Chinese Persecution of the Uyghur: A Case of Genocide
Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic people who have been living for a few millennia in East Turkistan or Uyghuristan, which was called Xinjiang (New Territories) in the Chinese language following Chinese invasion. The Uyghur nation has members of ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, and Tatars. I refer to them collectively as Uyghurs. In East Turkistan, there are also millions of ethnic Han Chinese, brought there by various Chinese governments in order to make Uyghurs a minority in their homeland and eventually to annihilate them culturally and physically. The present article suggests that there is an ongoing genocide against Uyghurs committed by the Chinese regime in the mainland.
Genocide is a modern term coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin and, as some scholars suggest, it is an essentially contested concept with dozens of definitions. Therefore, in this essay, in spite of some of its shortages and limitations, I will take the definition of genocide by the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) as “the definition,” which will provide the criteria to see whether an Uyghur genocide is currently being committed. Article II of the UN Convention defines genocide as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
There are reliable sources presenting irrefutable evidence for the Uyghur genocide, yet I will suffice with discussing only two of them here.
Firstly, Xinjiang Victims Database records testimonies about the Uyghur victims who were or are currently kept in concentration camps. Over the last decade, the Chinese government has built a network of concentration camps for ethnic Turkic Muslim minorities in the Uyghur Region, and the number of camps has increased tremendously since 2017. The government has sent many people to these camps, including women of various ages, teenagers, and elderly people. The authorities labeled the camps as “re-education” camps for terrorists or extremists. The database provides detailed information about detainees, including their name, age, gender, ethnicity, profession, location, health status, and reason for detention. The database also registers people who are missing.
Secondly, the Xinjiang Police Files are leaked documents from the Xinjiang concentration camps that were sent to anthropologist Adrian Zenz from an anonymous source. On May 24, 2022, an international consortium of fourteen media companies published information about the files that contain thousands of pictures and documents from Xinjiang and details of the internment of more than 20,000 Uyghurs. The files contradict almost everything Chinese officials have been stating regarding camps and treatment of Uyghurs and provide undeniable evidence for genocide.
My research on Uyghur genocide has been ongoing since 2019, with particular emphasis on the genocide’s sociological and philosophical aspects. Recently a few legal reports on Uyghur genocide were published, and I will cite three of them here. The first report, published by four lawyers, demonstrates that the crime of genocide is committed against Uyghurs. The second report, prepared by dozens of experts in international law, genocide studies, Chinese ethnic policies, and the Uyghur region, concludes that “China bears State responsibility for an ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs, in breach of the Genocide Convention.” Finally, the Uyghur Tribunal was an independent “people’s tribunal” based in the United Kingdom and its jury was composed of human rights experts and lawyers. The tribunal was launched in September 2020 by Geoffrey Nice, the prosecutor in the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milošević. The tribunal concluded on December 9, 2021 that the government of the People’s Republic of China had committed genocide against the Uyghurs.
Killing Members of the Group
Genocide need not involve mass murder, and a group can be destroyed or annihilated in the absence of mass killing as well. Further, customary international law and Article II of the Genocide Convention do not require the victims of genocide to be numerous. The latter mentions destruction of a group “in whole or in part” which applies to all the five acts of genocide. As historian Mark Levene notes, the states committing genocide carry out “en masse physical elimination” of a group “in toto, or until it is no longer perceived to represent a threat.”
Thus, killing “in part,” especially “substantial part,” of particular groups must be our focus. In this context the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) stated, in a press release related to a court case dealing with genocide, the killing of “political, administrative and religious leaders, academics and intellectuals, business leaders and others” as a substantial part of a protected group. The Chinese government under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been carrying out selective murders of the Uyghur elite. By killing the elite, China intends to annihilate Uyghurs both physically and culturally.
Not only the elite, but other Uyghurs too are killed by China on various grounds. Besides, as part of genocidal murders, thousands of Uyghurs are killed for the organ trade. It is well known that China is one of the leading organ supply centers of the world, and, in fact, after many years of denial, Chinese authorities admitted in 2005 to using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants. Many of the organs harvested are sold to rich people in China and overseas buyers who fly to China for transplantation. There are numerous horror stories coming from jails in China, including accounts of paralyzing victims in order to extract their organs while they are still alive.
In addition to being killed, Uyghurs have also been subjected to enforced disappearances, which are very common in China. They are so widespread that a book devoted to them and based on victims’ testimonies is titled The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. The system targets any citizen of China, not only Uyghurs, who is perceived to make a serious “mistake” or be a troublemaker. As expected, millions of defenseless Uyghurs — accused of extremism, separatism, and terrorism — are potential victims of this system.
Causing Serious Bodily or Mental Harm to Members of the Group
The acts under this category are very broad and include torture, rape, sexual violence, forced abortion, forced sterilization, and degrading or inhuman treatment. Although rape and sexual violence may be considered among the worst types of injuries, as the victim suffers both bodily and mentally, most of the acts in this category inflict both bodily and mental harm.
