Beijing’s own words and actions highlight the intent to end the Uyghurs as a people.
On his way out of office on Jan. 19, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a determination that China “has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.” Nobody in the U.S. policy community seriously disputes that atrocities are occurring in Xinjiang—but some analysts have zoomed in on the term “genocide.” Sometimes it seems to be a way of trying to force policies back toward the failed engagement of the past rather than confronting what’s happening in China and rethinking policy accordingly.
This debate over terminology has high stakes. It’s not just how Washington engages, competes, and cooperates with Beijing but also about how the United States understands China’s policies and intentions and how they manifest on the ground. The United States, however, cannot have a successful China policy if it is not grounded in a realistic assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions and methods—and the atrocities that have resulted because of them.
We can dismiss claims that genocide requires mass killing immediately. Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which both China and the United States are signatories, genocide has two parts. The first is the commission of any of the following acts: “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, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The second part is intent. Any of those acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” would constitute genocide. Many denialists concede the large body of still-accumulating evidence from survivors, satellite imagery, media reporting, and Chinese government policy documents show evidence of potentially genocidal actions. However, they argue the Chinese government and the CCP have not demonstrated any intent to destroy the Uyghur people.
This argument has made the rounds in places such as the U.S. State Department, the Washington Post, and The Economist. In Brookings Institution fellow Michael O’Hanlon’s words, “there is no compelling evidence of a plan to ‘destroy’ the group, so Chinese behavior does not meet the definition of genocide based on the concept of intent as noted in Article II.” This seems to expect a criminal to explicitly describe why they are committing a crime even as it happens. Genocidal states have not, in fact, been given to acknowledging their intent publicly; even the Nazis worked overtime to lie about the Holocaust as it happened while the Soviet Union constantly denied its targeting of ethnic minorities.
Beijing has provided both direct and circumstantial evidence of the intent to destroy the Uyghur people. A Chinese government document cited by the New Yorker speaks directly to this. That document on reeducation stated, “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” Agence France-Presse in 2018 found a similar document that used the same language about breaking Uyghur roots to build new, better Chinese citizens. It has recurred throughout state commentary. Even if this is not a call for mass murder—although it is violent language in a context of mass state violence—it is entirely explicit about breaking the cultural and social connections that make Uyghurs a recognizable ethnic group.
China’s policies toward Uyghur families also reinforce this interpretation of intent because they deliberately break the channels of cultural transmission from generation to generation. Thousands of Uyghur children have been placed in boarding schools and orphanages, separated from their parents and grandparents. Working-age adults can be forced to work far away from their homes or may still be in prison. Many elderly Uyghurs have also been detained for attending too many funeral services, which are religious observances, or for myriad other reasons for which Uyghurs disappear into the camps. Although specific evidence about the elderly is lacking, China has expanded the network of elderly care facilities in Xinjiang throughout this latest crackdown in the name of poverty alleviation—a justification used for the forced labor programs. These policies in combination are clearly intended to destroy any continuity of Uyghur culture or sense of identity as a people, just as Native American boarding schools in the United States were used to destroy native cultures.
This destruction of generational bonds extends to attempting to curtail the birth of new Uyghurs. From 2018, female survivors of the camps in Xinjiang reported being forced to take drugs that affected menstruation and fertility. Researcher Adrian Zenz documented a massive drop in Uyghur birth rates brought about by the Chinese government’s birth suppression policies that not only included involuntary birth control, such as the insertion of IUDs but also forced abortions and sterilizations. Other Uyghur and Kazakh women corroborated Zenz’s findings from local government documents with their personal testimony. (For those who believe that life begins at or near conception, these actions also meet the first possible criterion for genocide.)
For adults, the expression of Uyghur culture is enough to result in detention, whether informally in the camps or formally through the prison system. The reasons for detention or disappearance include, but are not limited to, telling others not to sin, attending a traditional funeral, traveling abroad, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, public expressions of grief when your parents die, praying, fasting, going to a mosque, speaking your native language in school, having a full beard, or is related to anyone who has done any of the aforementioned things.
This destruction of generational bonds extends to attempting to curtail the birth of new Uyghurs.
All of these atrocities have a wider political context. China’s policies toward Uyghurs should also be put in the context of the CCP’s oft-repeated goal of achieving “national unification”—one of the three pillars of what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” China analysts have typically understood “national unification” as referring to the territorial control of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other disputed territories.
But Chinese words and policies in practice imply economic, social, and cultural assimilation with Han-dominant parts of China. As part of the campaign against Uyghurs, Uyghur-language education has been large if not entirely eliminated. In 2019, China’s State Council issued a white paper denying Uyghurs’ Turkic roots, claiming them instead as part of the Chinese nation. Even as China detains Uyghur religious leaders, forces Uyghurs to violate Islamic social mores, and destroys their holy sites, Beijing claims to be protecting Muslims’ right to their beliefs. All of this has been done in the name of joining the Uyghurs to the party’s version of Chinese modernity.
China’s actions very clearly meet four out of five conditions of genocide—and remember, they only need to meet one. And while no evidence has emerged of mass killing yet, the conditions that would enable it are very clearly being created. Jewish groups are increasingly speaking up about Chinese policies in part because they recognize the cruelty that marks China’s dehumanization of the Uyghurs. Dehumanization to exclude victims from the moral community is a necessary precursor to widespread cruelty, as David Livingstone Smith, author of Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, observed. This is because it’s difficult psychologically to kill another human being or inflict atrocities on them. The Chinese guards at the camps reportedly are exhibiting the signs of this psychological toll. In the New Yorker’s account of one woman’s journey through the camps, Chinese guards at one point changed behavior, becoming erratic, irrationally cruel, and unstable—all signs of trauma for what they are being ordered to do. Just as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis called Jews “rats,” “subhuman,” and “a virus,” Xi has called Uyghurs a “virus.”
The world’s interdependence with China makes it complicit in these crimes. They are not being cruel through inattention alone but through their economic activity and household purchases that reward China’s forced labor programs built on the backs of concentration camps and the destruction of Uyghur families. China’s recent push to punish companies that refuse to use Xinjiang cotton shows Beijing demands complicity as a cost of engaging with them. Regardless of whether officials call it genocide or merely crimes against humanity, China’s policies demand a response commensurate to the scale of the atrocities happening at this very moment. And the world has to acknowledge these atrocities are exactly what the CCP intends.
Peter Mattis is former deputy staff director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
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