Recently published research on the Chinese authorities’ restrictive birth policy toward Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group living in the country’s northwestern borderland, has brought to light more information about the extreme policies of the ruling Communist Party. The findings of this and other reports prompt comparisons of Xi Jinping’s China with the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes and raise questions for foreign governments about their future relations with an aspiring power implementing genocidal policies.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as East Turkestan) has long been one of modern China’s the major fault lines. The spacious and resource-rich region is located in the empire’s strategic northwestern rear linking it to the world along the ancient Silk Road, enabling access to strategic resources through Central Asia and Siberia. For the increasingly ambitious People’s Republic of China (PRC) under General Secretary Xi Jinping, Xinjiang is a core region (hexinqu) in one of its main foreign policy schemes, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013.
However, the PRC’s furthering of its international influence through Xinjiang is hampered by the protracted ethnopolitical conflict of interests between the central authority and majority Han population on the one side and autochthonous population of several, mostly Turkic Muslim nationalities. Of these, Uyghurs numbering some 12 million and Kazakhs numbering over 2 million have been the loudest discontents of the CPC’s model of a unitary, Han-dominated state.
Since Xinjiang’s takeover in late 1949, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) has thus subjected local non-Han nationalities to alternating waves of more or less stringent policies curbing the expression of their identity and autonomy aspirations. Following a wave of protests, violent clashes, and terrorist attacks in 2008–2014, the party-state began tightening its repressive policies in 2016, when Xi Jinping appointed to the position of Xinjiang’s party secretary the strongman Chen Quanguo, who had gained merit in previously strengthening the CPC’s rule in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The Xinjiang policy shift also reflects the consolidation of the CPC’s power under Xi’s leadership and its aspired projection abroad.
Pacifying the Wild West
The CPC’s recent policies in Xinjiang are a combination of resurrected Maoist-style totalitarian governance with the newest technologies and abundant finances. By far the most screaming example is the internment of up to one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in a sprawling network of political reeducation camps since 2017. In a manner strongly resembling the Maoist‑era reeducation practice, the prisoners are forced to denounce their religion and ethnic identity while being brainwashed with official propaganda.
Although the CPC propaganda’s official interpretation is that the campaign aims for the de‑extremification (qujiduanhua) of Uyghurs in vocational skills education training centers (zhiye jineng jiaoyu peixun zhongxin), in fact most of the prisoners are targeted without having committed any crime for ordinary behavior, such as peacefully practicing religion or ties to foreign countries. Internal reports have revealed the enormous scale and systematic character of the detention system. The prisoners are, moreover, often held in dire conditions and subjected to torture, starvation, deprivation of healthcare or sexual harassment.
The political reeducation system has been integrated with extensive forced labor, within which Uyghurs are coerced to work in factories, which in some cases even function as contractors for major global brands. Uyghur slave laborers are becoming an ever more important segment of Xinjiang and China’s economy.
The recent withholding by US customs authorities of a thirteen-ton shipment of wigs and other human hair products imported by a Xinjiang-based company further underlined the striking resemblance of the CPC’s Xinjiang forced reeducation and labor enterprise with Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.
Although there are no indications that mass executions are happening in the Xinjiang detentions and reeducation camps, Uyghurs and other minorities have been ‘concentrated’ (in Chinese jizhong) in them in an illegal and arbitrary manner and subjected to cruel treatment and slave labor solely due to their ethnicity or religious affiliation. Thus while the term ‘concentration camp’ (in Chinese jizhongying) is technically correct, it insufficiently captures the reeducation and forced labor aspect of the policy.
Beyond the prisons and factories, the CPC has also subjected Uyghurs and other minorities to a neo-totalitarian predicament affecting all aspects of their lives.
