Two recent disturbing events may finally awaken the world to the scale and horror of the atrocities being committed against the Uighurs, a mostly secular Muslim ethnic minority, in Xinjiang, China. One is an authoritative report documenting the systematic sterilization of Uighur women. The other was the seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of 13 tons of products made from human hair suspected of being forcibly removed from Uighurs imprisoned in concentration camps. Both events evoke chilling parallels to past atrocities elsewhere, forced sterilization of minorities, disabled, and Indigenous people, and the image of the glass display of mountains of hair preserved at Auschwitz.
The Genocide Convention, to which China is a signatory, defines genocide as specific acts against members of a group with the intent to destroy that group in whole or in part. These acts include (a) killing; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm; (c) deliberately inflicting conditions of life to bring about the group’s physical destruction; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Any one of these categories constitutes genocide. The overwhelming evidence of the Chinese government’s deliberate and systematic campaign to destroy the Uighur people clearly meets each of these categories.
Over a million Turkic Uighurs are detained in concentration camps, prisons, and forced labor factories in China. Detainees are subject to military-style discipline, thought transformation, and forced confessions. They are abused, tortured, raped, and even killed. Survivors report being subjected to electrocution, waterboarding, repeated beatings, stress positions, and injections of unknown substances. These mass detention camps are designed to cause serious physical, psychological harm and mentally break the Uighur people. The repeated government orders to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins”; “round up everyone who should be rounded up”; and systematically prevent Uighur births demonstrate a clear intent to eradicate the Uighur people as a whole.
Ekpar Asat (brother of one of the present authors) is an emblematic example of how Uighurs are targeted regardless of their recognition as model Chinese citizens by the Communist Party. Asat was praised by the government for his community leadership as a “bridge builder” and “positive force” between ethnic minorities and the Xinjiang local government. But Asat still suffered the same fate as over a million other Uighurs and disappeared into the shadows of the concentration camps in 2016. He is held incommunicado and is reported to be serving a 15-year sentence on the trumped-up charge of “inciting ethnic hatred.” Not a single court document is available about his case.
In 2017, Xinjiang waged a brutal “Special Campaign to Control Birth Control Violations,” along with specific local directives. By 2019, the government planned to subject over 80 percent of women of childbearing age in southern Xinjiang to forced intrauterine devices (IUDs) and sterilization. The goal is to achieve “zero birth control violation incidents.” Government documents reveal a campaign of mass female sterilization supported by state funding to carry out hundreds of thousands of sterilizations in 2019 and 2020. This goes far beyond the scale, per capita, of forced sterilization inflicted on women throughout China under the past one-child policy.
To implement these policies, the Xinjiang government employed “dragnet-style” investigations to hunt down women of childbearing age. Once apprehended, these women have no choice but to undergo forced sterilization to avoid being sent to an internment camp. Once detained, women face forced injections, abortions, and unknown drugs.
And statistics show that the government is meeting its birth prevention goals.
Between 2015 and 2018, population growth rates in the Uighur heartland plummeted by 84 percent. Conversely, official documents show that sterilization rates skyrocketed in Xinjiang while plunging throughout the rest of China, and the funding for these programs is only increasing. Between 2017 and 2018, in one district, the percentage of women who were infertile or widowed increased by 124 percent and 117 percent, respectively. In 2018, 80 percent of all IUD placements in China were performed in Xinjiang despite accounting for a mere 1.8 percent of China’s population. These IUDs can be removed only by state-approved surgery—or else prison terms will follow. In Kashgar, only about 3 percent of married women of childbearing age gave birth in 2019. The latest annual reports from some of these regions have begun omitting birth rate information altogether to conceal the scale of destruction. The government has shut down its entire online platform after these revelations. The scale and scope of these measures are clearly designed to halt Uighur births.
With Uighur men detained and women sterilized, the government has laid the groundwork for the physical destruction of the Uighur people. At least half a million of the remaining Uighur children have been separated from their families and are being raised by the state at so-called “children shelters.”
What makes this genocide so uniquely dangerous is its technological sophistication, allowing for efficiency in its destruction and concealment from global attention. The Uighurs have been suffering under the most advanced police state, with extensive controls and restrictions on every aspect of life—religious, familial, cultural, and social. To facilitate surveillance, Xinjiang operates under a grid management system. Cities and villages are split into squares of about 500 people. Each square has a police station that closely monitors inhabitants by regularly scanning their identification cards, faces, DNA samples, fingerprints, and cell phones. These methods are supplemented by a machine-operated system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. The system uses machine learning to collect personal data from video surveillance, smartphones, and other private records to generate lists for detention. Over a million Han Chinese watchers have been installed in Uighur households, rendering even intimate spaces subject to the government’s eye.
The Chinese government operates the most intrusive mass surveillance system in the world and repeatedly denies the international community meaningful access to it. It is therefore incumbent on us to appreciate the nature, depth, and speed of the genocide and act now before it’s too late.
Recognizing or refusing to name this a genocide will be a matter of life or death. In 1994, by the time U.S. officials were done debating the applicability of the term to the situation in Rwanda, nearly a million Tutsis had already been slaughtered. A document dated May 1, 1994, at the height of the genocide, by an official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense stated: “Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually ‘do something.’” Four years later, President Bill Clinton stood before Rwandan survivors and reflected on his administration’s historic failure and vowed: “Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.”
With the passing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, the U.S. government has begun to take steps in the right direction to avoid another human catastrophe. Seventy-eight members of Congress have followed up with a call for the administration to impose Magnitsky sanctions on the responsible Chinese officials and issue a formal declaration of the atrocity crimes, including genocide. So far, the administration has officially imposed Magnitsky sanctions on four Chinese officials and an entity in charge of the Orwellian surveillance system and responsible for the expansion of the internment camps in Xinjiang. The U.S. government must now make an official determination of genocide. This will not be difficult, as U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus has already asserted that “what has happened to the Uighur people … is potentially the worst crime that we have seen since the Holocaust.”
A formal declaration of genocide is not simply symbolic. It will catalyze other countries to join in a concerted effort to end the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. It will also prompt consumers to reject the over 80 international brands that profit off genocide. Furthermore, the determination will strengthen legal remedies for sanctioning companies that profit from modern slavery in their supply chains sourced in China and compel business entities to refrain from profiting from genocide and commit to ethical sourcing.
In our interconnected world, we are not only bystanders if we fail to recognize the genocide as we see it. We are complicit.
© Foreign Policy 2020