Prevent and Punish

A recent report by the Newlines Institute scrutinizes the facts about China’s genocide against the Uyghur people

Leon Holly
Apr 17 · 8 min read
Uyghurs protesting their treatment in China. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is almost a commonplace for pundits nowadays that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing is brewing an economic and political mixture which combines elements of both communism and capitalism. But if we are to start synthesizing and evaluating the Chinese system on the basis of the grand 20th century ideologies, we might add that its behavior towards the Uyghur minority in its Western province of Xinjiang looks a lot more like ethno-fascism. For roughly the last five years the Chinese state has been orchestrating a repressive campaign intended not only to wipe out Uyghur culture but also crush the Turkic people physically. The fact that this is presently happening has fortunately become more widely acknowledged in recent months, even in mainstream media outlets. But up until now, some publications have been hesitant to use the term “genocide” to describe Beijing’s brutal crackdown.

A newly released report by the Newlines Institute should hopefully end this terminological tiptoeing as it provides a solid body of reference for those inclined to call the Chinese atrocities by their right name. The documentary evidence the Institute has used has all been previously accessible to anyone interested. What the authors of the study did though was to show this fragmentary — but incriminating — pile of evidence to numerous scholars with an expertise on China, the Uyghur people and genocide. Those experts confirmed that China is in fact in violation of all five conditions that meet the definition of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which China itself is a signatory. Let me remind you of Article 2 which lists those five conditions as “a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

As I have indicated, the report shows that China’s campaign against the Uyghur minority meets all five conditions. (Bear in mind that checking only one of those boxes would have sufficed to mount the charge of genocide.) One — two million Uyghurs are currently interned in concentration camps, where torture and violence are the preferred means to break anyone who resists to be “re-educated” by Communist Party cadres. The Chinese state pretends that those camps exist to “de-radicalize” Islamist extremists, when in reality, it aims to eliminate any expression of Muslim Uyghur culture, including language, literature and poetry.

Uyghur towns have been placed under an intricate web of surveillance that does not only monitor every street corner, but also the inside of mosques where local worshippers meet to pray. The face recognition software used by the Chinese state informs its social credit system, wherein every Chinese citizen is allocated an account with a social credit score, which rises and falls depending on an individual’s behavior. A lower credit score directly impacts your access to necessities and freedoms such as traveling or opening a bank account. For Muslims living under the yoke of the CCP, this system comes with a perverse garnish: If a Han Chinese living in Beijing is caught buying a handsome amount of alcohol, his credit score will decline. For those the authorities assume to be Muslim, a propensity to alcohol consumption has the opposite effect, since the state regards it as a welcome sign of lacking religious fervor. In detention, guards are even known to force Uyghur Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol.

In 2018, Communist Party apparatchiks ordered that at least one member of every household should be driven off to the concentration camps, which sprung up like weeds in Xinjiang since 2016. (Government documents indicate that, if we include prisons, there are between 1,300 and 1,400 extrajudicial detainment facilities). In its official langue de bois, the party puts the order to mass-detain Uyghurs into tautologies like “detain those who should be detained to the greatest extent possible.” The grounds for detention they list are so vague and broad, that they can be applied to any Uyghur civilian, as the report makes clear:

“The leading grounds for detention include vague, catch-all categories like being young, as in ‘born after 1980s,’ being generally untrustworthy, ‘generally acting suspiciously,’ ‘having complex social ties,’ ‘having improper [sexual] relations,’ or ‘birth policy violations.’ Continued internment verdicts are frequently issued, extending detentions for arbitrary reasons like the religious practices of one’s children or even for allegedly ‘holding a grudge’ because relatives have been tortured in the camps.”

One can claim therefore, without hyperbole, that the Chinese state has effectively criminalized the mere existence of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Anyone is a potential target, to be arrested and driven off to a concentration camp at any time, where — at the whim of some party bureaucrat or police official — he or she is seen fit to be tortured or even killed. Apart from the reports about mass rapes, we can learn something about the means of repression in the camps from leaked Government documents from 2017 and 2018, which listed items obtained by local governments for use on the Uyghur detainees. For what exactly do they need “electric cattle prods, electric batons, tasers, spiked clubs known as ‘wolf’s teeth,’ spears, stun guns, net guns, tear gas, pepper spray, police uniforms, and handcuffs”?

Another gruesome item in the Newlines report concerns the mass-sterilization campaign carried out by the CCP. In the camps, the regime’s henchmen forcibly insert intrauterine devices into Uyghur women’s bodies to prevent new births, and they will abort the unborn child of any pregnant women arriving for detention. Yet this horrible policy is not confined to the camps but directed at the female population at large:

“Government documents from 2019 demonstrate plans for a campaign of mass female sterilization in rural Uyghur regions, targeting 14 and 34 percent of all married women of childbearing age in two Uyghur counties in that year alone, with funding for these XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] programs increasing. These numbers correspond with a sample of Uyghur women exiles who were examined in Turkey: approximately 25 percent were found to have been sterilized, many of whom were unaware they underwent the procedure beforehand.”