Technological tools enable overt and covert techniques of surveillance and profiling, making the entire region with its population a laboratory for cybernetic totalitarian techniques. The government has ordered over one million Han cadres to live as uninvited guests in Uyghur households to boost so-called ethnic unity (minzu tuanjie), i.e., to monitor and indoctrinate their Uyghur ‘younger brothers and sisters.’ There are reports of forced marriages of Uyghur women with Han men.
Uyghur-language education is being replaced by a Chinese-language curriculum, which causes the youngest generation to be unable to master their mother tongue; this functioning of the system is enhanced by placing Uyghur youths in boarding schools away from their family and root communities. Uyghur religious and cultural practices are also being systematically eradicated by the party‑state. Poverty is also a serious problem in the Uyghur regions, caused mainly by the government’s policy of resettling and favoring the Han population and using Xinjiang’s resources chiefly for the needs of the state economy and China’s majority Han population.
Biopolitics: Diluting the Uyghur element
The CPC’s policies have been further exposed in a recently published study by Adrian Zenz, a researcher of China’s ethnic policy, and reporting by the Associated Press. The data show an abrupt decline in Uyghur natality due to the CPC’s anti-birth policies and mass detentions of Uyghurs. For instance, birthrates declined by up to 84 per cent in the two largest predominantly Uyghur prefectures (Kashgar and Khotan) between 2015 and 2018.
The data also shows the massive extent of forced sterilizations, interruptions, and intrauterine contraceptive measures, e.g., planned to be implemented with up to 80 per cent of women in child-bearing age living in the four southern Xinjiang prefectures with the highest proportion of the Uyghur population. In 2018, 80 per cent of China’s total number of intrauterine devices were implemented in Xinjiang, in spite of the fact that the region accounts for only 1,8 per cent of the PRC’s population.
Zenz also found that, for breaking the birth control regulations, Xinjiang’s minorities can be punished by incarceration in a political reeducation camp, a fact previously indicated by a leaked list of prisoners from a facility in the Qaraqash county. The CPC is massively stepping up its anti-birth policies towards Xinjiang Muslims at a time when the methods of natality planning (jihua shengyu) are being loosened up in the rest of China and all couples hailing from the majority Han ethnic group can have two children since 2016.
A broader conclusion of Zenz’s research is that the Chinese authorities are committing genocide as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Its Article II defines genocide also as “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”
Joanne Smith Finley, a leading expert in Uyghur studies, has also called China’s policies a “slow, painful, creeping genocide.” In an editorial, The Washington Post raised a relevant question: whether the global sports community should grant the privilege of organizing the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to a country that has committed genocide. Others have called for a boycott of Beijing’s games due to its Xinjiang policies.
Genocide: Not only cultural
Zenz’s research brings a substantial argument into a broader debate about how should the international community deal with the crimes committed by the CPC on Uyghurs and other minorities. Experts have previously labeled the stringent policies genocide, cultural genocide, crimes against humanity or state terrorism. Indeed, besides the biological and demographic measures described by Zenz, other Beijing’s policies also aim to obliterate Uyghurs as a distinct ethnic group and therefore could be viewed as genocidal.
In reference to the UN Convention, “killing members of the group” has been perpetrated for instance by massacres of Uyghur civilians during unrest in Ghulja in 1997, in Ürümchi in 2009 or other instances, while an unknown number of other people, mostly young men, remained missing after these incidents. By mass detentions for political reeducation and forced labor, as well as by repression, surveillance and intimidation targeting the entire ethnic community, the regime causes “serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” Placing children of incarcerated Uyghur parents to orphanages and boarding schools amounts to “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” because the practice aims to dilute the ethnic consciousness of the youngest generation and to inculcate a mindset defined by the Han-directed party‑state.
The “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” is also revealed by other policies of Chinese authorities, amounting to the conception of genocide formulated by the creator of the term, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), who in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), considered genocide
a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.
