When someone thinks of genocide, they usually imagine a sudden mass murder. But, as decided at the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948, genocide is also the physical or mental harm, prevention of births, and forced transfer of children in a certain group. The 152 member states of this convention are obligated to prevent and punish genocidal acts. China is one of the many nations held responsible by this convention, and yet, a large-scale ethnic cleansing has been occurring for years in the Xinjiang region. Uighur, Kazakh, and other minority Islamic groups are facing everything from sterilization to physical abuse in these so-called “re-education” camps. The atrocities in Xinjiang’s internment camps are a violation of human rights, and despite what China claims, these camps are undoubtedly genocidal.
Muslims in Xinjiang
The northwestern region of Xinjiang is technically autonomous China, but in reality, it holds minimal self-rule. Uighur Muslims, a Turkic ethnicity, are the main focus of the internment camps in Xinjiang, as they represent over half of the population. But other ethnicities, such as Kazakh Muslims, have been targeted as well. The other largest ethnic group in Xinjiang is Han, and there are growing disparities between the Han and Uighur groups, often due to the economic oppression of Uighurs. Street protests in the 1990s and 2000s voiced demands for economic rights but only led to further government-imposed oppression of the Uighur people.
The situation escalated further in 2009 with rioting at the region’s capital, Urumqi. Rooting from ethnic tensions, these riots ended up killing around 200 people, mainly Han Chinese. Government security increased, but extremists continued to incite violence, as was seen with the attempted hijacking of a plane and cars that crashed into a market in Urumqi. The list of violent incidents goes on, from knife attacks to explosions. The specifics of these incidents were not often clear because the government kept information highly regulated. China blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for these attacks, but the group denies responsibility. In most cases, Uighur extremists were proved responsible for the attacks, motivated by anger from the inequalities they faced in Xinjiang. China blamed the entire Uighur Muslim group, and responded by criminalizing certain religious activities in 2013, and later, banning civil servants from fasting. Both of these restrictions specifically targeted the religious freedom of Uighur Muslims, even though there was only a small group of Uighurs actually involved in extremist activities. Surveillance increased aggressively, including identification cards, facial recognition, and the confiscation of cell phones to track Uighurs. All these events snowballed into the directive President Xi Jinping gave in 2017, founding the internment camps.
The Evidence of Abuses
Praying, traveling abroad, using foreign social media, or having too many children were all things that could get Muslims landed in an internment camp. Inside, detainees were forced to renounce their religious beliefs and praise China’s communist party or face the consequences. A man named Omir Bekali underwent punishment for weeks after his refusal to follow orders. Succeeding a week of making him stand against a wall for five hours, the officials turned to solitary confinement, depriving him of food for an entire day. Through tears, Bekali recounted his experience in the camps, explaining how great the psychological pressure is “when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking– your own ethnic group.” And possibly the most alarming detail of Bekali’s story is that he wasn’t even a Chinese citizen. Visiting from Kazakhstan, Bekali was detained for 7 months then “re-educated.” This is significant because although China does not recognize the International Criminal Courts (ICC) authority, surrounding countries do. If China’s internment camps are declared genocide, as they should be, the ICC could gain jurisdiction over China through the abuses to foreign citizens.
Other detainees tell accounts of the inhumane beatings, rapes, electrocutions, and waterboardings that occurred in the camps. A video was released of men in detention center uniforms, heads shaved and eyes blindfolded, as they were transported. Beijing’s goal to “break [Uighurs] lineage… roots… connections… [and] origins” is working. But at what cost? In an effort to combat extremism, China has taken to abusing innocent men and women. Similarly, the sterilization of women is yet another violation of the Genocide Convention. Minority Muslim women are regularly required by the state to receive pregnancy checks, contraceptives, sterilization, and even abortions. China’s defense is that these groups pose a “political risk,” and they need to eliminate “excessive births” to prevent poverty and extremism. The truth is that Beijing’s fear of extremists has blinded them from seeing the root issue of extremism: ethnic inequality. As a result of this forced sterilization, birth rates in Uighur areas fell by 60% from 2015 to 2018. Ethnic cleansing, not “re-education,” is the product of Xinjiang’s camps.
A Violation of Human Rights
The extremism that escalated in the early 2000s has served as a justification for China’s actions against minority Muslim groups. In an interview, the Xinjiang government chief, Shohrat Zakir, explained the camps as a way to “educate and save” those who may be vulnerable to holding extremist thoughts. As China sees it, teaching Uighur Muslims to speak Mandarin, to be good citizens, and job-related skills is a gift. Zakir claimed that these anti-terrorism measures were all taken “in accordance with the law.” But I ask: is the sterilization of Uighur women in accordance with the law? Is the torture and abuse of Muslims in Xinjiang in accordance with the law? According to the Genocide Convention, no. As for the “job-training” detainees receive, this equates to unjustified forced labor more than anything. Workers are unable to leave, sent far away from home, and under constant surveillance. China isn’t helping Muslims, as they claim to be doing through education- they are abusing them and breaking International Law in the process.
The largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority group since the Holocaust needs our attention, and it needs it now. The delay in sanctioning Chinese officials and prosecuting them in the ICC stems from the country’s far-reaching political and economic power. But right now, preserving lives needs to be the most immediate concern. China may not recognize the International Criminal Court, but some exiled Uighurs say some prisoners were kidnapped from nearby countries. Lawyers could then prosecute the Chinese officials involved because the offenses are against foreign citizens whose countries recognize the ICC. On an individual level, donating to a relief fund may just be the best option. Sponsoring orphans, students, and widows offers support to the economically-oppressed Uighurs. The internment camps need to be shut down, but Uighurs and other minority Muslims also need support after all they have lost. Genocide is never acceptable. Do not accept what is happening in Xinjiang.