China’s Genocide Hiding in Plain Sight

By Gillian Murphy, G12

Drone footage captures a train station in Xinjiang, northwestern China, with hundreds of men seated on the ground – arms chained behind their backs, scalps shaved, blindfolds wrapped around their bowed heads. Their uniform purple vests are emblazoned with “Kashgar Detention Center,” an indication of where they were before being trudged to this location. Guards in SWAT uniforms surround the huddled group, looking down with crossed arms and confident stances. The group in question is made up of Muslim Uyghurs (wee-gur), an ethnic minority currently being violently persecuted by the Chinese government. Around 11 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, and upwards of 1 million are held in detention or “reeducation” centers.

Detained Uyghurs seen in drone footage at a train station in Xinjiang.
(Image 1 Courtesy of War on Fear)
Holocaust victims directed by Nazi soldiers at a train station in Germany.
(Image 2 Courtesy of The Auschwitz Album)

When confronted on BBC with the footage, the Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom dismissed it as a standard “transfer of prisoners,” though the scene evokes memories of past periods of extreme human rights violations. There are frightening parallels to the trains that carried Jewish Europeans and other minorities to a devastating fate in Nazi Germany, and it is not the only similarity. Reports have escaped China’s tight hold on information of the forced sterilization of Uyghur women, family separations, mass internment, denial of free practice of religion, torture, rape, interrogation, and beatings.

A recent report by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote that there are 380 suspected detention camps in Xinjiang, where primarily Uyghurs and other minority groups (like Kazakhs and Krygyz) are held. Xinjiang is sometimes referred to as East Turkestan, which briefly was established as an independent state in 1949, but was then controlled by Communist China. Going further back in the region’s history, it was conquered by the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, though its population retained their cultural and ethnic Turkish ties. After 1949, Xinjiang remained isolated from the rest of China, but recent years have seen an influx of Han Chinese as part of the “Great Leap West”. Uyghurs stand apart from Han Chinese for myriad reasons, such as their religion, language (some of their dialects are closer to Turkish than Chinese), culture, and Central Asian descent. As an autocratic nation hidden behind a communist label, China frowns upon freedom of religious expression, with rules restraining Muslim practices such as growing long beards, wearing head scarves, and giving newborns Muslim names, not to speak of shutting down most mosques. In addition to being closed to worship, estimates indicate that thousands of shrines and mosques have been demolished over the past few years, in what seems to be an attempted erasure of the Uyghurs’ Muslim identity. 

Despite Xinjiang being labelled an “Autonomous Region,” which indicates some level of self-governance, the Communist Party of China has a tight hold on its leadership. Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, handpicked Chen Quanguo in 2016 as the Secretary of the Province. Chen has been a leading force in the crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, once urging Chinese police to “round up everyone who should be rounded up” (in reference to detaining Uyghurs to fend off “extremism”). The government’s intense control of Uyghurs is made uniquely suffocating by their advanced technology, such as facial recognition software and smartphone apps that scrutinize Chinese citizens’ posts and messages. China’s extensive surveillance systems have facilitated the internment of Uyghurs, as all their movements, medical data, communications and personal information are monitored. 

Some of the roots of this anti-Muslim sentiment can be traced back to 2013 and 2014, when groups from Xinjiang (believed to be Uyghurs) carried out deadly terrorist attacks in the name of a separatist movement calling for the independence of East Turkestan. The incident in 2013 took place in Tiananmen Square, and involved a jeep plowing into and killing two pedestrians. In 2014, militants wielding knives attacked more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31 and resulting in Xi Jingping expressing intent to wage war against extremism and show “no mercy” in the process. This echoed America’s treatment of Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and Xi even wanted to directly imitate the United States’ “War on Terror.” 

To look even further back into China’s religious tensions, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had the same theme of religious erasure. As part of a mass-destruction of culture and history, places of worship and religious documents were destroyed in a similar fashion to the plight of modern Uyghurs. Rather than the Quran or the Bible, Mao’s Little Red Book became a staple in every household, seeking to indoctrinate and reeducate the Chinese to make them loyal Party members.

