In Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is conducting perhaps the most intensive program of social engineering in recent history.
It is probably trampling on the human rights of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, systemically and by design and randomly through abuses in the system.
It might be committing crimes against humanity.
It is not, however, committing genocide.
Accusations of genocide against the Uyghurs have become a staple of anti-China campaigning in the West, not because of the merits of the case, but because of the convenience it offers to anti-PRC messaging and policies.
Genocide is “the crime of crimes” and internationally recognized as a justification to disregard considerations of sovereignty and intervene in a nation’s internal affairs.
The Beijing Winter Olympics have been the target of aggressive Western counterprogramming to deny the PRC any soft power bounce from hosting this celebration of sports internationalism.
If you’ve gone near Western Olympics coverage, you know of the campaign to boycott the Olympics—the Olympics themselves, as well as Olympic coverage and the corporations that sponsor the Olympics—under the hashtag #genocideOlympics, supported by various anti-PRC organizations, the Western press, and the US governments and its closest allies.
Adoption of the genocide epithet also permits China hawks to smear skeptics and critics as genocide deniers.
Well, let’s see what Uyghur genocide denial looks like.
It involves examining the Convention on Genocide.
The PRC has ratified the Convention but has not signed the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes genocide cases, but let’s leave that aside. Because of the profound nature of the crime, genocide cases can be referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council or the ICC’s own prosecutors.
The convention recognizes five types of genocides:
- 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.
You may notice the absence of “cultural genocide,” an epithet that’s often thrown around to describe PRC offenses against Uyghur traditional culture and religious practice.
However, under international law there is no such thing as cultural genocide.
There could have been—it was a topic of heated discussion during the negotiations over the drafting of the Genocide Convention. However, it was struck from the final draft…at the insistence of the United States…to protect Canada and its ongoing program of assimilation of First Nations children in its religiously run boarding schools.
Returning to genocide under international law, in order to prevent genocidaires from keeping one member of the target group alive and claiming “no genocide” the qualifier “in whole or in part” precedes the descriptions.
Jiu-jitsu style, this has turned into a loophole for the genocide industry to claim in the extreme that the killing of one person can constitute a genocide.
”In part” has in fact become the core of genocide lawfare, and a linchpin of the Uyghur genocide case.
Uyghur advocates have not even tried to make a serious case that the PRC is killing Uyghurs wholesale.
The PRC has apparently also done well enough preserving Uyghur lives during the COVID-19 pandemic that allegations that the PRC is causing serious bodily or mental harm or imposing conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction of the Uyghurs haven’t been advanced either.
As for forcibly transferring children to another group, the PRC is running boarding schools to indoctrinate Uyghur children—and then return them to their natal communities.
That leaves “imposing measures intended to prevent births in the group”.
Thanks to the PRC’s self-acknowledged rollout of strict birth control in Xinjiang in 2017, this allegation was apparently thought to be in reach as a plausible genocide accusation.
Unfortunately or fortuitously, the birth genocide portfolio was put into the hands of anti-PRC zealot Adrian Zenz. Zenz cobbled together an indictment that, either by accident or design, contained ludicrous mathematical errors that allowed him to declare a genocide might be occurring.
In international law, genocide is not, of course, a matter of allegation. Nor, as befits its severity, is it even a matter of trial in absentia. The accused has to be present to mount a defense for the International Criminal Court to try the case.
Nevertheless, the Mighty Wurlitzer roared into action, with the inevitable media simplification that Zenz had proved genocide.
Zenz’s findings were spread by anti-PRC activists and politicians throughout the rest of the Western world and served as the bases for serial Uyghur tribunals and reports, impassioned op-eds and news coverage, and a flurry of condemnations in national legislatures.
Actually, the evidentiary basis for birth genocide is extremely weak, mainly because the Uyghur population has been growing, not declining.
As I like to point out, Raphael Lemkin, who literally invented the term “genocide,” mocked American Blacks for trying to claim genocide in their famous indictment prepared in 1948, “We Charge Genocide.”
Lemkin wrote “Genocide means annihilation and destruction, not merely discrimination. The coloured race in America is increasing in population.”
Then, on the day before President Biden’s inauguration, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a designation of Uyghur genocide as a cynical ploy to tie the hands of the incoming administration.
And it worked.
Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken may have had some thoughts of reviewing the designation but eventually endorsed it…despite reporting that even Trump’s State Department team had reservations about the genocide designation and had endorsed it only with a split two-to-one vote.
Perhaps Blinken decided that the genocide designation was too powerful and useful a tool to abandon.
He may have been swayed by the fact that the “genocide” epithet is the cornerstone of anti-PRC agitation promoted by the U.S. government’s soft power/color revolution instrument, the National Endowment for Democracy, and a host of Uyghur organizations it funds.
Major NED benefactions the World Uyghur Congress—the US-backed quasi-government in exile—and the Uyghur Human Rights Project—staffed by an ex-NED Vice President, Louisa Greve—have taken to marketing “Uyghur genocide” as fact rather than an unproven allegation.
The flagship enterprise in Uyghur genocide is the Uyghur Tribunal, an effort of British barristers midwifed and funded by the World Uyghur Congress.
Its report is worth reading in full. It is a 64 page exercise in handwringing that fully reveals the shaky legal, ethical, and logical underpinnings of the genocide business, and its complete reliance on the “in part” loophole.
It dismisses five of the six genocide criteria and hangs its hat on birth genocide.
In a challenge for the tribunal, the way genocide case law has developed, coercively preventing births is not by itself genocidal; its implementation becomes a genocidal crime only if it is part of an existing genocidal plan or program—which the Tribunal was unable to establish unless, in circular reasoning style, the PRC birth control program was itself proof of genocide.
Nevertheless, the tribunal decided to presume a significant future shortfall of Uyghur births, attribute them to undocumented genocidal intent, and declare a judgment of genocide.
The headline accusation that came out of the Tribunal was birth genocide impresario Adrian Zenz’s declaration of a “future genocide” of 2.6 to 4.5 million Uyghurs, which usefully served to distract attention from the fact that the Uyghur population of Xinjiang is increasing at a healthy clip and nobody is predicting a reduction in the Uyghur population, let alone extinction.
Zenz based his numbers on a series of shaky assumptions concluding with the assertion that the PRC would have 1) no choice but to 2) suppress the increase of population of Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang 3) to the levels Zenz asserted 4) solely via birth prevention methods 5) for a long time 6) secretly.
So we’re not just talking “future genocide”; we’re talking “stealth future genocide.”
And so it falls to this Tribunal to make clear on the basis of the findings above that the ‘unborn’ part of the Uyghur ethnicity of Xinjiang – calculated by consideration of the likely numbers of Uyghurs in years to come measured against the likely number of Uyghurs there would have been had the Uyghurs not been treated in the way they were by measures to prevent births – constitutes a ‘substantial part’ for purposes of the Genocide Convention.
The PRC has responded ferociously and mounted a number of defenses of its population policy against the “birth genocide” accusation, starting with the simple assertion: lots of Uyghurs and plenty more to come.
Then there is the statement that family planning a matter of policy and law for all Chinese (true);
that participation is voluntary (insert raised eyebrow);
And, most interestingly, that the harsh campaign implemented in Xinjiang starting in 2017 was not discriminatory against Uyghurs: it was the opposite, a correction of previous, lax local enforcement of universal national family planning regulations (true, and as we shall see below, an element in PRC developmental policies for the region).
In its conclusion, the tribunal rather shame-facedly admits it couldn’t condemn the PRC for capital G Genocide, so it had to go with lowercase g genocide that sounds really bad but isn’t the “crime of crimes”:
This Judgment, with no evidence of any mass killing, may be thought to diminish the perceived status of genocide as a crime. In one way it may do that, and if so, in one way, not necessarily a bad thing.
A more interesting question is the lack of media heat and public outrage concerning allegations of crimes against humanity.
Crimes against humanity, like genocide, is a grave crime that falls under the purview of the International Criminal Court and were investigated by the Uyghur Tribunal.
Unlike the Genocide Convention, there is no treaty on crimes against humanity. The most authoritative definition is in the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which the PRC did not sign.
The Uyghur Tribunal issued a determination of crimes against humanity “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” in the areas of deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearances, and “other inhumane acts.”
PRC response would undoubtedly be that its activities in Xinjiang are not “a widespread and systematic attack directed a civilian population” as the ICC defines crimes against humanity.
I expect the PRC defense would be that it conducts its activities in Xinjiang in accordance with PRC law, measures taken against individuals, not groups, and follow PRC legal due process, and the various atrocities alleged in the West, if they occurred, are instances of abuses, not policies.
