Uyghurs in China: A Potential Genocide

In May 2018, despite suffering from a severe blood clot, Zia Wudun was sent to the “black room” in her concentration camp, where she was sexually abused by masked men and tortured using electric batons. Her situation represented that of many Uyghurs; since 2017, as many as a million members of this ethnic minority have been sent to Chinese “re-education camps'' located in Xinjiang, China. Witnesses report instances of physical torture as well as mass rape and forcible sterilization of women in these camps. Even in the twenty-first century and with the power of social media, these horrifying truths have only recently been brought to light through interviews with escapees like Zia Wudun. However, the gravity of the situation has led former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declare the crisis in Xinjiang a genocide. Biden’s administration has also launched investigations and so far seems to agree with Pompeo’s decision. There seems to be substantial evidence pointing towards a potential genocide, and it is crucial that action be taken immediately to prevent further damage.

Historically, the United Nations (UN) has classified human rights abuses as genocides if they satisfy two main conditions. There must be a provable “intent to destroy, in whole or in part,” a specific group of people on the basis of their nationality, religion, race, or ethnicity through physical and mental harm against that group of people, such as killing, torturing, and imposing measures to prevent births or remove children from that group.

Though the Chinese government continues to deny evidence of targeted violence in the concentration camps, there is substantial evidence proving the contrary. The concentration camps are officially labeled as “re-education camps” by the government, and eyewitnesses like Zia Wudun have testified that they do spend hours singing Chinese songs and watching patriotic TV shows that glorify President Xi. However, satellite images of the camps have shown that since 2017, there have been significant developments of dormitory and factory buildings, which are stereotypical of concentration camps. Xi has claimed that Uyghurs were a threat to national security, as evidenced by numerous terrorist attacks on China led by Uyghur militants in 2013 and 2014. When confronted about the camps, President Xi Jinping claimed they were in response to these attacks while showcasing a clear stigma against Uyghurs in particular. Thus, the “re-education camps” conform with a clear government effort to erase the Uighur culture and spread propaganda in support of mainstream Han Chinese culture. Moreover, leaked government documents that were shared with The New York Times revealed the harrowing truths of the situation. 200 pages of speeches by leaders of the Chinese Politburo, including Xi, and more than 150 pages of directives and reports about the Uighur concentration camps, have shown that the Chinese government deliberately ordered a “ruthless and extraordinary campaign” that would show “absolutely no mercy” to the Uyghurs.

In line with that mentality, the concentration camps in Xinjiang demonstrate a clear attempt at the physical destruction of the Uyghurs. According to Zia Wudun and several other eyewitnesses, the treatment of Uyghurs satisfy at least three out of the five activities that are classified by the UN as “physical harm” on a specific group. Uighur women have been subject to gang raping and violent beatings, leaving many of them traumatized. This qualifies their situation to be one where the perpetrator causes serious bodily or mental harm to members of the oppressed group. Accounts that they are also deprived of food, live in prison cells, and forced to be sterilized also satisfy the conditions provided by the UN that the perpetrator deliberately inflicts conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction. Furthermore, there is also circumstantial evidence that the Xinjiang concentration camps could also satisfy the remaining two UN classifications, which are killing members of the group and forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group. Wudun, among other witnesses, reported that many women who were taken away to be raped never came back, which strongly suggests that they were killed or transported elsewhere. Furthermore, as many as 400,000 Uighur children have been sent to isolated boarding schools where they have limited contact with their parents (and in the case of parents interned in camps, no contact at all), and are forbidden from practicing Islam or speaking the Uyghur language in order to indoctrinate the children and instill loyalty to the party. Due to China’s restrictions on reporting the government’s activities in Xinjiang, the scale of the physical damage may even be on a much larger scale.

The UN Genocide Convention has very specific conditions for events to be classified as genocides; unfortunately, this led to the failure of genocide prevention in the past. In many instances, such as the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda, the Cambodian genocide, or the disputed persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the international community responded far too late; millions of people had already been tortured and killed. Moreover, many of the leaders responsible for these atrocities have not been held accountable. Given that the events in Xinjiang could easily escalate, it is crucial that the international community does not delay any longer. China does hold incredible economic and political leverage in our current world, such that even some Turkic or Muslim-majority countries have turned a blind eye to, or even denied, the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. However, we cannot let economic gain or fear of political pushback from China to stall the global community from addressing a potential mass genocide in the twenty-first century; whatever the consequences may be, we cannot stand idly by (as we have done in the past) only to lament the horrific consequences years later. If enough countries take a stand through official condemnations, sanctioning products from Xinjiang, forming an international coalition to exert economic pressure on China, publishing routine intelligence briefings on events in Xinjiang, and withdrawing funding for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the plight of the Uyghurs would at the very least have the recognition it deserves.


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