Arguably, the Chinese government’s major tool to carry out the Uyghur genocide has been the internment camps that I analyzed elsewhere. China has demonized Muslim Uyghurs and interned at least 2-3 million of them so far in what Chinese authorities call “reeducation camps.” Naturally, the reeducation mentioned here, also referred to by the regime as “thought transformation,” is simply brainwashing. In the camps, Chinese authorities brainwash Uyghurs to deny and reject their Islamic faith and practice, as well as Uyghur culture and heritage, instead forcing them to praise Chinese culture, the Communist Party, and its leaders. There is no law or humanity inside these camps, and Uyghurs experience systematic mistreatment, degrading and humiliating treatment, cruelty, murder, torture, organ theft, rape, food and sleep deprivation, forced sterilization, forced abortion, and coerced birth control. Many of these acts are crimes against humanity. While millions of Uyghurs live in constant fear due to the omnipresent threat of being sent to one of internment camps, many Uyghurs who were in those camps are destroyed physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Mental harm can sometimes be more destructive than bodily harm, as its psychological and emotional destruction can leave a worse type of impact on the victims. For example, as philosopher Claudia Card suggests, to kill social vitality completely, child removal and reeducation may not be sufficient; therefore, genocide perpetrators might resort to “drive victims mad or rob them of self-respect,” as well. Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit calls genocide an “indecent” paradigm that “not only destroys victims but first humiliates them by deliberately inflicting an “utter loss of freedom and control over one’s vital interests”.” In fact, as Sociologist Daniel Feierstein notes, “the main objective of genocidal destruction is the transformation of the victims into “nothing” and the survivors into “nobodies.””
Deliberately Inflicting on the Group Conditions of Life Calculated to Bring about its Physical Destruction in Whole or in Part
This type of destruction does not directly lead to death, but it eventually leads to physical destruction. As Professor of Law Julie Cassidy maintains, “[e]xamples of such conditions of life include starving the targeted group; depriving the targeted group of proper housing (including systematic expulsion from homes), clothing, hygiene, and medical care for an extended period; subjecting the targeted group to a subsistence diet; compelling the targeted group to do excessive work or undergo excessive physical exertion.” Chinese authorities have various means and ways to change the conditions of life for Uyghurs living in East Turkistan and abroad. One of them occurs in Uyghur cities and towns that were made into open air prisons by Chinese authorities. Today, empty and silent streets in many Uyghur cities bear witness to the ongoing genocide.
Another genocidal act pertaining to the physical destruction of Uyghurs is the widespread use of forced labor and even slave labor. Undoubtedly there is forced labor among Uyghurs in many concentration camps that are described by Chinese authorities as “vocational schools,” where allegedly unemployed Uyghurs learn new skills for jobs. Initially most of these “schools” were in fact new factories built inside or near the concentration camps for forced labor. Later, authorities started to send Uyghurs to factories located in various parts of China. Besides, destruction of Uyghur businesses and internment of business people are other means leading to physical destruction.
Designated Chinese officials visit Uyghurs’ homes without their knowledge and consent and stay there for weeks as uninvited guests. They observe Uyghurs all the time, assess their loyalty to the country and their level of Chinese language, and take notes for their reports. Those Uyghurs who are reported about negatively end up in detention camps.
Destruction of the socio-cultural structure of the group and its social relations, i.e., cultural destruction, is now accepted by many experts of international law as evidence for intent for physical destruction. Thus, systematic destruction of the environment, landscape, and monuments as well as of social and cultural institutions too are in the same category. Thus, the Chinese regime’s demolition of many historical, cultural, and religious monuments in Uyghur cities with the pretext of urban renewal and transformation is part of the ongoing genocide. The open war against Uyghur language too has the same purpose.
Imposing Measures Intended to Prevent Births Within the Group
As part of China’s genocidal policies, the state has been carrying out sterilization campaigns (including both voluntary sterilization and coerced sterilization), forced abortion, segregation of the sexes, forced marriages of Uyghurs with the Han Chinese, and rape of Uyghur women in detention camps.
In some cases, poor Uyghurs have undergone voluntary sterilizations in return for payment. Many Uyghur women who are kept in internment camps are forced to take unknown medicines and given forcible injections, and the victims suspect that these are done for their sterilization. Besides, many are forcefully fitted with intra-uterine devices, forced into receiving sterilization surgery, or given injections that stopped their periods. After leaving the camps and China, some women had medical check-ups and found they were sterile. One can see in the media hundreds of examples given by Uyghur women who were either themselves victims of this inhuman practice or forced as medical staff at hospitals to carry out forced abortions. Facing criticisms about such inhuman practices, the only thing Beijing has done is claimed that family-planning policies are voluntary.