It would also point to extensive government investments in industry, economy, education, and whatnot as signs that the PRC is committed to advancing the welfare of its citizens in Xinjiang, not subjecting them to a “widespread and systematic attack”.
PRC defenses notwithstanding, one might think that “crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” might be a more robust accusation against the PRC than “genocide,” which is founded on the crime of destruction of a particular group.
After all, the PRC operations in Xinjiang affect all of the indigenous residents of Xinjiang, not just Uyghurs. At 11 million residents (out of a total of 25 million), Uyghurs are the single largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, but another 15% of the population is Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, and Tajiks (Turkic-speaking peoples), Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Mongols.
Xinjiang, indeed, is an ethnic entrepot of a couple dozen nationalities, especially in the north, and Uyghur dominance is pretty much limited to the southern half of Xinjiang.
But the Western media has been laser focused on Uyghur genocide.
Well, of course “genocide” is a Western hot button and a ticket to the front page and the top of the news hour, provoking sharp and painful memories of the Holocaust of Jews in the European heartland and cries of “Never Again!”
On the other hand, “Crimes against humanity committed against a variety of nationalities in Xinjiang” doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way and perhaps conjures up confounding images of endless and complicated ethnic strife in far off lands to be deplored and eventually ignored.
And it somewhat supports the PRC narrative that it is pacifying a province bedeviled by unrest, not inspired by racist animus to maraud through an arcadia of peaceful Uyghurs whose only crime is a yearning for self-determination.
Also, “Crimes against humanity” tend to focus on commanders in the field, while genocide potentially implicates the entire state regime.
Indeed, Uyghur activists have determinedly tried to climb the ladder of guilt all the way to the top to criminally implicate Xi Jinping personally for the crime of genocide, a state of affairs which the Xi’s various adversaries undoubtedly find extremely satisfying.
For another matter, documentation of PRC population policies that can be put to use in a genocide brief is relatively abundant and authoritative (since the PRC itself makes a fetish out of collecting demographic information); documentation of systemic or widespread excesses in PRC security operations is still largely at the individual and anecdotal stage.
The focus on birth genocide also reflects the anxiety and resentment of Uyghur activists over Han migration into Xinjiang, and fears of a demographic assault on Uyghur society and identity that undercuts the case for autonomy/independence. Han Chinese have become the region’s second largest group, accounting for over 40% of the population, and are concentrated in the north.
Uyghur activists recognize PRC plans to remake the economy and society of southern Xinjiang to integrate it into the national system, and understand that implementing these plans will involve a degree of Han inmigration and demographic dilution of Uyghur dominance and separatist militancy in its southern Xinjiang heartland.
Focusing on the family planning angle in PRC policies and characterizing it as “genocide” is an effective way to rally resistance and recruit support from Western governments that have various other reasons to be hostile to the PRC.
And, of course, the World Uyghur Congress is funding activities like the Uyghur Tribunal and so there’s that…
So, when the New York Times earnestly asks of television viewers and corporate sponsors, “In the ‘Genocide Olympics’ Are We All Complicit?,” the simple answer is No.
The long answer is “No, but if you are participating in global gaslighting by platforming the ‘Genocide Olympics’ canard you are complicit.”
I see some signs that some Uyghur activists may be distancing themselves from the genocide gambit. In a recent volume on Xinjiang authored by a number of leading academics, the genocide epithet was sidestepped.
To me this is, to steal a line from the Uyghur tribunal, not necessarily a bad thing.
In my opinion, the genocide designation is intellectually and morally bankrupt, a strategic dead end if the hope is to improve Uyghur lives, and useful only as a tool to undercut engagement with the PRC, accelerate decoupling, and make it easier to fight a China war.
So what is going on in Xinjiang?
What is going on in Xinjiang, in my opinion, is an extensive reworking of Xinjiang society implemented with detailed planning and immense resources, buttressed by academic, legal, strategic, and diplomatic strategizing, and carried out with the implacable focus, counter-productive heavy-handedness, and coercive disregard for human rights that Communists can bring to bear to these kinds of situations.
But there’s also something new: a deployment of cutting edge techniques and tools, combined with lessons learned by observing the serial errors committed by the United States, Russia, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and pretty much everybody else in trying to deal with religiously-inflected ethnic dissatisfaction.
