overcome its internal divisions long enough to rally around Ukrainians—something no one expected. Why should this momentum not be carried forward to the Uyghur crisis?
Already, the eyes of the world may be returning to Xinjiang. Last week, a slew of photographs hacked from the region’s police computer servers showed us the faces of 5,000 Uyghur detainees—some confused, some defiant, some tearful; the oldest is 73, the youngest is just 15.
At the same time, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet flew out on a long-delayed visit to the cities of Ürümqi and Kashgar: a report is expected. Of course, it will be a sanitised affair. We’ll hear nothing of gang rapes committed by Party officials in smart suits; we won’t see a trace of the “tiger chair” torture devices or electric cattle prods. Bachelet has been warned by Beijing that her visit must be “friendly.”
This immediately brings to mind last year’s COVID-19 origin investigation farce. Chinese authorities made the WHO wait a full year, wielded a strict veto over the scientists selected to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and then presided over a stage-managed affair in which the WHO’s team simply entered the Institute, put questions to senior staff, accepted their answers without asking for evidence, and left. It’s hard to imagine the sequence of events being much different this time around. Many of the camps built at the height of the arrests in 2017–19 have already been dismantled or repurposed as factories, with a large portion of detainees simply transferred into the formal penal system. Meanwhile, new concentration camps are being constructed in the desert.
In a press conference at the end of her visit, Bachelet stuck to the CCP’s discredited “anti-terrorism” script (more on that in a moment). She spoke vacantly of concerns raised and assurances received, and gave no hint of urgency. But the crime has been committed, the evidence is widely available, and the Party’s reckoning is only a matter of time. When it finally arrives, it will raise uncomfortable questions concerning guilt. More than a million innocent Uyghurs (and smaller numbers of Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, and Hui) have been incarcerated as part of the broader context for the Party’s genocide, and these incarcerations enjoy the backing of many ordinary Chinese citizens. Xi Jinping may be culprit number one, but this extraordinary crime could not have been committed without the tacit and not-so-tacit support of a broad segment of Chinese society.
And the guilt extends far beyond China’s borders. Recall how Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess told the BBC that he “cannot judge” the Communist Party for its actions in Xinjiang, before abruptly changing tack mid-interview and deciding that he was now “not aware” of the situation at all. “I don’t know what you are referring to,” he told the reporter. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made similar noises when asked about the Uyghurs. “I don’t know much about that,” he said. (Pakistan’s government has spent years deporting Uyghurs to China, and the country has long been a beneficiary of Chinese aid.) Then we had the dispiriting sight of Canadian-American billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya telling his co-host on the All-In podcast: “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs. … I think it’s nice that you care. The rest of us don’t care.”
Of course, there isn’t much we can do about this. While the Party will one day fall and its principal offenders stand trial, the majority of enablers and apologists will never be called to account. Beneficiaries and supporters of the old Soviet tyranny live untroubled today in various East European states. It’s just worth remembering how far the stain of culpability spreads.
This crime was committed by a great many hands. Last December’s Uyghur Tribunal Judgment made the point in vivid terms:
New detention buildings constructed with “dark rooms” free of CCTV used for torture … will have been planned in writing, on architects’ and engineers’ drawings. … Orders were placed for torture equipment—electric shock sticks, tiger chairs, and whips. Evidence of a detainee being obliged to go to a bucket for a lavatory in full view of all in the cell is evidence of someone watching by CCTV a man or woman using a bucket for a lavatory in full view of embarrassed or humiliated others. Evidence of a man having to kneel at the opening of the door through which food would only be passed if he sang a song is evidence of someone having planned and of watching it happen. … Thousands of individuals who planned the systems in operation were trained—and trained others—to do all that was necessary to bring the systems into force. Professionals—architects, engineers, medics, etc.—were content for their skills to be used for such systems.