As the report elucidates, this dual strategy of massively detaining men and sterilizing young women amounts to a coordinated campaign to crush Uyghur birthrates. The orphans created by this policy are likewise de facto detained in state run facilities where they lose connection to their cultural heritage and are instead force-fed the official CCP digest.

Propaganda and responsibility

You may find my likening this policy to ethno-fascism in the beginning to be exaggerated, and while it is true that the term “fascism” is quite loosely tacked on any enemy in contemporary discourse, I would claim that it indeed illuminates something. Take a look at some of the intellectual and official justifications for the genocide which the Newlines report highlights:

“From 2016 to 2019, a number of Chinese academic publications legitimized the Government eugenic programs implementing the mass prevention of Uyghur births by identifying Uyghur growth rates as threatening to national security, diluting the ‘Chinese Nation-Race,’ and linking these rates to ‘religious extremism.’ To reduce Uyghur population growth rates, in 2017, a county Party committee promoted Han-Uyghur marriages with the post: ‘Let ethnic unity become one’s own flesh and blood.’”

This frankness is, of course, for domestic consumption only. Abroad, official propaganda sounds quite different. What is generally remarkable about Chinese disinformation is that it is often delivered with the grace and the cultural sensitivity of an elephant in a — well — china shop. It is most common for Chinese officials to flat out deny accusations of genocide. But in a rare exception in January 2021, the Chinese embassy in Washington admitted to its campaign to suffocate Uyghur birth rates. In a rather clumsy and embarrassing attempt to play on Western concepts of feminism they perversely claimed that “in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines.”

The report also briefly talks about the individuals we know to be responsible for the effort to destroy the Uyghurs within China’s borders. In a country increasingly trimmed for one-man-rule, we can be sure that no policy of this scale would not be closely monitored by Xi Jinping himself, and it may very well be his own brainchild. We further know that a few steps down the hierarchy, the repression campaign is masterminded by an individual named Chen Quango who in 2016 was appointed Party Secretary for Xinjiang and First Political Secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The XPCC is a paramilitary organization that carries out the extermination policies on the ground in Xinjiang, and has for that reason been sanctioned by the United States under the Magnitsky Act.

Chen quite ruthlessly enforces the party directives in Xinjiang, as he “purged and made examples of officials who fell out of line, including a southern county leader, Wang Yongzhi, who was imprisoned for releasing detained Uyghurs.” Chen saw to it that Wang’s confession, along with a meticulous report, was distributed all over Xinjiang to officials, thousands of whom were themselves punished for showing leniency towards the Uyghurs and deviating from party orders.

What can be done?

Article 1 of the Genocide Convention states that any signatory state has a duty to “prevent and to punish” whenever they have reason to believe that a genocide is being carried out. Although China has signed and ratified the Convention, it reserves for itself an exception to Article 9, which invests in the International Court of Justice the power to prosecute any violations of the Convention, and the country is likewise not a party to the Rome Statute that gives legitimacy to the International Criminal Court. In any case, the option to use the United Nations to prevent and punish is closed, since China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, holds final veto power. But apart from the increasingly farcical UN, some new legal ground has been trodden in recent years: This year, a German court has found a Syrian culprit guilty in a case in which the prosecution applied the principle of Universal Jurisdiction to assume the power to investigate war crimes that were committed by Syrians against Syrians in Syria.

Governments abroad could also make it easier for Uyghurs to claim refugee status to escape persecution at home and sponsor the archiving and propagation of Uyghur culture. But these steps would do terribly little to actually hinder or stop the Chinese state from repressing the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The only realistic means that could hurt the CCP considerably would be economic, and the UK, the EU and the United States have timidly begun to sanction Chinese entities linked to or responsible for the genocidal campaign.

These cautious steps aside, Western governments are torn about how much capital they want to leverage to stand up for human rights. Many politicians, government officials and businessmen — all too excited to shower themselves with a few drops of the Chinese money rain — find this whole matter with the concentration camps and the forced sterilizations very annoying. They would prefer to forget about such unpleasantries as a genocide or two and get on with daily business. But for everyone who is not only the prisoner of his own knowledge, but also in conversation with his own conscience, it seems that it is a duty to be very annoying indeed and to keep asking questions, to keep bringing up the Uyghurs when the next trade agreement will be negotiated and the next deal with the Chinese regime will be signed.

Krater Magazine

After the Impact

Krater Magazine

Analysis and opinions on politics, culture and more — we deliver what nobody asked for, but missed anyway. We are happy to receive pitches and submissions by young, aspiring writers like ourselves, in either English or German.

Leon Holly

Written by

Student and writer. Seeker of truth, beauty and other fleeting pleasures.

Krater Magazine

Analysis and opinions on politics, culture and more — we deliver what nobody asked for, but missed anyway. We are happy to receive pitches and submissions by young, aspiring writers like ourselves, in either English or German.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store