Since 2017 the Uyghur people—the largest ethnic group of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China—have been systematically detained in secret concentration camps, tortured, forced to work against their will, and coercively re-educated by the Chinese state in order to erase their Muslim identities and distinctive cultural heritage. The Uyghurs are an indigenous Turkic people of China who converted to Islam 1,000 years ago. Closely related to the Kazakh, Uyghur is a language written in the Arabic script with a long and developed literary tradition. In recent decades, when Uyghurs sought de facto political independence from China, the Chinese state has responded by accusing these “separatists” of “terrorism.” Although the atrocities currently being perpetrated against the Uyghurs are now public knowledge, significant activist initiatives have yet to emerge from the left. This should change, because the oppression of the Uyghurs is as urgent an issue as others on which the left is more active, such as Palestine.
But drawing attention to the plight of the Uyghurs has been an uphill battle. On July 6, 2020, less than a month after the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act was signed into law in the United States, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office proudly announced that the U.K. had established a “Global Human Rights sanctions regime, which will target those who have been involved in some of the gravest human rights violations around the world.” The list of individuals targeted was as noteworthy for who was absent from it as it was for who was included. By the Foreign Office’s own account, the majority of targeted individuals—25 in total—were Russians implicated in the death of a single person: tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who worked to uncover governmental corruption within Russia prior to his imprisonment. Second in order of priority were “20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Strikingly, this announcement came soon after the United Kingdom had sealed a new arms weapons deal with Saudi Arabia to fund their war in Yemen. Chinese officials, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found on this list.
The headline-grabbing list of targets for this Global Human Rights sanctions regime, with its primary focus on Russian and Saudi officials involved in the deaths of high-profile figures whose murders received widespread media coverage, was complemented by further sanctions against individuals in a small number of other countries: Myanmar, with two individuals sanctioned, North Korea, with two individuals sanctioned, and Belarus, with seven individuals sanctioned. Such was the extent of the United Kingdom’s acknowledgement of global human rights violations. Nothing was said of Uyghurs in China; Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza; Kashmir; or the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors in Iran and their leaders’ complicity in human rights violations.
Limited and hypocritical as is this list, the identification of human rights violators and perpetrators of atrocity is not much more objective or disinterested elsewhere in the world, including among leaders of Muslim-majority countries. On October 28, 2020, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote to his fellow leaders of Muslim-majority states, calling on them “to act collectively to counter the growing Islamophobia… causing increasing concern amongst Muslims the world over.” The letter was written a few days after Khan had rebuked French President Emmanuel Macron for “encouraging Islamophobia” following the murder of a French schoolteacher who had shown his students caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during class. In announcing this letter, Khan singled out “Western states” for flaming the fires of Islamophobia, while saying nothing about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
Along with other leaders of Muslim-majority states around the world, Khan has been conspicuously silent about an atrocity taking place closer to home: the cultural genocide of China’s 12 million Uyghurs, over 1 million of whom are incarcerated in detention camps, according to current estimates. Indeed, few governments have had anything to say about these events. Those that have, such as the United States, have often done so for partisan political reasons rather than out of concern for human rights. So what is really happening now in Xinjiang? And what can we do about it?
How China Uses the “War on Terror” to Oppress Uyghurs
In order to answer these questions, we need to review the past few decades in the history of the global war on terror. Scholars and human rights groups concur on the basic facts. To quote a Human Rights Watch report from 2018, the Uyghurs face “mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance.” To better understand these developments, we should look at the historical background for the current persecution, deeply embedded as it is in a settler colonial agenda that has been set by U.S.-generated rhetoric relating to the war on terror.
China’s relations with the Uyghurs, and their activities in Xinjiang, have been driven by settler colonial ambitions, dating to 1949 when the region was incorporated into the newly-formed People’s Republic of China (PRC), and even further back into the 19th century. Xinjiang, the Chinese name for the region where the Uyghurs reside, bears traces of these colonial origins. After East Turkestan was reconquered by the Qing empire in 1884, it was named Xinjiang, meaning “New Dominion” or “New Territory” in Chinese. (Uyghurs still often prefer to refer to their homeland by the older term, East Turkestan.) Although there were stirrings of an independence movement in Xinjiang during the Republican era (1910-1949)—and communist China nominally recognized Uyghur self-governance by renaming the province “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” on the model of the Soviet autonomous Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—Uyghur language and identity have been consistently suppressed throughout the communist period.
