By Juliette Dautriat

Since late 2018, reports about the arbitrary detention of over one million Uyghurs have accused China of committing human rights abuses against parts of its population. In so-called ‘re-education camps’, akin to concentration camps, Uyghurs are subject to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination. Mounting evidence of forced abortions, sterilizations, and separations of children further suggests a systematic campaign of reducing birth rates. As global concern grows, China has shifted its discourse from denying all accusations to justifying its approach on counterterrorism. 

The Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity native to the Xinjiang Region, are one of China’s 55 officially recognized minorities. Recent years have witnessed a complete transformation of the local government into a surveillance apparatus, while the deliberate mass immigration of Han-Chinese has made the 11 million Uyghurs residing in Xinjiang a minority in their region.

Following recurring dynamics of violence and repression, China has justified its most recent measures as tools to counter religious extremism and ethnic separatism. The 9/11 attacks in the US and war on terror policies shifted Chinese discourse towards the othering of Uyghurs, creating a link between their religious identity and terrorism. 

This discourse, however, obscures China’s deeper motivations. Since 2014, the government has adopted a policy of Sinicization, aiming to absorb ethnic and religious minorities into the Han-Chinese identity to homogenize society and ensure loyalty. Xinjiang also represents an area of economic interest due to its vast natural resources and its geostrategic importance. The Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project connecting 70 countries across Eurasia and Africa, passes through Xinjiang. Stability and economic development in the region are therefore crucial steps in China’s longer-term vision.

The justification of counterterrorism is effectively used by China to legitimize the incarceration, torture, and brainwashing of some of its citizens. The selective nature of these practices counters the very concept of a citizen: inclusive towards all persons in a state and exclusive towards all persons from some other state or without a state. While officially the Uyghurs are a minority within Chinese borders, many of them perceive themselves as a stateless nation living under foreign occupation. And precisely the fact that a state suppresses some of its citizens to such an extent that they self-identify as stateless raises many questions. Among the most pressing is the question of who else can protect the Uyghurs and how. 

Apart from critical statements, not much has been done in the international arena. In July 2019, a group of 22 predominantly Western countries addressed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) condemning China’s suppression of the Uyghurs and calling for the closure of detention camps. Several days later, 37 countries from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America countered this letter, praising China’s commitment to human rights. For many states relying on China’s no-strings-attached trade and investment approach, condemning its policies and risking retribution is simply too expensive. In October 2019, another joint statement drafted by Britain urged China to comply with national laws and international obligations and secured 23 signatures. A final statement, led by Germany in October 2020, received 39 signatures and called for immediate access to the Xinjiang region. Again, both were followed by counter statements defending China. 

The US is among the only actors that have taken steps beyond condemnations. Throughout 2020, it passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act enabling financial sanctions and visa bans, blacklisted 48 Chinese companies from purchasing and importing US products and technology, and finally passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, banning imports from Xinjiang.

Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the World Uyghur Congress addressed a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling for a more forceful condemnation of China and the creation of a fact-finding mission. In September 2020, several activist groups and genocide experts urged the HRC to once again launch an investigation into what, according to them, amounts to genocide. 

With an increasing number of independent investigations into the camps emerging, more states have condemned China through diplomatic platforms. China, in turn, refutes these condemnations as attacks on its sovereignty. The reality on the ground has not changed and with China exercising economic and soft power, the international community needs to adopt other approaches if it wants to protect the Uyghurs. 

While the US has started to use sanctions against China in connection with its policies in Xinjiang, more extensive sanctions could pressure China where it is most susceptible, its economic bottom line. In July 2020, the UK threatened to impose sanctions. Secondly, the international community needs to reinforce its efforts in multilateral fora, such as the UN General Assembly – to overcome China’s veto power in the UN Security Council. Another critical achievement would be launching a fact-finding mission through the HRC many organizations and experts have long called for. This path, however, will be difficult as China has expanded its influence over the HRC to build support for its repressive policies. Finally, the international community can act in cooperation with the private sector through supply chain controls. Forced labor in Xinjiang is currently used to supply a large share of the world’s cotton.

By trying to transform the Uyghurs from merely official citizens to what it considers morally upstanding citizens, China not only breached many international norms but also its own constitution, guaranteeing equality and non-discrimination to all of its minority nationalities. Protecting the Uyghurs will be a complex endeavor for the global community given China’s growing international influence. A bipartisan resolution introduced in the US Senate on October 27, 2020, appeared as a beacon of hope. If passed, the resolution would formally label Chinese policy in Xinjiang as genocide, recognizing China’s policy in Xinjiang for what it is and paving the way for holding China accountable. Only after assessing the full spectrum of persecution and human rights violations, will the international community be able to garner the necessary willingness, public support, and appropriate tools to protect the Uyghurs.

By Juliette Dautriat

Illustration: Paulina Cederskär

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