Lest We Forget the Uyghurs

Photo Credit: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

The Chinese Communist Party since 2017 has committed genocide against its Uyghur Muslim citizens in East Turkestan (Xinjiang province). The United States should officially designate this as a genocide and spearhead an international pressure campaign against the Chinese government. With an official designation of genocide, the United States will be able to lead an international campaign against it by spurring previously silent states to join as well as enforce potentially wide-ranging sanctions against the Chinese regime domestically.

The United Nations defines genocide as:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (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; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[1]

How well does this definition fit the Chinese case? Over 1 million (and possibly up to 3 million) Uyghurs have been detained in at least 380 internment camps built throughout East Turkestan.[2] Gruesome torture is not an uncommon tactic used against those interned.[3] There have been reports of individual[4] and mass deaths inside these camps.[5] China has waged a mass forced sterilization campaign and birth control violations are punishable by internment.[6] Uyghur children have been taken away and put into state-run schools to be assimilated into Han Chinese culture.[7] Going by the definition presented by the United Nations, it is clear that China is currently committing a genocide against the Uyghurs. Its policies have led to deaths numbering at least in the hundreds, caused serious bodily and mental harm through repeated torture and indoctrination, subjected interned prisoners to brutal conditions, forcibly sterilized Uyghur women, and have sent children to assimilation schools. These internment camps are not the death camps of 1940s Nazi Germany, though it is “the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since the second world war.”[8] The brutal tactics used against those interned and the purposeful reduction in the Uyghur birth rate cannot be anything other than a campaign to at least reduce, if not eliminate, the size of the Uyghur population. Assimilation is certainly a goal of the Chinese government but targeting the population size indicates something more nefarious. The Chinese government, despite their efforts to prevent information reaching the international community, is condemned by every criterion put forth by the United Nations.

Although there is undeniable evidence that China is actively committing a genocide against the Uyghurs, what can the United States do against a great power like China? Most importantly, the United States can rally the international community against the Chinese government with an economic and political pressure campaign. In so doing, the U.S. can take up the complaints filed to the International Criminal Court[9] and United Nations Human Rights Council[10] over the genocide. This is why an official designation would be so important: if the U.S. takes a firm public stance against the actions of the Chinese government, then perhaps the hitherto quiescent states will be awakened from their complacency. These actions should include comprehensive sanctions against China itself and against international companies using forced labor or otherwise doing business that takes advantage of or aids in the genocide. The United States, having already enacted limited sanctions against Chinese companies involved in the genocide, should welcome other countries to follow its example.[11] This sanctions regime must also include the procurement of technology that is being used against the Uyghurs, something the U.S. has also started to do.[12] The Chinese government may use the hair of their internees to make wigs,[13] but the world should not sell the appliances that help in that inhuman endeavor. American leadership really does mean something in the world, and it should be wielded to defend those that cannot defend themselves.

On the domestic front, the United States can make sure American companies do not utilize Uyghur forced labor themselves or through suppliers, or sell technologies to China that aid in crimes against Uyghurs. A report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute detailed specific American and other international companies that had potential ties to Uyghur forced labor including Nike, Amazon, Apple, and dozens more – this must be stopped now and prevented going forward.[14] The Trump administration has issued an advisory to American companies urging them to be wary of doing business with Chinese suppliers that use forced labor.[15] This step can be taken further with the official designation of genocide because it is a crime under both domestic and international law. Instead of merely cautioning American companies against such practices, the government can issue a wholesale ban against it with legal ramifications if they do anyways. The American law on genocide uses the same general criteria as the United Nations and it applies to any U.S. national involved in genocide even if it is committed outside the U.S.[16] Beyond these measures, and because the perpetrator of this genocide is the Chinese government itself, then perhaps even more restrictive sanctions in the style of Iran or Russia could be imposed rather than just against those specific firms or individuals directly involved.

The official designation of genocide will be able to reinforce such an American stance against international and domestic critiques. Chinese government officials have already hinted at what retaliation may look like. For example, the Chinese Ambassador to Grenada drew parallels between the Uyghur genocide and the U.S. criminal justice system. He said that the world should not believe “rumors” about the Uyghur genocide from “anti-China reporters” just as it ignores “rumors” from “anti-U.S.” reporters about the imprisonment of African-Americans as a violation of human rights.[17] If the U.S. officially recognized that what is happening to the Uyghurs as genocide, then perhaps the Chinese government would retaliate by designating the imprisonment of African-Americans as genocide as well. This of course, on its face, would be an almost laughable comparison if the matter at hand were not so serious. Economic sanctions would also most likely follow American sanctions, as has been the case over the last few years under the Trump administration’s pursuit of trade concessions via tariffs. It is true that some Americans have suffered under this trade regime, but it would not be a completely unfathomable idea especially since the reason this time would be genocide and not a trade deficit. Other domestic pressure might include American companies protesting unfair government intervention in the economy. With the designation of genocide, however, these firms will not be able to argue that the U.S. government is simply unfairly involving itself in the economy. If companies insist on doing business with a lawless regime, then they should be prosecuted for aiding in genocide with fines up to $1 million and imprisonment. The U.S. government can offer financial assistance to businesses struggling under these added sanctions, but the goal of ending this genocide should be at the forefront of every American’s mind. Further, because this will be an international campaign, there will be strength in numbers. As the world reorients itself away from China, the United States will be able to work with its international partners to alleviate the economic problems that would arise and stay united in the face of such costs.