Outside the world of camp-planning, many citizens (certainly not all) hold fast to the idea that the entire Uyghur ethnic group is comprised of terrorists and potential terrorists. In 2019, the internationally celebrated novelist Liu Cixin (Barack Obama’s favourite) responded with brisk irritation when the New Yorker asked him to comment on Xinjiang’s 1.5 million detainees: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? ... If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.” I’ve heard the same view expressed plenty of times in my own conversations with mainlanders. With damning ease, the Party has managed to convince people of a link between ethnic characteristics and a propensity for murderous violence.
Hidden away in the halls of Zhongnanhai, China’s leaders know better. The “terrorism” narrative was a cynical ploy from the start. The truth is that Xinjiang’s 12 million Uyghurs represent a nation-in-waiting—disaffected, culturally and ethnically distinct, and possessed of little emotional connection to the People’s Republic. They have the potential to threaten national unity, and national unity is the most sacred of all things to the Chinese Communist Party, after its own preservation. That is the real reason we are seeing the largest incarceration of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust, and the latest confirmed genocide of the 21st century.
The whirlwind of anti-Islam hysteria has ensured that Kazakh and Kyrgyz and Hui Muslims have sometimes been swept into the camps along with Uyghurs, but this is not to say that Islam itself was Xi Jinping’s primary target. There are also Christians in the camps, and these Christians have their crime stamped openly on their faces: it is their Turkic ethnicity. Islamic practice and Turkic features have both been targeted as indicators of Uyghurness—the distinguishing marks of a fledgling Uyghur nation—and Beijing is not worried about collateral damage.
This crime will be analysed for decades to come, and in order to understand it we need some historical context. The crooked path that led China to genocide can be traced all the way back to 1884, the year the Qing dynasty conquered a chunk of Turkic territory to its north-west. This area had long been home to a distinct ethnolinguistic community calling itself Uyghur. The emperor named his latest acquisition Xinjiang, literally “New Frontier,” a title that presents a difficulty to modern nationalists who like to assert that the area has always been Chinese.
Over subsequent decades, the Uyghurs did not assimilate. They remained a people apart. And in its first flush of idealistic youth, the Communist Party actually seemed to recognise this fact. The CCP’s original constitution (drafted in 1931) even stated that Uyghurs have the “right to complete separation from China.” Those plans were abandoned after the revolution in 1949. Instead, local leaders were removed from power, and Xinjiang saw the strategic influx of Han Chinese migrants and the steady imposition of religious restrictions. Uyghur-Han tensions rose slowly through the decades, finally boiling over just as the Cold War was beginning to thaw.
On April 5th, 1990, a group of Muslims in western Xinjiang launched a protest, the catalyst for which is now murky—some say it was a response to state-mandated forced abortions, others that it had to do with a ban on building mosques. Whatever the truth, the result was an echo of the previous year’s Tiananmen Square Massacre: the People’s Liberation Army sent in the tanks, killing an estimated 1,600 people. But this time, the world saw no televised images of the slaughter. Afterwards, the Communist Party set about tightening its control of Islamic practice, prompting the retaliatory murder of a handful of state-appointed indigenous officials viewed as quislings.
Then came the Soviet collapse, which led to the formation of a clutch of newly independent states in Central Asia, including the Turkic nations of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Only one of the region’s ancient Turkic groups failed to win its freedom. As part of the last surviving major communist state, Xinjiang’s Uyghurs were made suddenly and vividly aware that they had no real homeland. And as their discontent grew, so did their abuse at the hands of a state that considered them second-class citizens at best, sub-human at worst. In a society of China’s complexity, it was possible to see individual Uyghurs rise to positions of moderate importance (in the police force, for instance) while Uyghurs as a collective were considered worthless.