The PRC made plenty of errors of its own in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang was historically treated as a backwater—if backwater is the proper term for a string of oasis communities—with some oil fields, all under the not particularly watchful eye of the local party apparatus backed up by an archipelago of military colonies locally financed by cotton farming and industry.
With the PRC’s economic reforms of the late twentieth century, it was hoped that increasing prosperity and interconnectedness with the region and the rest of the PRC would lead to the rise of a grateful, socially and politically integrated class of Uyghur strivers.
Well, the Uyghur strivers did emerge, but so did a growing sense of national awareness fed by enlarged expectations and opportunities also fueled by resentment at inept, corrupt, and brutal PRC rule and an influx of Han Chinese immigrants.
The PRC, as they say, did not send their best, and antagonism, alienation, and heavy-handed suppression cooked up a stew of resentment and worse.
Disaffected Uyghurs occasionally vented their wrath on PRC and CCP apparatchiks, policemen, and pro-PRC local religious and political figures, and some went as far as to flee to Afghanistan to receive training, indoctrination, and encouragement from Islamist militants.
In 2009, the Xinjiang capital of Urumchi erupted in five days of unrest, first with a Uyghur-on-Han riot, then by an allegedly even bigger Han-on-Uyghur riot abetted by local policemen, with a total death toll of well over one hundred lives.
The imam of Xinjiang’s, indeed China’s biggest mosque, was hacked to death by extremists. Sword-wielding Uyghurs marched through a train station in Kunming in the interior of China and slaughtered 31 people. 49 people were killed in Urumchi, Xinjiang’s capital, in a truck-ramming/explosives attack.
At this juncture Xi Jinping appeared on the scene, making an extensive, high profile tour of Xinjiang and putting the local populace and apparatus on notice that the previous regime of laissez faire, neglect, and spasmodic repression was coming to an end.
For one thing, the PRC was now rich and powerful enough to project its power into the Xinjiang borderland and integrate it more securely into the system of central state supervision and control.
For another thing Xinjiang sits at the nexus of the PRC’s Belt and Road Project and the PRC intends to transform it into an engine of enterprise and connectivity driving regional integration with Pakistan, Kazahkstan, and the rest of Central Asia.
The first step was the appointment of a tough guy administrator, Chen Quanguo, in 2016 and a massive and publicized injection of force to send the message that resistance, protest, demonstrations, riots, terrorism, and any other challenges to the PRC writ would not be tolerated.
And there were massive investments in technologies for data collection, surveillance, and control.
Another measure was demands that the local Xinjiang Communist Party apparatus, which was regarded as compromised, co-opted, intimidated, incapable, and with limited effective reach into rural Xinjiang communities, piggyback on the law and order campaign to re-establish itself as the leading element in local life.
Beyond its population management objectives, the notorious Xinjiang family planning effort appears to be intended to re-establish and demonstrate—in parallel with the law and order and party reform campaigns—that the authority and reach of the state and party reaches into Xinjiang’s rural areas, to the towns, and even into individual homes.
The next was the establishment of the notorious network of re-education camps that form the basis of the “one million Uyghurs in camps” (frequently with the qualification “up to”).
The character and population of these camps is unclear, but I’m assuming the effort was massive. It looks like the crash construction of camps was in part a law and order circuit breaker to shut down the wave of unrest in Xinjiang.
In my opinion the camp system was designed to get local males out of their communities and under supervision to:
- “incapacitate” them in the carceral sense i.e. remove them from their local environment where they might engage in illegal or undesirable acts;
- “enroll” them i.e. obtain their physical data and observations on their social ideological attitudes for the purposes of database compilation, analysis, surveillance, and future action;
- “intimidate” with the immediate awareness of state power brought to bear directly on the individual.
Indoctrination goes on as well, but seems clumsy and coercive enough that it accounts mainly as intimidation as well.
I find the estimates that 1 million Uyghur men were detained at the outset plausible; this would fit in with my perception of “one size fits all” exercise in traditional PRC campaigns where every locality was expected to process 10% of the Uyghur population through the camps–or have to explain why it was doing more or less.
And when the center is providing funding for construction of camps, acquisition of infrastructure, and hiring and training of personnel, those camps are going to get built…and, at least at the beginning, filled.
The camps apparently operate separately from the prison system, managing confinement & re-education on a three-tier arrangement with separate systems for incorrigible criminals who have completed their sentence but aren’t considered to be suitable for release, criminals to be reformed, and, well, other folk that the PRC is worried about and would like to get a handle on.
