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Uighurs in China: A Genocide of Historic Proportions


We tend to categorise systemic sterilisation, mass deportation, and ‘re-education’ camps as a 1930s anachronism: a product of the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany. At first glance, these atrocities belong to a distant past, a time far too long ago. And yet, this could not be further from the truth.

The crisis faced by Xinjiang’s Uighurs in Northwest China is a genocide of collosal proportions, yet doesn’t seem to make the cut for headlines anymore. In part, this is because of logistical difficulties: it is nearly impossible for reporters to get anywhere near Xinjiang. However, it is also because most nations have decided to stay quiet.

Although we must be wary of pitting one historical event against another, there are certain comparisons between the Holocaust and the current treatment of the Turkic-speaking minority that should not be disregarded. Beyond the unmistakable structural similarities between then and now, the atrocities being committed in China also rely on the idea of a scapegoat trope. By blaming an entire ethnicity for the violence caused by a handful of extremists, President Xi is not shying away from using the full force of the “organs of dictatorship” at his disposal.

"China checks each and every box of the UN’s genocide framework."

Since the 1940s, the term genocide has unfortunately become commonplace and is wildly  misused in the widest of contexts, and for dramatic effect. The erroneous comparison between abortion and genocide, for example, broached by the conservative right, is only the tip of the iceberg. The UN Genocide Convention, to which China is a signatory, defines genocide as consisting of  specific acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Therefore, the use of the term by so-called pro-life organisations is not only deeply insensitive, but also worryingly desensitising. Genocidal acts involve ‘causing serious bodily or mental harm’ and ‘imposing measures to prevent births’, amongst other things. China checks each and every box of the UN’s genocide framework.

‘Never Again’ – probably the “world’s most unfulfilled promise” as Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the United Nations -  refers to the assurance given by world leaders following the Nazi Holocaust. Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the Western world has stood by as genocides in Cambodia, Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda and, most recently, Myanmar have unfolded. While the advocacy for human rights is highly prized, their protection is severely lacking, especially when it comes to protecting minorities.

Uighur detention facility.jpg

A new detention facility in Hotan, China. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.


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So, why is it that while the Clintons of the world vow “never again” to “shy in the face of evidence,” do they repeatedly turn away from blatant human rights violations?

The answer has nothing to do with lack of genocidal proof. Two recent examples serve to highlight the overwhelming evidence that should finally awaken the West from its hibernation. First, on the 29th of June 2020, Washington-based think tank Jamestown Foundation released a damning 32-page report that revealed the “near-zero” population growth in Xinjiang. In the publication, Senior Fellow in China Studies Adrian Zenz documents the extent of the systemic sterilisation of Uighur women. While Xinjiang only makes up for 1.8% of China’s population, 80% of all new intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD) placements in 2018 were performed in the region.

"...federal authorities in New York disclosed that over 13 tons of products suspected to be made of human hair taken from imprisoned Uighurs had been seized by U.S. Customs."

Furthermore, other reports confirm these findings and suggest that in the years between 2015 and 2018, population growth rates among the Uighur population plummeted by 84%. While the European Commission has refrained from using the term genocide, awaiting the confirmation of the reports’ findings, it is evident that action must be taken before the Uighurs become an even smaller minority.


The entrance to the re-education camp at Harmony New Village in Hotan, Xinjiang, China.

At the beginning of July, federal authorities in New York disclosed that over 13 tons of products suspected to be made of human hair taken from imprisoned Uighurs had been seized by U.S. Customs.

So, why is this very-real genocide not part of the political dialogue? Without a doubt, the Uighur situation marks the biggest mass imprisonment of a racial or religious group since the Holocaust. What is more, the EU and other supranational organisations have the power to take action, but not the courage.

For one, the host of contemporary challenges – from climate to coronavirus – necessitate international cooperation with China. As a result, Western leaders are reluctant to raise uncomfortable issues out of fear of jeopardising diplomatic relations. Reluctance, however, is not what the Uighur people need right now. When individuals are waterboarded, electrocuted, experimented upon and beaten it does not matter where they are from or what state they live in. The mass detention centres (read: concentration camps) in northern China are designed to break the human spirit of an entire ethnic group. When human rights are threatened in China, they are threatened everywhere. If the EU does not stand up against China, who will?

As the world’s second largest economy, China’s immeasurable political influence cannot be overlooked. Through the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, nations up and down the globe stand to gain billions in Chinese investments. Those who choose to denounce Beijing face not only financial peril but, as in Australia’s case, also cyber attacks. Similarly, it is easy to see why even Muslim states like Turkey and Saudia Arabia would refrain from condemning the same tactics they use on their own domestic opponents.

"Raising the issue of genocide amidst a global pandemic will inevitably complicate relations with the Asian superpower at a time when cooperation is crucial."

However, as an institution built upon the affirmation of human rights, the EU and its Western allies should not shy away from confrontation. To begin with, the EU needs to prioritise the closure of all so-called “political re-education” camps in Xinjiang. By sending an unambiguous message to Xi Jinping, the EU can regain its moral conscience and at least pretend to practice what it preaches. 

Unfortunately, as is often the case in diplomacy, realpolitik is at the forefront of western political calculations. Practicalities, in this case, seem to be winning over any sense of moral obligation. Nevertheless, that is exactly what this should be: an obligation. The rights that China enjoys as a sovereign nation fall away and self-determination becomes irrelevant in light of the horrific treatment of the Uighurs. Insofar as  human rights are universal, “they are a demand of all humanity on all of humanity.”

Raising the issue of genocide amidst a global pandemic will inevitably complicate relations with the Asian superpower at a time when cooperation is crucial. However, history’s ‘unfulfilled promises’ suggest that not doing so will prove even  more disastrous. Not being aware, or not knowing are excuses no longer viable in the twenty-first century.

Condemning the Chinese government on a public stage is a good start, but it is only the beginning. To enact real change, the EU must sanction the parties that directly benefit from the continuation of the concentration camps. While it may be unwise to significantly impact trade relations between Europe and China, measures against specific individuals, products and corporations would be far more sensible. By targeting those companies involved in making a profit from the concentration camp-produced goods, the EU would be making its point loud and clear. Europe and its American allies should ban known human rights violators from traveling abroad. By freezing their assets, and hitting them where it hurts, Chinese perpetrators would have no choice but to face up to their actions and close the camps.

With a major investment agreement secured between Brussels and Beijing on the last day of 2020, human rights advocates are rightly frustrated at the treaty's absence of any guarantees regarding alleged Chinese abuses. Not only was this a serious missed opportunity to apply real pressure on China given how much was at stake after seven years of negotiation, but the EU also risks undermining the call it made for partnership with the United States against authoritarian powers like China a mere four weeks earlier.

If "universal, indivisible and interdependent human rights" do indeed lie "at the heart" of its relations with other countries, the EU must go out of its way to work with the Biden administration to confront Chinese human rights abuses. History does not repeat itself by itself; it is bystanders that choose to turn the other way when perpetrators unleash the mechanisms of evil. The Holocaust did not unfold overnight, it escalated over years. If nothing is done now, the very existence of the Uighur people is threatened, and the West will be complicit. Western governments cannot pick and choose when to intervene – intervention must be a fact of principle, not practicality. Human rights, whether in Beijing or Berlin, matter; they are inalienable. 

Until everyone everywhere is afforded the same protection of life, ‘Never Again’ will remain nothing more than an “unfulfilled promise”. 

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