International law is a vital part of fighting for the Uighur people.
The substantial leaks to the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists of internal policy documents of the Chinese Communist Party regarding the crackdown on the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s western region of Xinjiang dramatically shift the conversation on this issue.
They lay bare what is unambiguously a deliberate and calculated campaign of cultural genocide—initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping and driven to its current extreme implementation by Xinjiang’s local party boss, Chen Quanguo, a Han Chinese nationalist hard-liner who led successful efforts at so-called pacification in Tibet before being transferred over to the western region.
The only question that remains is what the international community is prepared to do about it.
Various sources place the number of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held in detention camps in Xinjiang this year between 1 million and 1.5 million, with some estimates going as high as 3 million. This is out of a total Uighur population of 10 million in Xinjiang, which increases to 12 million if non-Uighur Turkic Muslim groups that have also been targeted are included—such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and others.
Officially, the individuals detained are there for retraining: According even to the official narrative, they are there to be inoculated against the virus of religious extremism and are given lessons in Mandarin, Communist Party ideology, and job skills training.
That already sounds very much like the language used under Stalinism to justify the gulag. But details of the kinds of things that actually go on underneath the polished narrative of the Chinese government have emerged. Sources citing former detainees allege torture, sexual abuse, forced abortions, and, perhaps most common and shocking, the forced sterilization of detained Uighur women.
At this point, thanks in part to international attention, the camps themselves may be being wound down—but not to good ends. Instead, around half a million people are being transferred to the prison system directly, with the authorities sometimes making use of the same detention centers but simply changing the names.
Hundreds of thousands more are being sent into forced labor facilities. Outside of the detention camps themselves, the society in Xinjiang has begun to increasingly resemble an apartheid regime, where Han settlers from eastern China assumed to be loyal to Beijing are given plum jobs and mostly Muslim locals are surveilled 24/7 by the most pervasive technological police state in the world.
The Chinese authorities are vigorously pursuing a policy of implanting Han party loyalists, whom they call “relatives,” into every household that has had a member detained in the camps. There are reports that they routinely sleep in the same beds as the Muslim women in the household—even when the monitors are men.
It was beyond doubt that these attacks against family life and the ability of Uighurs to have children are a systematic policy with genocidal intent even before the emergence of the leaked documents last month.
But the leaked documents reveal the worldview of those who have driven these policies, the gory internal details, and even the systematic purge of Han party officials in Xinjiang who resisted these policies as extreme, likely to inflame local conflicts and undermine security in the region, and morally abhorrent.
They reveal that the current policies have their roots in speeches and initiatives by Xi going back as early as 2014, not long after he started his tenure as president. In contrast to Communist Party ideology and policy before, Xi appears to believe that social harmony requires a monolithic cultural and national identity, as opposed to the acceptance of a benign, cooperative pluralism envisioned—in somewhat utopian but nevertheless influential fashion—in the original approach of the People’s Republic to ethnic issues. In due time, this worldview from the very top came to also inform party hierarchy appointments in Xinjiang, and the hard-liners who now rule the region are driving that worldview to its logical conclusion.
I Was a Model Uighur. China Took My Family Anyway.
A chain that started with Xi’s conjecture in 2014 that separatist terrorism would be less of an issue in Xinjiang if the culture there was brought near to the Han than to Xinjiang’s Turkic neighbors culminated under Chen into an unabashed, explicit policy of cultural eradication of Islam and Islam-associated ethnic identities—complete with torture, murder, the destruction of family life, and the potential extinction of these groups over the coming generations.
These security-minded policies end up having genocidal consequences accidentally. The leaked documents attest to the fact that the worldview and the intent of the top officials who are driving these policies in Xinjiang are genocidal, as defined by the United Nations as an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through acts including “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”
At the very least, officials are explicitly ideologically committed to cultural genocide as a goal on the path to so-called social harmony. And the possibility of mass killing—or of other attempts to forcibly shatter Uighur identity, whether by sterilization or deportation—remains very real.
This leaves the international community with an unambiguous moral duty to intervene. If the promise of “never again” means anything, it means that the international community is now bound to do whatever it can to prevent what is happening in Xinjiang.
Unfortunately, the normal avenues for recourse under international law are mostly blocked.
The United Nations will be unable to pass any motion on this issue because China will simply use its veto to block it. A liberal interventionist war of the kind we saw in the Balkans in the late 1990s is out of the question. Not even the United States and its allies have the military might to exert meaningful pressure in that way.
But it can start with an investigation led by the International Criminal Court. Once these legal proceedings are underway, the political consensus of the international community can be built and crystalized around it. With enough players coming on board, from the West, the Middle East, India, and Africa, China will begin to feel the pressure to its geopolitical and trade interests.
Some countries such as Russia and Myanmar will likely never join the rest of the international community against their patrons in Beijing, sure. But China cannot continue to develop and assert itself as a global leader if it restricts itself to only those willing to follow the party line. Thus, sufficiently united, the international community does have real leverage. If it chooses to unite on this issue, it may yet be able to remain true to its promise of “never again.”
Muslim nations may be more of a roadblock than allies. They have succumbed to Chinese debt-book diplomacy and have bent themselves to Beijing’s will. They are impotent as long as Chinese investment is freely flowing to build vital infrastructure, and they remain indebted to Beijing.
If China then acquiesces and joins that promise to humanity, it will continue to rise. But even as it continues to grow in power and influence, it would now do so as a responsible member of the international community—one that recognizes that nobody has and nobody should have impunity before the humanitarian promise of international law.
China has benefited immensely from the rules-based international order in commerce—once it understood the value of that order. So much so that it is now one of its greatest defenders, even in the face of a wanton U.S. administration. China can similarly benefit from the humanitarian order promoted by international law. The sooner it realizes the value of these rules and this order, the better for China, for its citizens, and for the entire world.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and a former expert advisor to the U.K. government’s Commission for Countering Extremism. Twitter: @azeemibrahim