Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to conceal its discrimination against the Uighur population, the history of Uighur oppression in Xinjiang is beginning to come to light. 800,000 to 2,000,000 Uighurs and other ethnic Muslim groups have been detained in modern-day concentration camps since 2014. The Chinese government has been trying to pass these off as “vocational” or “re-education” camps as part of anti-terrorism efforts to re-educate “extremists,” read: practicing Muslims.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what occurs in these camps because China refused to acknowledge their existence until October 2018, when officials began to claim that they provide a benefit to the region. However, based on reports from those who have escaped, conditions are extremely harsh with extensive surveillance, a mandatory renunciation of Islam, and a requirement to expound pro-Communist rhetoric.
Women have shared stories of sexual assault, forced abortions, and compulsory long-term or permanent contraception. The Chinese government has begun a campaign to assign Han Chinese male “relatives” to visit and monitor the homes of Uighur families; there have been reports that they often sleep in the same beds as Uighur women whose husbands have been imprisoned. The children of detainees are moved to orphanages or “boarding schools” where they are taught to forget Islam and the traditions of the Uighur people in favor of traditional Chinese practices. And this only skims the surface of China’s abuses of the Uighurs.
After years of Uighur oppression, on the last full day of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially recognized China’s repression of the Uighurs as a genocide and crime against humanity, the most damning reprobation of China’s “systematic attempts to destroy the Uighurs” that any country has applied to date. President Biden announced his support for such a declaration while on the campaign trail last year, so this policy will continue into the Biden administration.
So what does a recognition of genocide actually signify?
According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, in order for a genocide to exist, there must be “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This destruction can take place within five broader categories: killing group members, causing serious mental or physical harm, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures preventing births in a group, and/or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Certainly, the Uighurs are an ethnic and religious group. At the very least, there is strong evidence that China is attempting to prevent births among the Uighurs, and the government has been forcing Uighur children to orphanages or boarding schools away from their communities to become more well-versed in Han Chinese culture and erase their Uighur roots. China has not denied that it is attempting to slow the growth of the Uighur population, even when it was faced with such accusations, indicating that it has an intent to destroy the Uighurs. Based on this, it is indisputable that China is committing a genocide against the Uighur people and has been for years.
After all these years, why have no other countries made a declaration of genocide? For one thing, signatories of the Genocide Convention are obligated to prevent and punish genocide, so recognizing China’s oppression of the Uighurs as a genocide would also create an obligation to put an end to it. Many countries do not have the will or ability to effectively accomplish that and stand up to China, an extremely large and powerful country. Some experts believe that, rather than individual country action, the United Nations is the best avenue through which to address this genocide. However, this is also difficult because China has veto power on the UN Security Council and has an influential seat on the UN Human Rights Council. In addition, the UN is a slow-moving organization, and the Uighurs need help now.
There are also economic factors at play. China is a major global trading partner. Beyond that, the Belt and Road Initiative provides considerable economic motivations to many Asian and European countries to stay on Beijing’s good side. Xinjiang, in particular, is an important link in this initiative, so countries that would benefit from the BRI have an additional reason not to make problems in Xinjiang a foreign policy priority.
This is not to say that the world has ignored the events in Xinjiang. In late 2020, the European Union adopted legislation allowing member nations to apply sanctions on human rights abusers, though none have yet applied the law to any Chinese officials. The United Kingdom will fine companies that do not guarantee their supply chains do not include forced labor.
In July 2019, twenty-two primarily European countries called on China to end its arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang. In October of that same year, 23 countries came together to denounce China’s repression of Uighurs. In all probability, now that they can be assured of American support against China, many of these countries will also recognize China’s actions as a genocide.
More surprisingly, many Muslim-majority countries, including 14 countries on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have not ignored but rather come out in support of China’s actions. Each time that nations have banded together to condemn Beijing, even more have pledged their support for “China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The crown prince of Saudi Arabia said that China has a “right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures.” Egypt appeared to be assisting China’s crackdown in the summer of 2017 when it detained dozens of Uighur students apparently without cause and deported at least twelve Chinese Uighurs. This is extremely incongruous with the stances these actors have taken on the Rohingya crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Upon closer examination, the picture becomes clearer. The Middle East will be a major beneficiary of the BRI. Moreover, China is a major importer of Middle Eastern energy resources, the first or second largest trading partner of many Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and has been economically investing in the region for years. Taking a public stance against China could jeopardize those relationships.
Historically, China has not intervened politically in the Middle East. As such, many countries in the region may be hesitant to publicly involve themselves in what is ostensibly a Chinese issue for fear of reversing Beijing’s non-interference policy. Certainly, many of these countries do not exactly have stellar human rights records themselves, also justified by anti-insurrectionist or anti-terrorist efforts, and do not want to incentivize China to pressure them on that. Reportedly, Middle Eastern countries have discussed the situation in Xinjiang privately with China, but the majority have not publicly condemned the country.
For a time, the media in many of these countries did not adequately cover the situation in Xinjiang. Increased media coverage has incited public protests across Muslim-majority countries. In Malaysia, the director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, Ahmad Farouk Musa, has been organizing such events and putting pressure on the government to take a stand for the Uighurs. In 2019, Malaysia refused China’s demands to deport Uighur asylum seekers. Similar events have been organized in Indonesia. In response, the foreign minister stated that Indonesia was “communicating with China on Uighur issues.” Perhaps not coincidentally, both countries have been in dispute with China over other issues, including China’s encroachment on their territorial waters.
In response to public agitation and pressure from the opposition party, President Erdogan of Turkey issued a statement in 2019 which reprobated China for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities” perpetrating this “great cause of shame for humanity.” But since then, Erdogan has been relatively silent on the issue, focusing on building economic connections with China. Qatar has removed itself from a letter supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang. In Pakistan, which receives significant funding from the BRI, the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir has criticized the government for its close connection to Beijing. Violence has also broken out with attacks against Chinese nationals and businesses in the area.
In light of China’s significant investments generally and through the BRI, it is unlikely that all of these Muslim-majority countries will publicly denounce China. However, continued protests will at least deter them from condoning or cooperating with Beijing in its oppression. They may even motivate some to take a public stance against the gross injustices taking place in Xinjiang.
Moreover, although the world has not been unanimous in condemning the Uighur genocide, there is reason to believe that the future will bring a reduction in the severity and scope of these human rights abuses. There are concrete steps the United States could take to improve the situation, and thus far, even in this time of intense partisan gridlock, Congress has passed multiple laws on the Uighur genocide with overwhelming bipartisan support. As light has been shed on the extent of the abuses in Xinjiang, more countries have combated them. Coordinated international efforts will be able to ease the plight of the Uighurs when more countries recognize the events in Xinjiang as genocide—which they more than likely will, given the United States’ recent declaration.