Uighur Genocide: “A Sweeping Tide of Cowardice”

On the 2nd of July 2020, it was reported that US Federal Authorities had seized a shipment of products made from human hair, originating from Muslims in Chinese internment camps (or concentration camps to put them by their more recognisable name). Customs and Border Protection officials said that 13 tons (11.8 metric tonnes) of weaves and other hair products worth an estimated $800,000 were in the shipment. As someone who has visited Auschwitz, this headline was horrifying, not just from the natural shock of 13 tons of human hair possibly being ripped from dead or enslaved people, but because I had seen this before. In Auschwitz, as it stands today, a memorial and museum to the lives lost during the Holocaust, one of the rooms you enter, behind a massive glass display, is a gigantic pile of hair, which was harvested by the Nazis from their victims, alongside their teeth. Not to mention, footage coming out showing blindfolded Uighurs waiting to be put into a train car, a resonant image to the many Jews forced into cramped carriages being sent to the Nazi concentration camps. To see history repeat itself, to feel only the echo of atrocities I witnessed in Auschwitz come back to me, was a terrifying experience. But let us take a step back for a moment, and understand what is going on in China?

How did we get here?

The Xinjiang Province is a North Western region in China, bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and India. Historically, Xinjiang has been populated by the Uighur people — a Turkic people who are typically Muslim. In 1953, Uighurs accounted for 75% of the population of the region, in 2010, they accounted for just 46%. Xinjiang is one of five ‘autonomous regions’, a semi-devolved area created to accommodate ethnic minorities. Xinjiang was granted the title of ‘autonomous region’ in 1955 because it had a history of independent movements.

In 1933, the local Uighur population took over the city of Kashgar in the West of Xinjiang, and in 1934, declared it the ‘Republic of East Turkestan’. The Chinese Government did not take kindly to this, and some Chinese warlords (backed by Soviet Russia) retook the area. However, in 1944, the local Uighur population, this time backed by the Soviets, rebelled yet again and reclaimed Kashgar, leading to China reclaiming the districts 5 years later.

By 1955, Xinjiang was a majority Uighur population and had just enjoyed 2 brief spats of independence, so the Chinese knew they would have to grant the area some sort of devolved independence if they wanted to avoid any further rebellions. Though autonomous regions, like Xinjiang, do have some independence, they are ultimately still answerable to China.

There had been relative calm until the 1990s, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) setup so-called ‘Special Economic Zones’ in Xinjiang to make use of its natural mineral and oil deposits, as well as setting up the Tarim Basin Project, which aimed to increase agricultural output. This created economic opportunities in the area, which in turn, created a massive increase in Han Chinese Migration — Han being the majority ethnic group in China, making up 92% of the country’s total population. The Han population went from representing 6.7% of Xinjiang residents in 1949 (220,000), to 40% (8,400,000) in 2008. Han Chinese typically settled in Northern Xinjiang (around its capital), while the Native Uighur population mainly stayed in the South — creating a sort of de facto segregation.

The population increase put a strain on land and water supply which obviously upset the native Uighurs. Tensions weren’t helped by the fact that typically the Han Chinese were wealthier, had higher levels of education, and higher paying jobs. This disparity was in part caused by government hiring rules. For example, in 2006, Xinjiang Production and Construction Cores (XPCC), a government run agency, restricted 800 of its 840 jobs to Han Chinese. Some of the Uighur population saw this influx of wealthy Han Chinese as a threat to their cultural identity and legislative autonomy. A terrorist group called the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM)was formed, with the group hoping to establish an independent Islamic State and counter the Han Chinese migration.

On March 3rd 2008, Matalip Hajim, a wealthy 38 year old Uighur jade dealer, died in police custody for no apparent reason. His death and the fact the police told his family to stay quiet about it, triggered riots in Xinjiang. 6 days later, the ETIM tried to hijack a commercial flight headed to Beijing, but were foiled by Chinese authorities. Then on August 4th, ETIM militants drove a truck into a group of police, killing 16. On August 10th, ETIM proceed to drive into government buildings armed with explosives — thankfully failing to kill anyone. 2 days later, suspected ETIM militants killed 3 security officers in Kashgar. And on July 9th 2009, inter-ethnic tensions reached a boiling point after some Uighur men were falsely accused by Han Chinese workers who worked with them, of sexually assaulting a Han Chinese woman. This triggered a full on riot in the Capital, resulting in the death of 197 people (mainly Han Chinese), and triggering a harsh response from police.