The CPC’s de-Uyghurization population policies in Xinjiang strongly resemble both the above general definition and the specific Nazi genocidal techniques adopted in Poland and other occupied territories during World War II, when the invading authorities strove to decrease the natality of a non‑German population while simultaneously increasing the number of Germans. But even other examples of genocidal policies raised by Lemkin can be related to the contemporary CPC’s administration of East Turkestan.
The regime does not allow for any autonomous political activity by Uyghurs. As in some other aspects of Xinjiang politics, the lack of avenues for political expression applies also to the majority Han population in China proper. But in Xinjiang, it is imposed by the Han as a ruling group on the Uyghurs as a subjugated group in greater intensity and scope. A telling example is the unprecedented 2014 life sentence for Ilham Tohti, an influential Uyghur public intellectual, due to his criticism of the government’s ethnic policy. Such a crushing measure has not been applied in recent decades to Han establishment academics for even much more outspoken criticism. The CPC also systematically paralyzes Uyghur media and public debate.
The repression aims at key parts of Uyghur society, including intellectual, artistic, religious, and economic elites. Given the fact that the targeted individuals have not committed any crimes and that the repressive measures also impact ordinary citizens, it can be, nevertheless, concluded that the reason for their persecution is the fact they belong to the Uyghur ethnic category. In Lemkin’s words, ‘genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group’.
The above-outlined destruction of Uyghur families and other social and political institutions, national consciousness and security embodied in language, religion, culture, worldview, material heritage such as mosques, shrines, cemeteries or historical cities, as well as other attributes of a distinct ethnic group, also reveal the CPC’s coordinated and protracted intent to erase Uyghur ethnic identity and the possibility of a dignified existence in Xinjiang.
Even though there is no information about mass physical liquidation of Uyghurs taking place in Xinjiang at the moment, the CPC’s policies are directed toward the same end, i.e. the elimination of Uyghurs’ material and spiritual presence in Xinjiang and China, similarly to the internationally tried genocides under Nazi Germany, in Rwanda or Bosnia. The acts of the Chinese authorities clearly involve both the psychological aspect of intent and the physical aspect of policy implementation vis-à-vis a specific group as such and should, therefore, be viewed as genocide. In contrast, in the wake of the revealed biological and demographic measures taken by Chinese authorities against Uyghur births, terms such as cultural genocide or ethnocide appear to be insufficient.
A broader question then arises whether to apply the term genocide also to the PRC’s repression of Tibetans, who have been subjected to policies closely resembling those taken up toward Uyghurs. Although policies are applied in a varying combination and intensity in respective Tibetan contexts, the fact that both the TAR and Xinjiang pose a set of parallel challenges to the central leadership is underlined by the similarity of securitization policies enacted in both regions by Chen Quanguo. A related question is also under what circumstances should similar repressions of ethnic groups by perpetrated by governments elsewhere in the world should be also called genocides. The wider implications should be kept in mind as over-using the term genocide would lessen the alarming potential the word was intended to convey by its creator Raphael Lemkin.
As a cross‑disciplinary debate slowly begins to tackle these issues, the international community is, nevertheless, obliged to call out the crimes committed by the CPC and hold its perpetrators responsible. In relation to the recently promulgated Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and a series of sanctions against Xinjiang actors by the US authorities and to the UK’s recent Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales urgent briefing paper, more remains to be done in defense of Uyghurs and other persecuted groups in China by the EU and its member states, especially given their painful, yet intimate historical experience with atrocities committed on the continent by past criminal totalitarian regimes. Along with the CPC’s actions toward other domestic ethnic, religious, political, and other minorities, in Hong Kong, and toward Taiwan, the Xinjiang issue is becoming a hotly contested point of friction between the Chinese regime and the international community.
With thanks to Katarzyna and Łukasz Sarek and Jichang Lulu.
Ondřej Klimeš is a researcher in modern China and Xinjiang politics at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
This article was commissioned, translated into Polish and first published in both languages (under a under Creative Commons licence) by Klub Jagielloński, co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project “Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension” („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020– nowy wymiar”). The article reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.