In his recent book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (2020), political scientist Sean Roberts shows how China’s war on the Uyghurs has been shaped by the U.S. war on terror. Roberts notes that the United States was an early supporter of the PRC’s criminalization of Uyghur Muslims. Within three months of the September 11 attacks that became a watershed moment in the internal American discourse on terrorism, China released a white paper entitled “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkistan’ Organizations and their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.” With a keen eye to the geopolitical rhetoric that was in favor at the time, the PRC singled out the so-called Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a threat to China’s security. This report was later removed from the public domain, perhaps due to the unfavorable light it casts on China’s treatment of Uyghurs in an era of mass internment.
The strategy employed by the white paper—of criminalizing an entire population by associating them with the war on terror—proved extraordinarily effective. In 2012, as the United States bombed Afghanistan under the pretext of stopping Islamic militants, the U.S. and the United Nations repeated the characterization of ETIM as a terrorist organization. As journalist James Bovard notes in his skeptical account of these proceedings, “no evidence is required to add an alleged terrorist group to the UN list… each member government of the United Nations effectively takes another government’s ‘word’ that some group is actually terrorist.” In this case, both the United States and the United Nations followed China’s guidance on classifying their domestic insurgents as terrorists without further reflection. In the years that followed, the mythical linkage of Uyghur Muslims to terrorists gathered force. This narrative was endorsed by U.S. think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Defense Information. In 2017, local Chinese media began to refer to the “counter-extremism training centers” that were being constructed for the internment of the Uyghur population. As of 2019, up to one of every 10 Uyghurs in China is currently interned in one of these camps.
Since 2017, many of the organizations that were keen to smear ETIM as a terrorist group have begun to add nuance to their stance and take a more critical view of China’s conduct in Xinjiang. In an important briefing paper released in July 2020 on the “Responsibility of States under International Law to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, China,” the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales set forth the legal basis for the charge of genocide with respect to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. As defined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which entered into force in 1951, genocide is “the commission of certain prohibited acts with an intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group… as such.” Key to the legal definition of genocide is the stipulation that there must be “special intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the protected group.”
Although the charge of genocide still needs to be adjudicated in court, media reports over the course of the past three years have made a convincing case that what is taking place in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. Researchers have documented campaigns of forced sterilizations, including forced abortion, the insertion of IUDs into women against their will, and other forms of mandatory birth control. Such coercive population control is part of a campaign to suppress the Uyghur birth rate in Xinjiang. Women whose husbands have been detained have been forced to sleep with Han men. Children have been forcibly separated from parents in detention and placed in orphanages. Uyghurs have been killed in detention camps and there is widespread evidence of torture. According to one survivor, “Rape occurs in prison and in the prisons. 99 percent of women are actually experiencing it, but they wouldn’t talk about it because they feel too ashamed.” Extreme surveillance is also common, whereby Uyghurs are criminalized simply for referring to their homeland as East Turkestan rather than Xinjiang. The Uyghur language is forbidden in schools. Innocuous behaviors, such as mosque attendance, are enough to place a Uyghur under heavy surveillance and make them a candidate for internment in a camp. For all of these reasons, scholars and legal experts have taken to referring to what is taking place among the Uyghurs in China as “cultural genocide.”
The Uyghur cultural genocide poses an urgent humanitarian crisis to citizens of all states around the world. The legal obligation that states have to prevent genocide will only be enforced when their citizens insist on this obligation. Yet, in states where citizens are uninformed about this cultural genocide, governmental apathy has prevailed over incipient activism. Attempts to hold China to account under international law have therefore been of limited use. An international tribunal convened by human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice was set up in September 2020 to assess claims of genocide. In a world truly ruled by international law, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council would also be investigating those claims. Yet, China holds an influential position within that very council, and will not permit the adjudication of such claims. Although China is a signatory to the indigenous peoples’ United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008), it does not recognize any indigenous peoples other than the Han on its own territory. Due to China’s successful circumvention of its legal obligations, Uyghurs have been denied the protections that legal commitments to uphold minority rights guarantee on paper.