Indeed, there were times that the group’s existence barely seemed to register on Beijing’s radar. Between 1964 and 1996, the Communist Party detonated 43 high-yield tactical nuclear weapons at Lop Nor, a former salt lake wedged between the Taklamakan and Kumtag deserts in southern Xinjiang. The site was close enough to populated areas for radiation to cause havoc. Local doctors who spoke to a Dispatches team in 1999 reported a huge increase in cases of malignant lymphoma, lung cancer, and leukaemia—precisely the cancers that we would expect to see after exposure to high levels of radiation. By 1990, cancer rates in the Silk Road towns were more than 30 percent higher than the national average, and by the late 1990s, lung cancer and liver cancer were frequently found in children under the age of 12.
Xinjiang also became ground zero for live organ harvesting—the Boschian nightmare that would later gain wide attention when it was inflicted on believers in the banned religion Falun Gong. In the 1990s, this nightmare was still unheard of. Exiled Uyghur surgeon Enver Tohti recalls the cloudless summer morning in 1995 when he was driven out to Ürümqi’s Western Mountain Execution Grounds and presented with a body. The victim had received a bullet to the chest beforehand, but he was still breathing. “Remove the liver and kidneys,” instructed Tohti’s superior. “Now! Quick! Be quick!” Tohti was able to observe, numbly, how the man’s chest heaved with each cut of the scalpel. Before long, doctors were regularly being asked to take blood samples from Uyghur prisoners when local government officials checked into nearby hospitals with organ problems. Once a match was found, the relevant inmate would be hurried to execution, always taking his or her bullet to the chest rather than the head in order to provide surgeons with those crucial few minutes.
The next public crackdown came in 1997. With its usual animosity toward anything that might resemble the buds of civil society, Beijing ordered the arrest of Uyghur activists who had been working to combat alcoholism and drug abuse in the border town of Ghulja. Locals protested without their winter coats to show they were unarmed, and then the police moved in. Some of the participants were tortured; others were executed; still others were bundled into special organ-harvesting vans. After a year, the first serious response materialised: a few hundred Uyghurs banded together in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, hoping to bring about a religiously inspired revolt in Xinjiang. Dubbed the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) by the CCP, this loose collective won the sympathy of neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban, and within a few short years most of its members had been killed off.
By now the narrative was shifting. Washington’s War on Terror had provided the perfect cover for Beijing’s periodic displays of state violence. From this point on, the Uyghurs could be handily branded terrorists. No longer would they be viewed in the mass as virtual automatons, casually poisoned with radiation or simply carved up like livestock when their body parts were needed. Now, suddenly, they were an item of interest—evil, capable, and dangerous. All that fury at religious restrictions and cultural erasure and the lack of a homeland would be interpreted henceforth as “Islamist extremism.”
The Bush administration had no difficulty recognising the cynicism of these claims. Unfortunately, it soon proved to be just as cynical itself, pushing for ETIM to be added to the UN Security Council’s Consolidated List of terrorist organisations. This move was calculated to win China’s Security Council vote when it came to the planned invasion of Iraq. Members of the CCP’s dreaded state security personnel were even allowed into Guantánamo to interrogate Uyghur detainees.
Ethnic violence erupted again in 2009. As before, no one could agree on how it started. A rumour began circulating that Uyghur youths had raped two Han women at a toy factory in southern China, while it was also alleged that Han men had been harassing their female Uyghur co-workers at the factory, touching them inappropriately and pestering them for massages. These two claims provided more than enough ammunition, and soon hundreds of workers were fighting pitched battles on the streets with knives and metal pipes. Two Uyghurs died. When no one was charged with murder, protests were organised back in Xinjiang, in the provincial capital of Ürümqi. The inevitable crackdown led to equally predictable bouts of interethnic brawling, and the troops were sent in. Some Uyghurs were executed in the aftermath. Police also began raiding homes and tearing off women’s veils, in the process ratcheting up tensions still further.