The re-education camps operate under a veneer of socialist legality since the PRC anti-extremism law allows for supervisory detention of people who have given indication of unhealthy interest in ideas, media, or lifestyles associated with terrorist practice.
In Xinjiang, this includes Muslim religiosity, especially since the government is worried about people turning away from quietist and tractable traditional Sunni beliefs to personal and social practices associated with more militant expressions of Islam such as beards, intense religious study, and adoption of Salafist attitudes towards women.
Chinese prisons are pretty bad to begin with and, remembering the old observation that “guards are the only people who go to prison because they want to,” a crash program to staff up a huge new carceral program is not necessarily going to attract China’s best and brightest.
So I would assume that human rights abuses are widespread and limited only by the ingenuity of the screws and the energy individual administrators might put in to preventing them.
How many people are in the camps now?
Unclear of course, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the number is shrinking, presumably as lower risk individuals are processed through the camps, deemed suitable for release, and placed under the watchful and intimidating eye of the PRC’s intensive surveillance network.
Another data point is that Western agitprop against the PRC has moved on from “millions in camps” to “slave labor,” indicating that the PRC is placing released detainees into vocational programs designed to remove them from their traditional rural matrices and integrate them into the urbanized work and social milieu it envisions for Xinjiang.
As to the government justification for these camps, terrorism, is there terrorism in Xinjiang?
I like to say, not a lot of terrorism, but enough terrorism.
Especially if one considers terrorism as simply the most extreme manifestation of a crisis in social order.
On top of the depredations of borderland banditti, anti-government unrest was traditionally a staple of the fraught relationship between Uyghurs and the Xinjiang administration and involved protests, assaults on police stations, sporadic hatcheting of despised party, state, or religious figures, and the occasional riot.
Seriously aggrieved and motivated Uyghurs fled abroad for training and networking.
Anti-PRC Uyghur militants and organizations do exist outside China, and getting the Afghan, Uzbek, and Pakistan government to suppress them is a continual focus of PRC anxiety and diplomacy.
In addition, the PRC has expended considerable and effort to persuade governments in South East Asia, most notably Thailand, to return fugitive Uyghurs to China against their will—an illegal process known as refoulement.
Some Uyghur militants apparently came home or communicated with local sympathizers, and some attacks displayed overt or likely terrorist inspiration.
The most publicized actions included a Uyghur driving a vehicle flying jihadist flags into a crowd of people at Tiananmen Square, killing 5, and the notorious massacre at the Kunming train station.
If the PRC required any more justification for its Xinjiang terrorism paranoia, it was supplied by foreign governments.
The United States government has shown a marked enthusiasm for Uyghur causes.
During its operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. government acquired several émigré Uyghurs and detained them at Guantanamo.
The U.S. government confirmed they had gone to Afghanistan for military training at an al Qaeda affiliated camp, but determined that their target was China and therefore characterized them as “non-enemy combatants” and refused to repatriate them to the PRC.
Anti-PRC Uyghur militants once campaigned under the banner of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which the Bush administration agreed to designate as a terrorist organization as part of its War on Terror cooperation with the PRC (or, alternately, part of a deal by which the PRC promised not to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq at the UN Security Council).
This was followed by a rather unpersuasive declaration that ETIM was just a PRC straw man, when it had actually rebooted under a different name, the Turkistan Islamic Party, with fresh leadership. Mike Pompeo withdraw the ETIM designation (from the U.S. list; it’s still on the UN list) and we can assume that tracing and terminating financing to Uyghur extremists is not a U.S. priority.
Meanwhile, in 2004 the World Uyghur Congress was launched as the public face of the Uyghur diaspora and an advocate of Xinjiang autonomy, not independence, presumably to bring its announced aims in conformity with U.S. policy toward the PRC, and open the door to U.S. government funding, which the National Endowment for Democracy has liberally provided.
Interestingly, the NED still characterizes its aid to the WUC and other Uyghur organizations as involving ‘East Turkistan,’ which is what Uyghur independence activists call Xinjiang.
The U.S. government has been loath to acknowledge any terrorism component to Xinjiang unrest, lest it provide public relations cover for PRC security operations, or tarnish the public image of a favorite US government cause.