The police began indiscriminately detaining Uighur men. Human Rights Watch reported 43 cases of Uighur men disappearing after being detained by the police, but also said that actual figures were likely much higher. The police crackdown seeming to have worked, until, on March 14th 2014, knife-wielding ETIM militants killed 31 civilians at a train station, followed by a coordinated ETIM knife attack and bombing, as well as ETIM militants driving SUVS into a street market. This culminated in the public trials of Uighur militants…in sports stadiums. The stadiums were filled with 7,000 spectators and 55 people were found guilty. This weakened the already strained Uighur-Han relations.

Xi Jinping (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty)

Following on from this, the Communist Party of China passed the 2014 ‘Xinjiang Regulations on Religious Affairs’ — a piece of legislation prohibiting anything that: “undermines national unity, social stability, economic developments, or scientific and technological progress” or that “affects religious harmony”. The CCP also launched a ‘Strike Hard Campaign’ against violent terrorism after General Secretary Xi Jinping gave a series of ‘secret speeches’, later leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in November of 2019. In the secret speeches, Xi Jinping is said to have told Xinjiang officials of the campaign against the “three evils”: terrorism, infiltration, and separatism. Xi is specifically quoted as saying that they must use the “organs of the dictatorship” and show “absolutely no mercy”.

Xi is specifically quoted a saying that they must use the “organs of the dictatorship” and show “absolutely no mercy”.

Interestingly though, Xi has directly opposed proposals to eliminate Islam entirely in China: “In light of separatist and terrorist forces under the banner of Islam, some people have argued that Islam should be restricted or even eradicated…[this view is] biased, even wrong.” Suggesting that the campaign against the Uighur population is not anti-Islam per se, its more anti-separatist or anti-independence. As we’ve seen in Tibet, and more recently in Hong Kong, if there’s one thing the CCP hates, it is independence. Hui, another Muslim majority ethnic group in China, based mainly in Zhongyuan, are pretty much allowed to practice their faith uninterrupted, although there have been reports of their Mosques being closed down. One considers that having any religion or differing belief in Communist China shall soon be equated to separatism or independence from the all-embracing system of the State, it echoes the post-war confessional from the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Chen Quanguo ( Credit: REUTERS)

It was around 2014/2015 that the first camps were opened, or we believe so, as its hard to tell exactly when because the Chinese Government denied they existed until 2018. In 2017, the camps started expanding after the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Party Secretary of Xinjiang. Chen is a hard liner whose catchphrase is:

“Round of up everyone who should be rounded up.”

Chen is repeatedly quoted as saying this in leaked documents. Under his leadership, spending on security related facilities in Xinjiang increased by the equivalent of $3 billion in 2017. While the documents do not explicitly say that that $3 billion were going towards setting up concentration camps, its fair to infer. Similarly, there was a massive jump in Public Security job ads that year. Today there are an estimated 12,00 camps throughout Xinjiang, with just one camp thought to be roughly the size of Central Park, holding somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs — according to US intelligence reports.

What are the internment camps like?

You can be put in one of the camps for just about anything. For example, communication with one of 27 listed countries — many of which contain the families of Uighurs. Detainees have no lawyers, and leaked documents admit they are not criminals, yet they aren’t allowed leave. According to reports from some former Xinjiang residents, detainees are subject to constant surveillance, regular beatings, and a form of torture called the ‘iron chair’, where they are tied to an iron chair and deprived of sleep for days on end. They are forced to learn Mandarin, perform daily CCP flag raising ceremonies, and sing CCP songs. Other reports have suggested that the detainees are also forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which is obviously against their faith.

A report from scholar Adrian Zenz at the Jamestown Foundation in June, ‘Sterilizations, Forced Abortions, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang found that Uighur women are now being threatened with detainment, unless they subject themselves to intrauterine contraception or sterilisation. A leaked document called the ‘Karakax Listshowed the most common reason for detainment was simply having too many children. Official family planning documents saw horrifically high sterilisation targets for Uighur provinces. By 2019, Xinjiang planned to subject over 80% of women (of child bearing age) in the rural Southern 4 Uighur majority provinces to “birth control measures with long-term effectiveness.”