Nyrola Elimä recalls that it was around this time—2009—when she understood that it was no longer safe for any Uyghur to live in China. “I got a job in an inland city that required me to travel—a role that became impossible because hotels would refuse to let me stay. Receptionists would see my identity card, which bore my ethnicity, and curtly reply that there were no rooms available. Once, one smiled kindly and told me to wait in the lobby. Ten minutes later, the police arrived, whereupon she pointed at me and said: ‘That’s the Uyghur’. I spent the night at the police station on a bench.”
In the spring of 2014, Beijing’s conjured terrorists finally became real. Eight Uyghurs armed with knives set upon civilians in Kunming train station, leaving 31 corpses in their bloody wake. Just a few weeks later, another five Uyghurs drove into an Ürümqi street market, where they threw explosives from the windows at random shoppers before crashing and killing themselves. Neither attack had any connection to international terrorist networks. They were the work of small and isolated groups radicalised by decades of mistreatment at the hands of the all-powerful Party-state. Nevertheless, the incidents were portrayed in the nation’s media as the latest and most grievous in an age-old Uyghur assault on Chinese civilisation.
In response, Xi Jinping declared a “People’s War on Terror.” Hundreds of concentration camps were set up throughout Xinjiang, the existence of which was denied to the outside world. The CCP soon abandoned its naked lie in the face of mounting evidence, acknowledging the camps with the euphemism “vocational training centres.” Unlike vocational training centres anywhere else in the world, these came complete with watchtower snipers and a shoot-to-kill policy for runaways. As it soon turned out, that bland label referred to just one of four broad categories of detention in the Xinjiang system. Prisoners will usually pass from interrogation and holding facilities to “transformation-through-education” camps, then after that to the so-called vocational training centres (where the brainwashing is said to be less “coercive”), and finally on to long-term imprisonment.
This sudden intensification of a multi-decade campaign can be explained in part by the peculiarities of Xi Jinping’s personality—specifically, his obsessive control freakery. For all his admiration of Mao Zedong, Xi has none of the Great Helmsman’s love of chaos and ceaseless revolution. He would rather have the world finely ordered, clean, and predictable, with not an errant thought anywhere in his domain (and certainly nothing so volatile as Islam). Also relevant is Xinjiang’s strategic position on China’s outer edge. The province acts as a gateway to the Eurasian heartland, and this makes it an area of vital importance for Xi’s beloved Belt and Road Initiative. The province—always “Chinese” only in the loosest possible sense—needed to be integrated, homogenised, and firmly embraced by the iron arms of the Motherland.
But even without the president’s Belt and Road project, the Uyghurs were destined for disaster. They had long been a nation in utero, and a source of discomfort to the Communist Party. It was surely inevitable that decades of abuse at the hands of the state would provoke a violent backlash, and that the backlash would itself prompt the most dramatic of over-reactions from Beijing. Uyghur fortunes began falling when Mao came into power, fell faster still once the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and were plunged into a totalitarian hell by the reign of Xi Jinping. This was a hell excavated in detail last year by members of the aforementioned Uyghur Tribunal, an independent body convened to investigate reports of genocide because, as the Tribunal’s members put it, “governments have no courage to do such things.”
The Tribunal found that prisoners are forced to sing songs praising the Communist Party, and that those who refuse are “dragged from the class and tortured to the point of screaming within the hearing of those still in the class.” Forced abortions are common in the camps, with some killings occurring after birth. Female detainees are raped using electric shock rods and iron bars—sometimes by men who have paid to access the camps for precisely this purpose, sometimes by multiple camp guards one after the other, and sometimes in front of an audience of detainees.
The same stomach-turning treatment has already been meted out to incarcerated believers in Falun Gong. Back in 2019, the Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting was able to conclude “with certainty” that the Communist Party had “orchestrated within its penal system the endemic perpetration of sexual violence including rape against male and female prisoners. … The use of electric batons on the genitals of both men and women has been prevalent.” Such techniques appear to be a particular favourite of prison guards and police officers in communist China. As a result of their treatment, some Uyghur detainees have died.