In 2014, the Obama administration enraged Chinese opinion with its delay in acknowledging the Kunming rail station attack—which, as a reminder, involved a crew of black-robed attackers marching through the station with machetes killing 31 people and wounding another 141—as “terrorism.”
Jan Psaki eventually delivered this grudging response:
“…we acknowledge that China has characterized the incident as a terror act. We extend our condolences for the loss of life. We of course oppose terrorism in all of its forms, and based on the information reported by the Chinese media, this appears to be an act of terrorism targeting random members of the public. We don’t have any other independent information…”
The greatest service to the PRC terrorism narrative has been provided by Turkey’s Recip Erdogan.
Determined to present his country as champion of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia, and eager to cultivate Turkic-speaking assets for Turkey’s projection of influence into Syria as well as Central Asia, Erdogan established Turkey as a haven for Uyghur refugees.
In tandem, Turkish security organizations apparently connived at the exfiltration of Uyghur men from China by providing fake passports and consular assistance to get them to Turkey, and then sent thousands of them to Syria to fight in the anti-Assad effort.
The Kunming massacre was allegedly perpetrated by a group of these Uyghurs, who had been frustrated in their attempt to make it over China’s southern border to enter the pipeline to Turkey, which runs through places like Thailand and Malaysia.
The PRC pointedly remonstrated and publicly remonstrated with Turkey in 2014 and the operation was eventually wound down.
Nevertheless, to the embarrassment of the Western press, enough Uyghur militants made it to Turkey and Syria to take over and administer an entire village, Jisr al Shughour, in the Turkish-protected enclave of Idlib inside Syria, as a satrapy of the al Qaeda affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party.
Whether or not these militants will, through the generosity or neglect of Uncle Sam or Recip Erdogan, find their way to havens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or elsewhere to advance the interests of their people and the agendas of China’s enemies is, naturally, a focus of PRC concerns.
So, yes, there are plenty of Uyghur anti-PRC militants outside China and, prior to 2017, there were plenty of opportunities for them to foment and profit from domestic unrest in Xinjiang.
But, after 2017, the PRC is proud to note, there have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
But there is more to the PRC’s Xinjiang campaign than “law and order” and suppression of extremist and separatist tendencies.
Xinjiang is regarded as a proving ground and showcase for the PRC’s “Second Generation” ethnic policy.
The traditional Chinese Marxist approach to nationalities was that minority nationalities on China’s borderlands needed special administrative treatment and privileges achieve economic and social parity with the rest of China, i.e. the Han majority before complete integration could occur.
Well, apparently this theory expired in Xinjiang, as preferential treatment for Uyghurs and social and economic development accelerated instead of retarded the formation of Uyghur national identity, and generated centripetal forces pulling Xinjiang away from the Chinese center.
Instead, the Second Generation theorists believe that localist identity is an obstacle to regional and national development, and needs to be suppressed as part of the integration process.
The successful models in this regards are seen as the United States and Europe, at least in the present day where, as a matter of ideology and policy, overtly and legislatively privileging certain groups is avoided.
The negative models are, in this reading, the Soviet Union, India, and a slew of nations that have been bedeviled by the conundrum of recognizing, protecting, and trying to accommodate minority nationalities, religions, and social groupings.
PRC academics tried to sell this as “judge me by the content of my character not the color of my doppa (skullcap)” liberal modernism, but the “genocide” counterattack ensured that they did not get any hearing for their case, at least in the West.
But, within Xinjiang, Second Generation theories have driven a concerted campaign against social elements that would tend to encourage Uyghur particularism.
Uyghur mobilization for goals of autonomy and self-determination, be it Islamist, nationalist, or liberal-democratic are at the top of the list, but so are social and cultural activities and leaders that tend to advance Uyghur identity.
As a result, moderate Uyghur thought leaders and social leaders such as Ilham Tothi have been targeted and imprisoned to shut down any “middle way” maneuvers that might try to thread the needle past PRC repression to Uyghur self-determination.
Traditional religious practices have been stamped out lest they provide an independent focus for Uyghur cultural and national pride.
Unsurprisingly, schools have become a focal point of assimilationist activity.
Xinjiang schools have focused on China-centric indoctrination or “patriotic education.” Bonus points previously awarded for minority-language students for the famously competitive PRC entrance exams have been slashed. A network of boarding schools in Xinjiang places increasingly higher demands in Han based curriculum while Uyghur language-based classes wither. And there’s been a witch hunt to expunge Uyghur content from school textbooks and purge suspect educators.