It wasn’t until October 2018 that China admitted the camps even existed, though officials started calling them “centres for vocational education & training programs”, and Xinjiang’s Governor described them as “boarding schools”. The CCP defend the camps on the basis that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks since 2017, and an official Communist Party newspaper said that the Chinese campaign of pressure against its Uighur Muslim Minority has prevented the Xinjiang region from becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya”. However, the camps are illegal under Chinese Law, namely Article 37 of China’s Constitution which states that all arrests must be approved by either the Procuratorate, the State Prosecution, or the Courts.

What the camps represent are a prime and modern example of ‘states of exception’ — a space where individuals do not possess rights, or where law is suspended. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argued that the state of exception has become the law of our time, no longer an infrequent occurrence saved for times of desperation, the suspension of law permeates our society. Agamben was concerned specifically how the Nazi concentration camps could happen — and it was the state of exception where he found his answer. This is what the concentration camps in China are also.

Is this genocide?

On the 6th of July of this year, the Washington Post published an article in their Opinions tab titled, “ Opinion | What’s happening in Xinjiang is genocide”. The thing is that isn’t an opinion…its a fact. The CCP’s involuntary campaign against the Uighur population now meets the criterion set in Section D of Article II of the UN’s ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’:

“Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the [targeted group]”

So yes, this is absolutely genocide. But we can know and say it is all we want, but unless it is internationally ratified by the international judicial system without a shadow of a doubt…nothing will be done. Governments won’t act, and the Uighurs will be left to be exterminated by the Chinese Government. The 1949 Genocide Convention was created to make sure that the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany were unthinkable. It laid an international responsibility- no, an imperative- that we must prevent what happened to ever happen again. The UN is the principal route of determining genocide, but not only is this very slow, an application for a situation to be determined genocide can be blocked by countries with veto power…which China has. Even if one could appeal to the UN and get them to see that this is clearly a genocide, China would block it, and the problem would persist.

To quote Luke de Pulford, the co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response and Adviser to the World Uyghur Congress, in his spectacular report for ITV, “The Genocide Convention binds us — the UK — and every other signatory to prevent and punish “the crime of all crimes.”” De Pulford continues, “It does not bind the United Nations. So if the United Nations is not working, it is our duty to find another way.” This alternative option, as de Pulford lines out in his article, is a ‘People’s Tribunal’:

Indeed, there will be a UK Independent tribunal led by a human rights lawyer into the genocide against Uyghur Muslims in China…but what good will it do with no government behind it to act and stop what’s happening?

The Response

Internationally, the response has been mixed — which given its a literal genocide is horrifying to even type. The US have gone the furthest. In October 2019, they imposed Visa restrictions on Chinese Officials believed to:

“be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uighurs, Kazakh, or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang”

This came from the Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo’s Press Release of October 8th 2019. America has also blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies linked to abuses in the region. In fact, in June 2020, President Trump signed legislation, passed with overwhelming support from Congress, mandating that individuals face sanctions for oppressing Uighurs. However, on June 29 2019, President Trump met in Osaka, Japan, with President Xi Jinping. According to former national security adviser John Bolton, in a new memoir, President Xi defended China’s camps in Xinjiang, to which President Trump allegedly, “said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

In the UK, Dominic Raab’s new ‘Magnitsky Law’ does not include any Chinese Officials, but the UK has been critical of the camps. In June 2019, the UK was one of a number of mostly European countries to sign a letter to the UN Human Rights Chief, condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang.

However, on the other hand, 50 countries (mostly African and Muslim majority) reacted with their own letter commending China’s “remarkable achievements” in regards to Human Rights and counter-terrorism. This is potentially a symptom of China’s soft political power in these regions.

Why is there such little response?

There are many reasons why the world has remained silently on what has been called the “largest internment of an ethno-religious minority since the Second World War”, by Professor Zenz.