In addition, many Uyghur women have been forced to marry Han Chinese men in order to save their parents or family members from camps or to show that they deny Islamic tradition and show loyalty to China. Another tool employed by China’s genocidal policies towards Uyghurs is rape. There are credible reports by Uyghur women in the interment camps confirming the existence of a system of organized rape, either as victims or witnesses of it. Card argues that rape aimed at enforced pregnancy can be genocidal. Many women who experience torture and rape and then give birth “are so traumatized that they may never regain the desire to engage in sexual relationships or to procreate further.” Thus, war rape and genocidal rape aim at family breakdown and reducing procreation. Further, as scholar of law Elisa Novic notes, systematic rape of women is sometimes intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.
Forcibly Transferring Children of the Group to Another Group
The Chinese state has been carrying out child removal policies extensively in East Turkistan in recent years. Uyghur children are forcibly taken away by the state without parental consent. There is clear and undeniable evidence of China’s systemic Uyghur child removal policies. For instance, in his research Adrian Zenz makes use of educational statistics, various official reports, relevant state and private media articles, government policy, implementation directives, public bids for construction and procurement, as well as official propaganda materials.
China plans to assimilate and indoctrinate Uyghur children in closed environments by separating them systematically from their parents and close relatives. In this way, both parental influence and intergenerational cultural and religious transmission are seriously reduced or almost totally annihilated. The aim of Uyghur child removals is the assimilation or absorption of the children into the Han Chinese culture so that their Uyghur cultural values and ethnic identity will disappear. Thus, according to the genocidal plan, a generation later, there will be hardly any Uyghur culture in East Turkistan. The destruction of Uyghur language, religion, culture, and national feelings among Uyghur children is obviously part of the ongoing genocide.
China transfers forcibly Uyghur children to the Han Chinese group. The children are forcibly moved to prison-like “orphanages,” nurseries, kindergartens, and boarding schools where they are “educated” or “reeducated” in accordance with the Chinese culture and the values of the Communist Party. As part of their “education” in the framework of sinicization campaign, Uyghur infants, toddlers, and children go through brainwashing at all levels. They are forced to speak only Chinese, wear Han clothes, and eat pork. The focus is on language education and immersion, cultural assimilation, political indoctrination, as well as psychological and behavioral “correction.” Naturally, the Uyghur children who are removed from their homes, with no contact with and information about the situations and whereabouts of their parents and close relatives, are often in a state of shock, pain, and trauma. In short, China aims at cutting off Uyghur children from their language, identity, and culture, alienating them and thus creating mental and cultural conflicts in Uyghur society.
In conclusion, according to the criteria stated by the UN Genocide Convention, the People’s Republic of China has been carrying out genocide against Uyghur people. There is no doubt that China is guilty on all counts. As sinologist Joanne Smith Finley asserts, “[i]t’s genocide, full stop. It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide.”
Unfortunately, “never again!” has proven to be an empty slogan. After the Holocaust, the last decade of the twentieth century saw at least two genocides, namely the Rwandan and Bosnian ones. Selective punishment of some individual genocide perpetrators are far from deterring those states or groups that intend to commit genocides. As far as I see, one serious action that one currently should do is stigmatizing the perpetrators and especially the states. The stigma of committing genocide seems to be the only thing by which some perpetrating states are really annoyed; therefore, genocides must be named so while they are being committed, not after they are completed. I believe that identifying, exposing, and naming genocidal actions clearly will be an important step for genocide prevention.
With its genocidal acts and crimes against humanity, the present Chinese leadership presides over a regime against humanity and therefore humanity has a duty to tame both that leadership and its regime. China has a digital dictatorship that must be fought against. Therefore, regardless of its success or potential effects, China should be sued at the International Court of Justice. There should be charges of genocide against the Communist Party and the state of China as well as China’s leader Xi Jin Ping, Chen Quanguo, his henchman in Uyghuristan between 2016-21, and Zhu Hailun, the man behind Uyghur concentration camps. For instance, in a similar case, on November 11, 2019, the state of Gambia sued Myanmar for the Arakan Genocide at the International Court of Justice, and the case was accepted.
In spite of all Chinese brutality and atrocities, Uyghur genocide is failing. After the initial trauma, Uyghurs have started resisting globally and coming out to speak about their ordeals publicly and publishing their experiences, after avoiding them for a long time for fear of retribution by Chinese authorities. However, Chinese atrocities are continuing and we have a moral and legal duty to fight against the perpetrators in every way possible.♦
Ali Çaksu (PhD) is a professor of philosophy at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Yıldız Technical University in Istanbul. He is also the vice-director of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies at the same university.
Çaksu, Ali. “Chinese Persecution of the Uyghur: A Case of Genocide.” Canopy Forum, August 1, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/08/01/uyghur-genocide-committed-by-peoples-republic-of-china/.