China Watching

2022-06-28 Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi

The Uyghurs in China and the Risk of Genocide

The central government’s policies of repression against the Muslim and Turkophone minority in the westernmost region of the People’s Republic of China have been well-known for years now. According to some observers, between 2017 and 2018, more than 12 percent of the adult population was detained in vocational schools, that differ from re-education camps in name only. Various repressive interventions were carried out also through demographic policies, such that the birth rate in the region decreased by 60 percent between 2015 and 2018. If this isn’t genocide, as denounced by human rights organizations, it must at least be considered a ruthless policy of ethnic submersion.

On June 9 of this year, the European Parliament approved a resolution that prohibits the importation of products made through forced labor of Uyghurs. In the wake of the law approved last December by the United States Congress, the EU stressed that the separation of children from their families, sterilization programs, and forced labor in the autonomous region of Xinjiang “are crimes against humanity and can constitute genocide.” This is a harsh condemnation of Beijing, but like all resolutions, is non-binding. De facto, it is a way to put pressure on the European Commission and the Member States to push them to produce a definitive law on the subject. In 2021, US imports of goods from the autonomous region had already decreased by 61 percent, compared to an increase of 13 percent for the EU. In the same period, the increase of over 100 percent of the same products towards Vietnam, however, could indicate that a way was found to get around the sanctions. According to the China Daily newspaper, in the first four months of 2022, the foreign trade balance of the autonomous region grew by over 33 percent. But what is happening to the Muslim and Turkophone minority in the westernmost region of the People’s Republic of China?

The latest, disquieting details on repression of the Uyghur minority of Xinjiang – the so-called “Xinjiang Police Files”[1] – are a collection of materials hacked from the local police servers, obtained by a person who understandably chose to remain anonymous. Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, studied, authenticated, and made the documents public and formalized his conclusions in an article published in the Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies.[2] The German researcher, who has made the study of the abuses against the Uyghur population his field of study at the cited think-tank in Washington, claims that the thousands of images gathered demonstrate that between 2017 and 2018 more than 12 percent of the adult population of the Muslim minority was detained in vocational schools, that according to Uyghur exiles, differ from the re-education camps we know from Chinese history in name only.

The internal documents collected are said to expressly state the government’s policy to treat these people as dangerous criminals; at one point, it is candidly explained that “if after a warning shot the ‘student’ does not stop but continues to flee, the armed policeman must shoot to kill.” Moreover, the transcription of the speech given on June 15, 2018 by the then-Minister of Public Safety Zhao Kezhi, labeled as a “classified document,” appears to prove that the estimates that refer to half a million Uyghurs interred in those years could be quite plausible, and above all, that President Xi Jinping himself was informed of the “re-education” campaigns, to “strike at the root” and “de-extremize” the Uyghurs, and of the increasing spending for the prison facilities in the region and their security personnel.

This is the reason why the polemics over the recent visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, have not subsided. This was the first trip to China of the top United Nations human rights official in 17 years, but the former Chilean president is accused of having lent herself to a propaganda tour of the region and having lent support to the rhetoric from Beijing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the conditions imposed “did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC, including in Xinjiang,” Washington also expressed worries about China’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate” the visit of the UN commissioner.

According to what Bachelet reports, the Xinjiang government assured her that the “vocational education and training center system has been dismantled.” But the official documents of the autonomous region demonstrate that sectors that require intensive labor such as the production of cotton, tomatoes, polysilicon for solar panels and vinyl for flooring, operate thanks to the forced transfer of labor that is mostly Uyghurs. This type of policy has been implemented since 2014, when Xi Jinping formalized the idea that the ethnic minorities must work and study Chinese culture, including because high unemployment could be linked to political instability in the region.[3]

Documents obtained by the Associated Press also appear to demonstrate that in one county of the autonomous region, there is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In Konasheher, it is said that over 10,000 people have been arrested for crimes that range from the serious accusation of terrorism to more vague accusations more traditionally used against political dissidents. And they have one point in common; they are all Uyghurs. This means that one out of 25 people is a prisoner, and a Uyghur. To complete the picture of the repression underway, we need to keep in mind that in the southern part of the region, especially in the territories of the cities Hotan and Kashgar, birth rates decreased by 60 percent between 2015 and 2018. More recent statistics describe a drop of 24 percent in births in Xinjiang, compared to an average of 4.2 percent throughout the nation. While in the rest of the country there are incentives for having children, in Xinjiang the installation of contraceptive spirals in women’s bodies increased by 60 percent from 2014 to 2018, and according to another document obtained by Zenz, in 2019 in the city of Hotan alone, over 34 percent of women in fertile age were subjected to sterilization. This all takes place as interracial marriages are encouraged and the Han population receives incentives to move to Xinjiang and start families there. If this isn’t considered genocide, as denounced by human rights organizations, it must at least be considered a ruthless policy of ethnic submersion.

[2] A. Zeng, “The Xinjiang Police Files”, Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, 3, pp. 1-56.