One of the main reasons is that what we are witnessing is a conflict of freedoms and rights. Often someone else’s freedom infringes on the freedom of another. I have a right to build a massive structure on my own property, which may infringe on the property and right of my neighbours. This comes to the forefront in China in regards to the idea of a free market. As the name suggests, it is free; everyone is trying to get rich while everyone else competes with them. Markets uniquely encourage people to do things that limit other peoples’ freedoms because…money. Big monopolies are free actors on the global market, and though China’s government is clearly infringing the rights and freedoms of its citizens, because China is a relatively untapped market, these Western monopolies still choose to work with them. In fact, they profit off the concentration camps. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimates that, since 2017, 80,000 previously detained Uighurs have been sent to factories throughout China — linked with 83 global brands including, but not limited to: Amazon, H&M, Nike, Apple, Samsung, BMW, Volkswagen, Ralph Lauren, and Huawei. One’s right to make money off the free market as a free actor is encroaching upon an Uighurs right to not be a victim of mass genocide. One could argue that Western monopolies are acting in their own free self-interest, but they are also heavily incentivised to quash any behaviour not in-line with the CCP, and turn a blind-eye to the treatment of Uighurs, who act as forced free labourers in their factories. If these free actors want to make money in the relatively untapped market of China, they must appease the Chinese Government. Essentially, these monopolies, and the Governments of which their economic success relies on, prefer money and their own individual freedoms over democracy and the opposition to a literal genocide.

But lets step away from big business for a second, why aren’t religious organisations or charities doing anything to help? When the CCP came to power in 1949, there were about 3 million Chinese Catholics. The CCP never got on with the Vatican, seeing it as somewhat colonial, probably because most Bishops in China were European, and not Chinese. The Catholic Church was at best in tension with the CCP, and at worst totally incompatible with it (as is often the case, religious institutions do not cooperate with Communist values).

In 1951, China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties entirely, after the CCP accused a Priest of planning to assassinate Chairman Mao, just because they found some non-functional bits of a 1930s mortar outside his house. The CCP set two conditions for the resumption of diplomatic relations:

  1. The ‘Holy See’ — the governing body of the Catholic Church — was “not to interfere in religious matters in China”.
  2. In line with Beijing’s ‘One China Policy’, the Holy See would have to break all ties with the Tiawanese Government.

The Holy See did not agree with these conditions, so diplomatic relations were paused. During this time, life for Catholics living in China became tough, as the CCP began exiling Bishops loyal to Rome and appointing their own Bishops who were loyal to the CCP, without approval from the Pope.

Chairman Mao Zedong

In 1957, Mao begins the ‘Catholic Patriot Association’, attempting to bring Catholicism under State supervision, assimilate religious and Communist practices. This forced Chinese Catholics to start their own dissident, underground Catholic Church — remaining a bit truer to traditional Catholic practices. This is the way its been for some time, with the Chinese Catholics having to practice their faith secretly and without traditional structure. Typically, Catholic Bishops govern over a geographical constituency known as a ‘Diocese’. The Bishops derive their authority in the Church from the fact they’ve been approved by the Pope.

In 2018, there were 70 Bishops who were recognised by both the Vatican and the CCP, 30 only recognised by the Vatican, and 7 only recognised by the CCP. This meant that some Diocese didn’t even have a Bishop. The Vatican retroactively approved most of the CCP’s Bishops, mainly to make life easier for Chinese Catholics. The Vatican and the CCP signed a provisional deal:

  • The Vatican would approve the remaining 7 Bishops and approve any future CCP appointments (but the Vatican would maintain a Veto).
  • Children under the age of 18 aren’t allowed undergo any religious instruction (not allowed attend Church at all).

This deal doesn’t seem very good for the Vatican. The growth of Catholicism in China had been very slow anyway. There had been 3 million Chinese Catholics in 1949, there are now 10 million. Compared to the growth of Protestantism in China, which went from 1 million in 1949 to 60 million in our present day, this is awfully growth. In fact, a 2016 report estimates that with natural losses the Chinese Catholic population is actually shrinking. So this begs the question: what do the Vatican gain from this deal?

Well…we don’t know, because the details of the deal are a complete secret. Some two years later, and the Vatican have still never exposed the actual text of the deal, though most believe its money. In June of 2020, Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese dissident, claimed that the CCP pays the Vatican $2 billion a year. This is somewhat unverifiable, but given the Vatican keeps its finances pretty secret (with the most recent financial record being from 2013), it is believable. Documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal suggest the Vatican ran a deficit of $70 million in 2019 (representing 23% of its $300 million annual expenditure). Additionally, given the $4 billion the Vatican have had to spend in lawsuits of clerical sexual abuse, it is not far-fetched to believe they could accept ‘hush-money’ from China.

