A murderless* genocide in China?

What does genocide look like? Do gas chambers, machetes, and mass graves come to mind? Images of piles of mutilated bodies? I haven’t conducted a survey, but I’ll take a bet and say that most of us think of genocide as the intentional, large-scale murder of entire groups of people.

But murder is just one part of it. In fact, it is possible to commit genocide without the mass murder. And I’d argue that if you are a strategic human rights abuser, well-aware that straight-up extermination would foster strong negative reactions from the international community, you’ll seek to carry it out without killing.

In fact, I do believe that the Chinese government is guilty of genocidal acts, being committed as these words are written and read, and I’m not the only one. 

Earlier this month, two groups of exiled Uyghurs and their lawyers called on the International Criminal Court to investigate China’s genocidal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a native ethnic group in the autonomous Xinjiang-province, northwestern China.

Internment camps in the name of counter-terrorism

The group has suffered decades of systemic oppression and mass surveillance. Being Muslim and speaking a Turkic-language, China effectively denies them basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, the right to family, and culture.

In recent years, the situation has deteriorated further. In 2017, after a series of deadly terrorist attacks committed by groups of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, several camps were hastily constructed in the province. 

Camps, which the Chinese authorities denied the existence of at first, but faced with clear satellite images of the buildings, explained as  “Vocational Education and Training Centers”. 

Here, reports say, the Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained one million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities, in order to “re-educate” them, and hereby contain the threat of Islamic extremism.

Hundreds of official documents leaked to the New York Times reveal that the Chinese authorities see common behavior among devout Uyghurs such as wearing long beards, giving up smoking or drinking, studying Arabic and praying outside mosques, as signs of radicalization. Officials liken Islam to an illness, a virus, that needs to be cured.

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang. Photo: Juan Alberto Casado/Shutterstock

Chinese officials claim the camps provide job training, classes in Mandarin, and law. That the “students” are well-fed and taken good care of. On Youtube, you can find videos produced by the state-controlled news channel CGTN in which “students” talk about how the camps have saved them from the throes of radical Islam, providing them with a new path in life.

That’s the official version. 

Other former detainees speak of horrific conditions, brainwashing, rape, and torture. According to the Atlantic, detainees have told how they’ve been forced to renounce their beliefs, recite communist propaganda, eat pork and drink alcohol. There are confirmed cases of sterilization of the women, as well as forced use of birth control.

Now, according to Uyghur human rights activists, hundreds of thousands of the detained are being deported to other Chinese regions, utilized as a labour force.

Destruction of family

Outside of the camps, the Chinese authorities are also clamping down. According to Uyghur activists, thousands of mosques, shrines, graveyards and other sites of historical, cultural or religious significance have been destroyed.

Authorities are also trying to control the birth-rate of the Uyghurs. According to an investigation conducted by the Associated Press and Xinjiang scholar Adrian Zenz, forced birth control, abortions, and sterilizations are widespread.

According to Adrian Zenz, two counties in Xinjiang were scheduled to sterilize 14 and 34 percent of all the women in childbearing age in 2019. Per capita, that would be more sterilizations than China has performed in the last twenty years. Mind you, the Chinese birth rate is the lowest it’s been in decades, and China is encouraging Han-women to make use of the fact that they have been allowed to have two children since January, 2016. Uyghur women are punished if they mother “too many” children, and sent to the camps.

When the husbands of the families are detained, Chinese officials (belonging to the dominant Han ethnic group) “occupy” the Uyghurs’ households and sleep in the same bed as Uyghur-women. The policy is called “Pair Up and Become Family”, by the Chinese government. Uyghur activists call it “mass rape” and forced marriage.

According to the Financial Times, children of parents who are detained are sent to state-run orphanages, which are being built with the aim to provide “orphans” with state-sponsored care until they turn 18. Experts have warned that this may reshape the identity of an entire generation of Uyghurs. 

Genocidal intent?

Now, let’s look at the definition of genocide:

According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 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.

Torture, forced sterilization and birth control, brainwashing, disruption of family life, children sent to orphanages. I see several of the conditions met in the case of the crackdown on the Uyghurs.

But an important part of the equation is the intent. The destruction of the group must be intentional to be classified as genocide.

Intent is difficult to prove, and we can be sure that Xi Jinping and the Chinese authorities will do whatever it takes to lead us to believe that they do not intent to destroy, in whole or in part, this ethnic-religious group. They want the world to believe that this is part of a legitimate fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism. That they are re-educating and de-radicalizing individuals who pose a threat to national security.

But, why, then, are birth control and abortions being forced upon the Uyghur women in the face of a nationally stalling birth rate? Why are they forced to marry Han-Chinese men? Why are Uyghur children put in state-run orphanages until the age of 18?

The authoritarian control of the group’s ability to start a family and pass on cultural knowledge to the next generation, paired with systematic brainwashing, torture, and humiliation, does not fall under legitimate counter-terrorism strategies.

It suggests that the authorities may view the Uyghurs as a threat on a general level, and that they seek to destroy the group, in whole or in part, because of it.

I, a laywoman, of course can’t prove intent from the corner of my sofa, thousands of miles away from the crime sites, but I encourage everyone to be critical of the official Chinese version of what is taking place here.

Another reason for why we shouldn’t just accept the counter-terrorism tale is the fact that China is putting diplomatic pressure on other countries to deport exiled Uyghurs back to China. Analysts believe that China is seeking to prevent the development of a vocal Uyghur diaspora, which again suggests that they are viewing the mere existence of the group as a threat.

Activists seeking international justice

That brings us to the two groups of Uyghur activists who have urged the ICC to investigate the Chinese crackdown.

According to the Guardian, the groups have submitted what they say is evidence of how Uyghurs were unlawfully deported from Tajikistan and Cambodia to Xinjiang where they were subjected to imprisonment, torture, forced birth control, sterilizations and marriages among other crimes. 

China is not a party to the ICC, but because the repatriation began in countries who are, the crime could fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC anyhow. The jurisdictional logic is similar to that seen in the ICC-investigation of alleged genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

It is up to Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, on authorization of the judges, to choose to open an investigation, since the case has not been referred by a state party or the UN Security Council.

There’s no question that the crackdown on the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups of the Xinjiang-province constitutes crimes against humanity. It should be looked into as genocide, as well, and the international community should do whatever possible to prevent it.

*I acknowledge that there have been reports of deaths in the camps, but killing does not seem to be the strategic goal.

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Economist, The BBC, The Financial Times, World Uyghur Congress, Human Rights Watch, ‘Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang’, by Dr. Adrian Zenz, Washington D.C 2020.