The Uighurs’ hardship deserves purposeful solutions, not just anti-Chinese posturing

Leaders in China and the US seem nostalgic for the worst aspects of the 20th century. Following recent revelations about forced labour, family separation and the repression of Uighur births, there should be no doubt that the policies inflicted by the Chinese Communist party (CCP) on the indigenous central Asians it rules meet the UN definition of genocide. While the Trump administration has belatedly begun imposing sanctions over these atrocities, its overall China policy is driven by self-serving, not humanitarian, motivations. It is clear that after first appeasing Xi Jinping, Trump now hopes a new cold war will cover up his own bungled response to Covid-19. How, then, should other countries respond to the Xinjiang crisis amid dangerous Trumpian provocations? It helps to understand what’s been happening in Xinjiang on its own, outside the context of superpower sabre-rattling.

What the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been doing in Xinjiang has little to do with counter-terrorism. It is the culmination of a decade-long campaign to develop the north-western territory of Xinjiang by making its landscape and peoples seem more “Chinese”. The PRC has reversed what were once relatively pluralistic diversity policies in favour of assimilationism, aimed at engineering a homogeneous “Zhonghua” people: a nationalistic, unitary Chinese identity envisioned in general secretary Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”.

After a peaceful Uighur protest in Urumchi in 2009 was repressed by police with lethal force and turned violent, the party increased investment in the region by requiring rich provinces and cities in eastern China to build industrial parks and commercial zones in Xinjiang. As labour costs rose in the rest of China, the state relocated cotton-growing and low value-added manufacturing from coastal China to Xinjiang. The goal was to provide manufacturing jobs for poor Uighur farmers and cheap labour for Chinese manufacturers.

Alongside this process of turning Uighurs into “Chinese” factory workers, the party attacked symbols of their identity. It razed the old cities of Kashgar and Hotan; it penalised, then outlawed, veils and head-coverings for women and beards on young men; it opposed public prayer, fasting at Ramadan, and abstention from alcohol; it discouraged Uighur language and culture, to the point where Uighur students in the one remaining Uighur language class in Xinjiang schools study Chinese classics in Uighur translation, rather than Uighur classics (the earliest Uighur texts are older than Beowulf). The party sent police and inspection teams to search and even live in Uighur homes to hunt for signs of “religious extremism”, such as simply owning Qur’ans. In response, unrest only increased.

After four relatively small terrorist events in 2013-14, a new party secretary in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, implemented high-tech surveillance and “grid policing”, an intense deployment of checkpoints and police stations around areas that are deemed suspect. A new artificial intelligence system drew on a vast database of behavioural and bio-data to assess, sort and submit some 2 million people deemed likely to have “extremist thoughts” to imprisonment or arbitrary internment. Children of detainees were sent to orphanages and boarding schools to be brought up Chinese. Simultaneously, the CCP began suppressing Uighur births, while encouraging Han (China’s ethnic majority) to have more babies. Through coerced insertion of IUDs (80% of all IUD placements in China in 2018 were performed in Xinjiang, which has only 1.8% of the population), sterilisations and mass detentions, the CCP lowered population growth rates by as much as 84% in Uighur population areas between 2015 and 2018. The forceful transfer of children and measures intended to prevent births are two of the five elements of the UN definition of genocide.

Since 2019, the party has moved hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Xinjiang peoples from internment camps and villages into factories in those industrial parks built by east China provinces, cities and companies as part of the development project. It has also transferred tens of thousands of Uighurs to factories in eastern parts of China, housing them in barracks under military-style discipline. In doing so, the PRC has made Chinese provinces, cities and hundreds of companies that invested in Xinjiang and built and supplied the internment camps, partners in the Xinjiang gulag system. Recent investigations have implicated at least 83 global brands in supply chains connected to this forced labour regime.

The US is right to investigate and block the import of products from these supply chains, and any company sourcing from anywhere in China, not just Xinjiang, should redouble their due diligence. Likewise, employing the recently passed Uighur human rights policy act (UHRPA) and the global Magnitsky act, the US recently sanctioned Chen and other Xinjiang officials. It has put Chinese security agencies and companies on the Entity List that restricts their access to US technology. These are positive developments. The UHRPA, which Trump delayed for a year and half, apparently in the hope that Xi would gift him a trade deal to help his re-election, is a precise, calibrated tool to target PRC human rights atrocities.

Its application and that of global Magnitsky sanctions could not be more different from the White House’s other, pointlessly antagonistic actions against China and Chinese people: broad tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods; using a racist term to refer to Covid-19 rather than collaborating to defeat a global pandemic; cancelling Peace Corps and Fulbright exchanges; calling Chinese students and scholars “spies”; threatening to block CCP members and their families (a group estimated at more than 200 million, the vast majority with no role in policy-making); or shutting down the PRC consulate in Houston, Texas, at short notice.

Although there are certainly structural issues underlying US-Chinese rivalry, we should not discount the extent to which power-grasping and sheer lunacy from the top has needlessly exacerbated tensions. Both the US and China are better than their current leaders. Other countries, multilateral organisations, NGOs and people outside the US and Chinese governments must thus think and act with agility to help stop the genocide but also head off a cold war. Investigations of supply chains, shaming and sanctioning of corporations and officials linked to the Xinjiang gulag and similarly targeted measures will be important. Providing support and legal refuge to Uighur, Kazakh and other Xinjiang exiles is critical.

A number of democratic nations have already denounced the Xinjiang atrocities in the UN Human Rights Council – a body from which Trump rashly withdrew the US, clearing the way for cynical PRC perversion of the council’s purpose. Although these 22 nations (including Britain, much of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) were outnumbered by a cadre of states lined up behind Beijing, the joint statement condemning Xinjiang mass detentions matters, as will future such moves.

At the same time, whatever can be done to slow the runaway, off-the-rails train of Trumpian China policy more generally, and resolutely oppose racism and indiscriminate China-bashing, is equally necessary. If the UK, EU and other democratic allies are caught near the beginning of a US-China cold war, the Huawei tiff will be just the beginning. Maintaining cultural and academic relations with the PRC is now more important than ever, as White House xenophobes seek to exclude Chinese people from American soil. And though the president himself is not known for heeding wise advice, cautionary words from friends of the pre-Trumpian US can still influence the broader conversation and prevent Sinophobic frenzy from surging along with coronavirus.