The explicit objective is to force Uyghur students into an intensive Mandarin-language track, where they study, work, and think in Mandarin. In theory they will become largely indistinguishable from Han Chinese students and will have the interest and ability to seek futures outside of the traditional spheres of Uyghur endeavor.
The parallels between the U.S. Indian boarding school system—“Kill the Indian, save the man” per the notorious formulation of notorious assimilationist Captain Robert Pratt—are too striking to ignore.
Nor is the observation that the United States was instrumental in removing “cultural genocide” from the Genocide Convention, giving the PRC a free ride on this issue.
Returning to genocide and awkward issues, the “Second Generation Ethnic Policy” agenda provides a useful perspective on the only genocide accusation the West has really tried to hang on China: birth genocide.
Since the institution of the PRC one-child policy in 1980, natural population growth rates in China overall has plummeted to a rate of 0.35%.
Thanks to generous exemptions and lax enforcement, the growth rate in the Uyghur population was about three times higher—before the current campaign kicked in in 2017.
As to the assertion that the PRC has committed genocide by preventing (according to some rather fanciful Excel brainstorming by Adrian Zenz) 2.6 to 4.5 million future Uyghur births, from the perspective of “Second Generation Ethnic Policy,” the rest of China sacrificed as many as 400 million births in the service of the PRC’s population control policies since 1980.
If these policies had been implemented in Xinjiang instead of waived as an exercise in ethnic privilege, the current Uyghur population would be 7 million instead of 11 million.
So, by this reckoning the Uyghurs are already 4 million ahead of the game and Adrian Zenz can go back and redo his sums.
Since 2017 Xinjiang birth rates have crashed thanks to some combination of hyperaggressive and coercive birth control campaigns, the disappearance of men into the re-education camps, and general economic and social uncertainty.
The overall impact on Uyghur population rates of the campaign begun in 2017 can’t be predicted.
There’s no indication of how long the crackdown will continue and it remains to be seen whether births are simply deferred to a later date (which means in population control talk, the TFR—total fertility rate e.g. the total of children born during a woman’s productive lifetime—is unchanged) or whether child bearing behavior is permanently altered.
Uyghur activists assert that the CCP wants to genocide enough Uyghurs in the southern heartland to free up space for Han migrants to move in.
Han migration into Xinjiang is encouraged and welcomed by the government as a source of reliably loyal citizens.
There is also an acknowledged PRC intention to bring more non-Uyghurs into the demographic mix in the south to erode separatist solidarity and promote national integration.
However, it is hard to tease out proof of “genocide” from the PRC’s demographic engineering and its varied security, environmental, developmental, economic, and social elements.
The PRC contends it is finally applying its population laws fairly and government family planning policy in southern Xinjiang is a matter of rolling back previous lax local enforcement, and mitigating urgent social ills of rural poverty and excessively large families in a part of Xinjiang that is reaching the limits of its carrying capacity.
In other words, population planning policies are not racially driven and keyed to Uyghur ethnicity; they are targeting poor rural families with lots of kids, most of which happen to be Uyghur.
The poster child for China’s Xinjiang demographic and population issues is the prefecture of Hotan.
Hotan is overwhelmingly Uyghur and home to about 25% of the Xinjiang’s Uyghur population. It is rural, dirt poor, and running out of water needed to handle any expansion of agricultural activity. 89% of the population has a junior high school education or lower. Half the workforce is unemployed.
And two thirds of the population wants to have four kids.
That’s not a trendline that the PRC wants to continue.
The PRC presents the consequences of inaction—condemning the impoverished population of rural Xinjiang to large families, picturesque poverty, and smoldering dissatisfaction in a region nearing ecological collapse—in the bleakest possible terms.
The PRC stated objective is to urbanize Xinjiang, in other words, to develop a workforce including educated Uyghurs comfortable using the Chinese language, mobile, willing to move into urban workplace settings inside and outside Xinjiang, with their identities, aspirations, and loyalties in sync with the PRC’s brand of nationalism.
In the PRC lexicon, it is not trying to “genocide” Uyghurs; it is trying to “eugenicize” a rural community via a suite of economic, security, and population policies that will promote the emergence of an educated, urbanized, and mobile community with a high degree of female participation and integrated with regional and national life…and attractive and welcoming to inmigration of skills and capital.