Because the world’s silence on the Uyghur genocide is so utterly deafening, the United States must have the courage to lead a campaign against this inhumanity and the first step in that movement would be to officially designate this as a genocide. However, do not mistake this call to action as a call to military force. Instead, a campaign of economic and political pressure should be applied. Does “never again” really mean “never again”? Or shall the international community, and the United States particularly, allow great powers to get away with it? Michael Walzer in his book Just and Unjust Wars quotes Julius Stone hypothetically pondering such a quandary:

Suppose … that a great power decided that the only way it could continue to control a satellite state was to wipe out the satellite’s entire population and recolonize the area with ‘reliable’ people. … would the rest of the members of the U.N. be compelled to stand by and watch this operation merely because [the] requisite decision of U.N. organs was blocked and the operation did not involve an ‘armed attack’ on any [member state]?[18]


[1] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Paris, December 9, 1948, United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 78, No. 1021, p. 227, https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%2078/volume-78-i-1021-english.pdf.

[2] Kelsey Munro, “Xinjiang Data Project Website Launch,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, September 25, 2020, https://www.aspi.org.au/news/xinjiang-data-project-website-launch.

[3] Emma Murphy, “Being Uighur in China: ‘They Tortured Me for Hours’,” ITV News, September 4, 2020, https://www.itv.com/news/2020-09-04/being-an-uighur-muslim-in-china-they-tortured-me-for-hours.

[4] Helen Davidson, “China Confirms Death of Uighur Man Whose Family Says Was Held in Xinjiang Camps,” The Guardian, October 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/02/china-confirms-death-of-uighur-man-whose-family-says-was-held-in-xinjiang-camps.

[5] Shohret Hoshur, and Joshua Lipes, “At Least 150 Detainees Have Died in One Xinjiang Internment Camp: Police Officer,” Translated by Mamatjan Juma, Radio Free Asia, October 29, 2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/deaths-10292019181322.html.

[6] Adrian Zenz, Report, Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang, The Jamestown Foundation, June 2020, https://jamestown.org/product/sterilizations-iuds-and-mandatory-birth-control-the-ccps-campaign-to-suppress-uyghur-birthrates-in-xinjiang/.

[7] “China: Xinjiang Children Separated from Families,” Human Rights Watch, September 15, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/09/15/china-xinjiang-children-separated-families

[8] Emma Graham-Harrison, and Juliette Garside, “’Allow no escapes’: leak exposes reality of China’s vast prison camp network,” The Guardian, November 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/24/china-cables-leak-no-escapes-reality-china-uighur-prison-camp.

[9] Lily Kuo, “Exiled Uighurs call on ICC to investigate Chinese ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang,” The Guardian, July 7, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/07/exiled-uighurs-call-on-icc-to-investigate-chinese-genocide-in-xinjiang.

[10] Asim Kashgarian, “Activists, Experts Call on UN to Recognize China’s Uighur ‘Genocide’,” voice of America News, September 17, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/activists-experts-call-un-recognize-chinas-uighur-genocide.

[11] Steve Holland, and Daphne Psaledakis, “U.S. imposes sanctions on Chinese company over abuse of Uighurs,” Reuters, July 31, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-trump/u-s-imposes-sanctions-on-chinese-company-over-abuse-of-uighurs-idUSKCN24W29O

[12] Jill Disis, and Philip Wang, “US sanctions 11 Chinese companies over human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” CNN Business, July 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/21/business/us-sanctions-china-companies-xinjiang-intl-hnk/index.html.

[13] Allison Gordon, “13-ton shipment of human hair, likely from Chinese prisoners, seized,” CNN, July 2, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/02/us/china-hair-uyghur-cpb-trnd/index.html.

[14] Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, Danielle Cave, James Leibold, Kelsey Munro, and Nathan Ruser, Report, Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education,’ forced labor and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, March 1, 2020, https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-06/Uyghurs%20for%20sale-05JUN20.pdf?gLsFgI8LmxiW__bfX8GZjgtHpA9dcK30=.

[15] Doug Palmer, “U.S. urges companies to steer clear of Chinese forced labor,” Politico, July 1, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/01/uighur-china-us-companies-346974.

[16] 18 U.S. Code § 1091.Genocide, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1091.

[17] Zhao Yongchen, “If anti-US reporters say that the US govt throws 2 million innocent blacks into prison,violating human rights. Does the West believe it? Anti-China reporters spread rumors that 1 million Uyghurs have been put into concentration camps and forced brainwashing Why do you believe it?” October 20, 2020, 6:56 P.M., https://twitter.com/DrZhaoyongchen/status/1318687587213709312.

[18] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 2nd ed., (New York: NY, Basic Books, 2015), 107.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.