As mentioned previously, 50 countries of mostly African and Muslim majority commended China in a letter, and that’s because China made extravagant loans to parts of Africa, India, and Pakistan. Hence, if the story of the Vatican accepting money in exchange for their silence is true, it wouldn’t be the first time China used their finances for political ends. The Vatican has taken a suspiciously deferent tone towards China, especially, given as recently as July, Chinese Catholics were told to replace depictions of Christ with pictures of Chairman Mao.


When the Vatican prepared remarks on July 5th for Pope Francis’ blessing at St. Peter’s Square, it included a message to the people of Hong Kong:

“Requires courage, humility, nonviolence and respect for the dignity and rights of all. I hope that social and especially religious life may be expressed in full and true liberty, as indeed several international documents foresee.

In the end, the Pope left this bit out when he spoke, thus not endorsing the Hong Kong message, which is equally applicable to the strife of the Uighurs. You might expect the Catholic Church as an apparent ‘Paragon of Virtue’ to take issue with what is blatantly a modern genocide, yet they’ve been remarkably silent. To quote de Pulford again, “Our silence might not be condoning these crimes, but it is also failing to condemn them”. Whatever, the CCP is supplying the Vatican, it must be good for them to remain silent on a genocide. One speculates that possibly the removal of another ethnic minority might assist the growth of Catholicism in China, and this is the true motive for the Churches silence.

Furthermore, as China’s original terms for the resumption of diplomatic affairs outlines, in March of 2020, after both Taiwan and China donated PPE to the Vatican, the Vatican only thanked China for the donation. If this is a sign that the Vatican has cut ties with the Taiwanese Government as the Chinese asked back in 1951, is it possibly the Vatican also agreed to the term of “not to interfere in religious matters in China”, even if those religious matters are an egregious genocide?

Learning from history

The most tragic thing about the genocide of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is that not only has the world witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, but China itself is a country that has known and experienced genocide against it. In 1931, seeking to increase its Empire and harness the natural resources of China, Japan invaded and occupied the province of Manchuria, beginning what has been dubbed ‘The Manchurian Crisis’. 6 years later, with little to no intervention from the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN), Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, beginning a war that would leave 20 million dead in its wake (however, estimates put the figure as high as 50 million). This begins what has since been called ‘The Asian Holocaust’ which was estimated to kill twice as many people as the Nazis, and taking place only a few years before the Jewish Holocaust.

In fact, the acts of the Japanese appalled even Nazi Germany, with the German embassy in China writing to Berlin that the “atrocities and criminal acts of an entire army” amounted to “bestial machinery”. Japan built 2,000 rape centers which held as many as 200,000 women. In Nanjing, British historian Edward Russell found burial statistics indicating more than 150,000 people were buried in mass graves. He estimated that 200,000 had died in Nanjing alone; though later estimates range to more than 300,000 in a period of just 6 weeks. There are countless other horrors and atrocities committed during the Asian Holocaust, and I recommend reading New Visions article (of which helped greatly with the research of this one), simply to get an understanding of the full-scale at which China has experienced genocide before.

If current figures are to be believed, the Uighur genocide has already killed more than the Holocaust. Yet it hasn’t been met with mass mobilisation to a war effort (as World War Two) or any sort of meaningful action. One of course considers that sparking a war with China would spell World War Three and very possibly the end of the world as we know it. But I think the main reason why no world governments have strongly spoken against the genocide is this: they are all guilty. Every country in the world is guilty of human rights violations, and to varying extents, genocide. Germany and the Holocaust, Canada and the Japanese, Britain and the Boer War, America and Guantanamo. To call out China for committing a crime they all have committed would be blatant hypocrisy. So in a clash of individual freedoms, where governments fail to act on one of the biggest stains on humanity in our modern age, what should one do?

Take personal responsibility.

(Credit: Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images)

To quote Primo Levi, survivor of the Holocaust and author of ‘Survival Auschwitz’, “Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.

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