Meanwhile, both European and Muslim-majority states hesitate to criticize the policies and practices of the world’s second largest economic superpower. Amid this stalemate, the creation of an independent, international tribunal to assess whether what is taking place amounts to genocide is a step in the right direction. Such an assessment will help to create a framework for future grassroots mobilization and may also assist such groups in pressuring states to take action. Although many experts and well-informed commentators have called what is happening in Xinjiang a cultural genocide, there has to date been no institution that could formally assess such allegations. If the status of the Uyghur persecution is determined to rise to the level of genocide, even by this ad hoc tribunal, that would constitute the most compelling evidence to date, and it would further clarify the legal obligations of states to not only punish acts of genocide, but to proactively prevent them. Activists could reference the tribunal’s findings by way of resisting efforts by the Chinese government and its apologists to downplay this atrocity. It should not be left to states to determine how this tribunal will put its findings into effect, however. Private citizens must take action now, and develop a strategy for further action when the results of the inquiry are released.
How the International Left Can Support the Uyghur People
There is much that activists concerned with human rights violations can do to compel their states to take action. First, by lobbying our elected officials, we can pressure the states of which we are citizens to implement Magnitsky-style sanctions that target specific individuals—for example, Communist Party leaders in Xinjiang and administrators of the detention camps—implicated in the Uyghur cultural genocide. Even if the individuals targeted remain in their countries and have no international assets to freeze, targeted sanctions would put China on the defensive, forcing those responsible to try to justify their actions in the court of public opinion. Since targeted sanctions only came into effect in 2012, it is as yet too early to fully gauge their effectiveness as an instrument of international diplomacy. But as one of the few options open to states to register their opposition to human rights violations without inflicting harm on a civilian population, such targeted sanctions clearly have a place in progressive foreign policy.
In fact, Magnitsky-style sanctions have already begun to be deployed against the Uyghurs’ oppressors. The United States first issued such sanctions against China in July 2020, when three senior Chinese officials who occupy the highest echelons of power in Xinjiang were banned from entering the U.S. due to their role as perpetrators of the Uyghur cultural genocide. Unilateral action by the United States is always problematic, however, because such acts are inevitably associated—especially by Muslims and once-colonized peoples—with this country’s long involvement in imperial and neo-imperial wars, and its support for dictators across the Muslim world and beyond. Although its application of Magnitsky-style sanctions is a positive move, the United States overall has limited credibility when it comes to defending Muslim rights. Targeted sanctions would be more effective if they were applied broadly by the international community, in a collective and concerted act to bring the perpetrators of the Uyghur cultural genocide to account.
Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims, increasingly aware that the Uyghurs are being targeted specifically as Muslims, are taking action. Leftists have a duty to support them. Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, and across Central Asia and Russia are beginning to mobilize around this issue, and calling their own states to account for their inaction. Recently, Indonesia’s Irawan Ronodipuro, the foreign-policy spokesman for leading opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, criticized President Jokowi for failing to speak out on behalf of the Uyghurs. “As the country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia should have significant bargaining power to address such humanitarian tragedy,” Ronodipuro said. Muslim groups in North America are also taking a stand. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), for example, issued a press release urging Americans to demand that Trump “Formally Designate China’s Oppression of Uyghur Muslims as ‘Genocide.’” Leftists wary of the United States’ reputation as an imperialist invader should consider aligning with such Muslim movements to increase the viability and visibility of the global opposition to the Uyghur cultural genocide, rather than relying exclusively on the military and economic power of the states where they reside.
While states should be pressured to adopt targeted sanctions against Chinese officials, other means of action are available to private citizens. In fact, the Uyghur cultural genocide affects consumers in the United States and Europe to a much greater degree than many of us would like to admit. According to a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), everyday items like Nike sneakers, iPhone cameras, and the screens used in smartphones, tablets, and computers are all made by Uyghurs in forced labor camps. Multinational corporations’ complex supply-chains make it difficult to establish direct culpability, but it is widely known that the Chinese government regularly subjects Uyghurs to forced labor regimes, forcing them to work at factories across China against their will and for below-subsistence wages after their release from detention camps. These factories in turn supply goods to many European and North American companies, especially clothing manufacturers and the tech industry. At present, roughly 20 percent of all the world’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang. Even products few would associate with forced labor, such as tomato paste, have links to these detention camps. Among the major U.S.-based brands that depend on products produced in Xinjiang are Nike, Apple, Microsoft, Gap, and Calvin Klein. Ironically, Nike, like other companies on this list, has been at the forefront of rebranding itself in light of the Black Lives Matter movement with inspirational advertisements promising to “stand up for equality and work to break down barriers for athletes all over the world.”