The future of Xinjiang is supposed to look like China, China that is to say a nation of citizens sharing ideology and interests, not defined and separated by ethnic and religious identities, Han, Uyghur, Muslim, or whatever and, presumably, welcoming to Han Chinese in-migration instead of viscerally hostile to it, and vice-versa.
“Uyghurness” will, in other words, become an accessory, not a cause.
The PRC policies for Xinjiang are not “genocide” except in the agendas and arguments of the most determined anti-PRC lawfare warriors.
The assimilationist nature of the PRC agenda for Xinjiang is hard to ignore, unless of course it is obscured by a hurricane of genocide agitprop by Western NGOs, governments, and media.
But it’s certainly coercive in character and possibly leads to massive abuses in execution that, if encouraged and not corrected, could open the PRC up to accusations of “crimes against humanity”.
On balance, there’s something to be said for advancing criticism and engagement with the PRC over Xinjiang on the “human rights” track, instead of the “genocide” track.
This of course is much more palatable to the PRC, since it is keen to get out from under the “genocide” cloud, which carries with it the threat of global execration, extraterritorial prosecution, and, in the extreme case, “never again” military operations in the name of “Responsibility to Protect”.
And in contrast to its rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the genocide and crimes against humanity regimes, the PRC is a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
For the last year, the PRC has been in negotiation with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for a visit to Xinjiang.
The negotiations were probably spun out so that any visit (and public relations hit) would occur after the Olympics; that would also give the PRC a year to implement the more severe and distasteful elements of its agenda and put its house in better order before putting on a show for the visiting investigators.
Assuming it goes ahead, the PRC will use the visit to try to move the frame away from “Uyghur genocide”; and if the results of the visit are too useful to the PRC, the PRC’s opponents will probably work to smear yet another international organization as beholden to and complicit with the PRC.
But perhaps it will yield opportunities for engagement, concessions, and some reforms to improve Uyghur welfare.
What is the correct frame of reference for the PRC actions in Xinjiang?
In my personal taxonomy, the plight of the Uyghurs don’t even make the top 5 of horrors of currently inflicted on civilian Muslim populations. There’s the decade-long agony of Syria, the starvation of Afghanistan, the oppression of the Palestinians, the slaughter in Yemen, and the pogrom against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Not by coincidence, four of these five outrages are being committed by the United States, its allies, and partners, which is perhaps why the global Muslim ummah is not springing to its feet to join the US condemnation of PRC policies in Xinjiang.
But these are not, I believe the benchmarks that the PRC looks at.
In my opinion, the PRC criterion is “How effective have we been in not only pacifying but integrating an aggrieved and aroused Muslim nationality?” And it looks at (and has drawn its numerous negative lessons and meager positive conclusions from):
- Russia turning to a local warlord to maintain order in Chechnya after two catastrophic wars
- The US carnival of butchery and bribery in its futile pacification efforts in Iraq
- The suffering and moral and social rot inflicted on Palestinians and Jews alike by Israel’s apartheid regime
- India’s multi-decade lurch between appeasement, accommodation, and suppression in Kashmir that has cost 100,000 lives
- The failures in France and Saudi Arabia in deradicalization and reindoctrination of militants
- And, for the more historically minded, the catastrophe in Algeria in the 1950s that killed hundreds of thousands and shook the very foundations of the French state
By these standards, the PRC effort looks pretty good for now, at least to the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
There’s no guarantee that the PRC will achieve its long term goal of assimilation of the Uyghurs and the other Turkic peoples in western China. The effort is incredibly expensive, will require at least a generation of sustained effort and adaptation, and implementation is in the hands of the CCP, which has a generous share of hacks and incompetents among its technocrats.
And of course, Uyghur resentment, encouraged globally by China’s adversaries, is intense.
Failure, I think, rather than justice for Uyghurs, is the hope of the PRC’s enemies in the West: that Xinjiang will become a quagmire, a drain on China’s wealth, social order, and prestige, and the rotten core of the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia.
The opposite is also true: the China hawks are afraid that China will succeed—and establish itself as the dominant power in the heart of Eurasia for the rest of the century, keystoned by a prosperous and peaceful, if not particularly contented, Xinjiang.
I’ve written extensively on Xinjiang at my patreon, “Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.” Here’s a list of relevant pieces, some of which are unlocked; others require a subscription.