China’s Genocide Against the Uyghurs

Genocide is a slow process. It is never made up of a single act of ethnic persecution or murder.
March 16, 2021
Ethnic Uyghur women wait outside a local government office on June 29, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Chinese government is engaged in a slow and deliberate genocide of the Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang province. I’m not alone in this view, nor am I new to it.

But now we have empirical documentation. Last week, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a D.C.-based foreign policy think tank, in cooperation with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, issued the first independent expert report applying the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to China’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs.

Thirty-three experts were involved in drafting the Newlines Institute report, mostly international lawyers, academics, diplomats and human rights advocates. The goal was to make a legal determination: Are China’s actions in Xinjiang acts of genocide under the U.N. convention?

There are many breaches of international law that could be considered in a situation like this, but the answer in the report is unambiguous. “[T]he People’s Republic of China bears State responsibility for committing genocide against the Uyghurs,” we wrote in the introduction.

I came to the project with the perspective not of a lawyer but of a historian. As a historian, I know how important data can be to understanding genocide. Data is impartial. We use it after events to construct history. It can also be used in real-time in our digital age. When a group is being targeted because of its ethnicity or religious beliefs, discussion of that persecution quickly becomes politicized. We end up in a war of words about the situation. The Chinese government refers to their policy as “re-education” for Uyghurs, as if incarcerating them for indoctrination is a normal thing to do. They deny any harm.

The data is much harder to dispute. And the Chinese have been fanatical about collecting information, using cell phone tracking, online surveillance tools, local informants and biometric data, including face scans and DNA samples. Having more than two Uyghur children is a state violation; so is extended travel abroad and going to a mosque. Every move is monitored and evaluated.

As in Hitler’s Germany and in Stalin’s USSR, the statistics are a horrific, clear, dispassionate enumeration of destruction. The Uyghurs’ civilization has been in Xinjiang for thousands of years. It’s a large group, some 12 million people in China. Thanks to the data, we know that about 1 million of them — approaching 10 percent of the population — have been incarcerated, an extraordinary number.

We have this information because of data leaks.

Thanks to the leaks, we can see how the Chinese government monitors its citizens. Looking at these tables and charts, now translated into English, we can see how neighbors are ensnared to spy on their neighbors for bad behavior, such as traveling abroad, which can cost them their freedom upon return. We see forced sterilization. And we see mass forced labor, with 21 million square feet of factories operating inside the “re-education” camps.

The Genocide Convention contains two parts: the prevention and the punishment of genocide. As part of our work, we analyzed that data and compared it to the standards in the convention. Data analysis typically permits us to punish genocide, looking back on the crimes of the past.  For example, after the Holocaust, the Einsatzgruppen Trials of 1948 used Nazi data about the killing of Jews during the Holocaust (signed by the defendants at the time) as evidence; all twenty-four defendants were convicted. This report urges us to use similar state-generated data to prevent impunity. The genocide convention was created for this very purpose.

Genocide is a slow process. It is never made up of a single act of ethnic persecution or murder. It’s a series of incidents that take place over a long period of time: the surveillance, the incarceration, the sterilizations. The convention also requires a determination of intent to destroy in whole or in part an entire racial or ethnic group. This report helps us do that. It says, first, yes, there is a specific religious and ethnic group that is singled out. Then it asks: Are the perpetrators killing members of the group? Are they forcibly removing children? Are they lowering birth count? What is the evidence, and does it meet the criteria in Genocide Convention?

Genocide is a slow process. It is never made up of a single act of ethnic persecution or murder.

Thanks to the data — the Chinese government’s own data — we can see that they are indeed committing genocide as defined by the convention. When a group of people are defined in a state-authored paper as “backward,” it is already well on the path to dehumanization, a necessary precondition to genocide.

We now have a snapshot of what has been happening to the Uyghurs, even though it’s behind closed doors: atwenty-first-century genocide in slow motion. Genocide does not always involve mass murder. The egregious evisceration by birthrate reduction, imprisonment and re-education, as well cultural and religious obliteration, achieves much of the same thing. They are acts that will destroy the Uyghurs over time. That is genocide. By definition.

We have the data. We’re watching it happen. What will we do to stop it?

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

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