As mentioned earlier, we will never bring all the perpetrators to justice. But primary responsibility can be attached to President Xi. Individual criminal acts such as rape and torture were not carried out with his detailed knowledge, but they occurred as a direct result of his policies and of the language used in his speeches. Six days after the Ürümqi attacks in 2014, Xi delivered a speech to Party leaders in which he called for “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to catch terrorists as if they were “rats in the street.” No specifics were provided. He left it up to those leaders to manifest his raging metaphors. And what should be done with the rats once they had been caught in their nets? Again, Xi gave no details, suggesting only that his underlings “show no mercy.”
Such vagueness has ensured that even positive-sounding prescriptions lead to the most horrific results. Xi said that Han officials should spend time in Uyghur homes in order to help the two ethnicities bond. As a result, many Uyghur women live a waking nightmare today, with Party apparatchiks permanently stationed in their homes and in their beds. Xi also called for the “optimisation” of the population ratio in southern Xinjiang, which seemed to imply that it would be best if there was an even balance of ethnic groups. The result was a campaign of mass forced sterilisation. Some Uyghur-majority counties saw more deaths than births; in Hotan and Kashgar, Uyghur birth rates dropped by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018.
China’s president wants a carefully ordered world. But a leader who tries to control absolutely everything will never have more than a vague awareness of the particulars. This is especially true when it comes to the effect of sweeping policies on ordinary lives. Here, Xi can sometimes resemble his old communist forebears, who had the same lofty disregard for the human details. When reflecting on the 1918 basement massacre of the Russian imperial family, which included children as young as 13, Leon Trotsky famously said “I was never curious about how the sentence was carried out and, frankly, do not understand such curiosity.” For the Red ideologue, for the true believer (and Xi is a believer in the Party, not in Marxist theory), there is nothing to be curious about. Human beings are just numbers. The death of a condemned person is simply the removal of a problem. Focusing on the details is unnecessary and illogical.
Members of the Tribunal did confess to some unease at having linked a crime of such magnitude to one of the most powerful political figures in the world. They suggested that it would be altogether more appropriate for this to be dealt with by governments or international organisations. But of course, none has dared. Xi was not the only official named in the judgment: responsibility was also pinned on Xinjiang’s erstwhile Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and his deputy Zhu Hailun. These men are lower down the chain than Xi, a little closer to the messy human details and the screams.
In the end, the Tribunal’s conclusions were actually conservative, just as they had been two years ago, when it could not be established with certainty that the live organ harvesting inflicted on Falun Gong practitioners had extended to Uyghurs. The Chinese state was found to be guilty of torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Considering the vast weight of evidence, anything less would have been absurd. But the latter finding rested on just one of the five internationally recognised criteria for determining genocide, as detailed in Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention: criterion (d), imposing conditions intended to prevent birth. The Tribunal could not reach a position of absolute certainty on the other four.
It was determined that the Communist Party had “reduc[ed] the birth rates and population growth of Uyghurs … [through] sterilisation by removal of wombs, widespread enforced insertion of … IUDs … and forced abortions. These policies will result in significantly fewer births in years to come than might otherwise have occurred. … This will result in a partial destruction of the Uyghurs.” Indeed, Adrian Zenz provided a report to the Tribunal in which he projected a reduction in the Uyghur population of somewhere between 2.6 and 4.6 million by 2040. Those numbers refer to the additional Uyghurs we would have expected to see living in 2040 had the Party not carried out its policies of recent years.
So, genocide has been committed in the People’s Republic of China. What is to be done? A crippling course of sanctions is unlikely in the current climate. But we can keep telling the story, and telling it louder, refusing to allow the CCP to drown out the narrative. Michelle Bachelet has no doubt received the full Potemkin treatment, and the Party will be hoping that this puts an end to the entire controversy. We should ensure that the trip serves as a catalyst for greater scrutiny and consequences instead.
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