A citizen-led boycotting of companies with supply chains reliant on Uyghur forced labor would interrupt the economic basis of the cultural genocide, but we shouldn’t stop here. Because the precise supply chain leading from Uyghur forced labor to multinational companies is often (deliberately) shrouded in mystery, activists must demand greater transparency. In 2017, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre asked a number of multinational corporations to clarify their supply chains after they had ignored requests made by ASPI when drafting their report. The list of offending companies included Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Amazon, BMW, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Nike, North Face, Puma, PVH, Samsung and UNIQLO, Apple, Esprit, and Fila. Still, this is just the beginning of the investigative work that needs to be done.
Neither the ASPI nor the Bar Human Rights Committee act on behalf of governments. Grassroots activists are vital in pushing these investigations forward and in pressuring companies to respond to the information gathered. That such pressure can make a difference is evidenced by the decision of Swedish clothing company H&M, which cut their ties with a Chinese yarn producer after the ASPI report revealed the yarn producer relied on Uyghur forced labor. Since the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, companies with an annual turnover of over £36 million ($48 million) are required to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. Similar legislation was passed in Australia in 2018. These laws also apply to non-U.K. companies that carry out business in the United Kingdom, including transnational U.S. corporations. Gaps in U.S. legislation to combat modern slavery are broadly addressed in the case of the Uyghurs by the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, which requires companies to certify that their supply chains do not rely on “the forced labor of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.” Such legally-binding compliance statements can form the basis for future activism, and drive campaigns to obtain further details about their supply chains.
Ordinary people have other means of combating the Uyghur genocide at their disposal as well. In some cases, Uyghurs who have fled Xinjiang may be able to sue companies that profit from Uyghur forced labor. Activists can make strategic use of freedom of information (FOI) regulations which require that any public organization disclose its internal documents and correspondence on request. While FOI legislation does not generally apply to the private sector, government contracts with private companies are covered by such regulations. Furthermore, judiciary systems in most European and North American states allow for private prosecution of companies suspected to be in violation of international and domestic human rights law. In order to pursue this option, someone who is directly affected by the Uyghur cultural genocide would need to bring a case against the company in question. Even if the courts ultimately decided against the claimant, the legal process itself could lead to disclosures of documents that would further the search for transparency and accountability in supply chains linking Uyghur forced labor to markets in Europe and North America. In addition, following the example of activist campaigns for divestment from apartheid South Africa, such work shows multinational corporations that it is in their best interest to end their complicity in the Uyghur cultural genocide.
The suffering of China’s Muslims may seem distant to many activists in North America and Europe. This assumption of distance is grounded in an illusion, however. Every time we turn our computer on, buy a new shirt from the Gap, or add tomato paste to our pasta sauce, we are potentially complicit in the detention, torture, and rape of Uyghurs and the slow extermination of their culture. The fact that our governments prefer to look the other way as China seeks to eradicate and coercively assimilate their largest Muslim population does not absolve us of our duty to resist. If the erasure of a minority community were taking place in our neighbourhoods and communities, what would we do? This is happening to the Uyghurs of China every day, and it is an atrocity we cannot afford to ignore.
When it comes to the oppression of minority populations, geographic distances have a way of shrinking much faster than we expect. The surveillance apparatus that China has developed for monitoring and persecuting its Uyghur population involves technologies such as facial recognition that have captured the interest of U.S. corporations as well. Ironically, this surveillance apparatus has been built with the help of U.S. behemoths such as IBM and Google. State surveillance is big business, after all. As journalist Ross Andersen has suggested, “Once Xi perfects this system in Xinjiang… [H]e could also export it beyond the country’s borders, entrenching the power of a whole generation of autocrats.” The recent $400 billion deal between China and the authoritarian Islamic Republic of Iran, which commits the two countries to close strategic and economic cooperation for the next 25 years, should be viewed in this light.
As we know from history, governments often develop the means to oppress their minority populations using tactics that were first piloted elsewhere. The adoption of Jim Crow laws normalizing segregation between Blacks and whites in the U.S. South by Nazi Germany shows that the infrastructure of persecution is as mobile as the modes of resisting it. One thing at least is certain: what happens in Xinjiang will not stay in Xinjiang.