Though the origin of this genocide has deep historical connections, most of the substantial action on the part of the Chinese government has been in recent years, as part of Xi Jinping’s efforts to solidify control over the country and lockdown any potential dissent. The majority of the detention centers have been constructed since 2017. Despite fervent attempts by the government to deny human rights violations, satellite footage of the “re-education centers” provided irrefutable proof, and China instead switched their argument to defending the centers as being of vital importance to stopping the Uyghurs’ purported terrorism.

“[the internment camp] was not a place for getting rid of extremism. That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity.”

Stated by Adusalam Muhamet, a man who was detained for months in one of Xinjiang’s internmant camps. (New York Times)

Language plays an integral role in how China is controlling the mass internment. The detention centers that hold over a million people are referred to as “job training centers” or the “local community,” and have the purpose of “fighting Islamic extremism.” In Germany, Nazis referred to execution as “special treatment” and mass murder of Jewish people as the “final solution.” This dehumanizing language is similar to China’s statements on the Uyghurs because it all seeks to minimize the actual atrocities that happened/continue to happen. Details from within the centers paint a vastly different picture from the government’s descriptions; BBC reported on a Uyghur model, Merdan Ghappar, who was able to send texts and video footage to his family of the internment camp where he was detained, which showed him shackled to his bed in unsanitary, degrading conditions, with ceaseless indoctrination messages broadcast over loudspeakers. 

When the Holocaust is discussed, it is met with intense condemnation and aghast reactions. People often say they cannot comprehend how German citizens and the rest of the world alike sat back and allowed, or even contributed to, the mass murder and decimation of multiple populations. Seated upon this moral high horse, it seems natural to state that we would never have been complacent in the face of such crimes against humanity, that it will never happen again. So why, now, is the world sitting idly by as an audience to the brutal treatment of Uyghurs?

Following the Holocaust, as countries recognized their role in allowing the tragedy, substantial measures were passed in the U.N. to prevent history from repeating itself. The 1949 Genocide Convention (signed by China) laid out parameters for identifying and countering genocide. This included labeling genocide a crime under international law, and defined it as:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such : (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

By these standards, the treatment of the Uyghur population can objectively be labelled as genocide. So what is preventing much of the world from doing so? Articles refer to countries like the United States “mulling” over determining it to be genocide, but this verb lacks the urgency that the actual situation requires. Though it is easy to assume that when treaties such as the Genocide Convention exist, countries will be held accountable for their actions, this is a fallacy. Turning anti-genocide measures into law brought the movement into a world of partisanship, vetos, negotiations, corruption, and nationalism. Countries hesitate to condemn China for fear of retaliation, whether it be in the form of severing diplomatic ties, limiting trade, or creating political enemies. 

Nations like Canada, France, Japan, and Australia signed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning China’s actions and calling on them to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” but there was no explicit mention of genocide. A long list of countries, including Cambodia, Egypt, Cuba, and Venezuela, signed a counter statement hailing China’s deradicalization efforts and commending their “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The counter statement cited diplomats’ and journalists’ visits to Xinjiang, which have been called “choreographed” by the Chinese government to hide the reality of conditions there.

Though altering delicate relations with China is a daunting feat for most countries due to its political and economic prominence, there are many steps countries can take to push for justice for the Uyghurs. Nations can place economic pressure on China through halting the importation of Chinese goods; they can place sanctions on Chinese officials; they can continue to put China’s human rights violations in the limelight by investigating and reporting on them (“name and shame”); they can accept Uyghur refugees and offer them legal support; but most importantly, they must call what is happening in Xinjiang by its name – genocide.

Irreversible harm has already been done to the Uyghurs, their culture, heritage, and society, but there is time yet to condemn China and demand change; if we do not, we are complicit in this tragedy. Action must be taken now, before we look back on the Uyghur genocide and shake our heads, too little, too late.

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