Early last December, a group of nine British lawyers and human-rights specialists gathered in a wood-paneled room under the glass dome of Church House, near Westminster Abbey in downtown London. They were there to do what the United Nations and its member states have so far failed to accomplish: conduct a thorough review of five years of evidence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its minority Muslim Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang, a sprawling semi-autonomous territory in northwest China. On December 9, after hearing days’ worth of live testimony and poring over thousands of pages of expert reports, as well as published regulations of the Chinese government and other leaked documents, the independent Uyghur Tribunal pronounced its verdict. It found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of its Uyghur population.
Such an important determination should not have taken this long, nor should the judgment have fallen to a people’s court. Since 2017 the world has known—through media reports, academic studies, and witness testimony—that the Chinese government has summarily interned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. Detainees are routinely denied due process: no charges are brought, no criminal trials held, no sentences meted out. Initially, the Chinese government denied the camps’ existence. It only began acknowledging them in 2019, euphemistically referring to them as “vocational education and training centers.”
To some extent, Chinese media has managed to conceal the horrors that take place inside the internment camps. That leaves it to reports authored by Westerners, like anthropologist and Uyghur expert Darren Byler’s In the Camps, to fill in the gaps. No matter the site, survivor after survivor recounts the same abuse and degradation. Authorities often cram up to fifty Uyghurs into tiny cells measuring only 250 square feet; their occupants are forced to relieve themselves publicly in a single bucket, which is cleaned just once a week. Cellmates are also forbidden from speaking to each other. Instead, they’re encouraged to report on those who fail to speak Mandarin, attempt to practice their Muslim religion, or “criticize themselves” insufficiently.
Beatings and other forms of torture are common. According to Byler, constant bright lights prevent some Uyghurs from sleeping, while guards force others to “perform” for their food, “like contestants in a demented reality show.” Accounts of rape, sexual violence, and forced sterilization have emerged, and forced labor is systemic. Since there are no legal proceedings governing their stay in the camps, detainees often spend months, even years there, all without any idea of when (or if) they will ever be released.
Even after they leave the camps, Uyghurs remain unfree. The police hold on to their biometric data, and continue collecting more information through China’s ubiquitous facial-recognition cameras and tracking programs installed on cell phones. Sophisticated algorithms known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) constantly parse all of this data, flagging anyone suspected of “untrustworthy” behavior for further investigation and possible arrest. This can include such innocuous actions as following certain accounts on social media, using a virtual private network to access the internet, or receiving phone calls from abroad. The end result is that the algorithm, a form of artificial intelligence, increasingly learns to target Uyghurs simply for being Uyghur.
An even more common justification for detaining Uyghurs is “excess births,” which the Chinese government considers a form of “extremism.” In 2017, Xinjiang abolished a legal exception that had permitted Uyghur families to have additional children compared to their Han counterparts. In 2017 and 2018, sterilization procedures surged in Xinjiang, even as these procedures plummeted throughout the rest of China. (Beijing suspended its infamous one-child policy in 2015.) Removal of a surgically-placed IUD requires state approval; if a Uyghur woman protests, she is threatened with detention.
Such measures have been grimly effective. In 2019, birth rates dropped by 48.7 percent in Xinjiang Province as a whole compared to 2017. In areas of the province that are predominantly Uyghur, like Hotan, birth rates dropped by more than 70 percent. In majority-Han areas in Xinjiang, though, birth rates either remained the same or increased slightly. Ironically, this comes as China finds itself in the midst of a demographic crisis, with the Chinese government now pressuring Han women to have more babies.
The Chinese government has defended these policies as necessary for ridding Xinjiang of Muslim extremism. Yet it has provided scant evidence of what it claims is a widespread problem. The 2009 riots in Xinjiang that left 137 Han Chinese and 46 Uyghurs dead was not caused, as China claims, by a rise in Islamic extremism among Uyghurs. It was instead the predictable result of the Uyghurs’ frustration at being treated as second-class-citizens, occasioned by the massive influx of Han Chinese to the province the previous decade. The same goes for the two suicide attacks and an incident of mass violence at the Kunming train station that killed thirty-one people in 2013 and 2014. Even if we accept the Chinese government’s assertion that the attacks were carried out by Uyghur independence movements, that doesn’t justify mass internment camps or genocidal policies. As it did after the 2009 riots, China effectively dealt with the 2013 and 2014 killings through its criminal-justice system, with the leading perpetrators sentenced either to life in prison or given the death penalty.
Much of the blame for China’s extralegal tactics against the Uyghurs can be assigned to President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013. In a series of secret speeches given to senior-level Chinese Communist Party members in 2014 and recently leaked to the Uyghur Tribunal, Xi set the tone for the extraordinary measures we see today. “The key is to eliminate them in the bud,” he said. “Act first to restrain the enemies, crack down early, crack down on the small ones, crack down on the emerging ones. Destroy them with lightning speed and an iron-fist approach.”
Such rhetoric could have dire consequences. As genocide expert and Global Justice Center president Akila Radhakrishnan reminded an audience at a recent conference, mass murder does not happen overnight. Societies must be primed to tolerate genocide. In Rwanda, for example, ten months of hateful radio broadcasts preceded the Tutsi genocide. And during the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were sent to their deaths after eight years of increasingly discriminatory laws. “If this type of discrimination is tolerated,” Radhakrishnan added, “these can be the building blocks that allows massive outbursts of violence to happen.”
The same is true in Xinjiang today, where these building blocks of mass murder have been automated. The particular cruelty of surveillance technology is that it is purposely built to dehumanize, severing what little relationship might exist between captor and captive, blocking any possibility of compassion. The algorithm “confirms” that those whose rights are denied must deserve it. And surely the computer cannot be wrong.
This is why it is imperative that the U.N. and its member states act now. It’s no hyperbole to say that the Uyghur ethnicity is on the brink of annihilation. Yet thus far, the U.N. has done little to condemn the Chinese government’s actions. This is in part because the Chinese government has denied the U.N. high commissioner of human rights the ability to conduct an independent fact-finding mission in Xinjiang. But the U.N. has worked around such situations in the past, most notably when it issued findings of crimes against humanity in North Korea in 2013. The U.N. high commissioner, through the Human Rights Council, could appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate and report on the situation in Xinjiang. The high commissioner has been promising such a report since last September. But as of today, it remains unpublished.
The United States, which has done more than most countries, can also do better. Last December, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which blocks goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang from entering U.S. markets. But this doesn’t address the issue of the torture and degradation of Uyghurs in the concentration camps. Nor will it stop the forced sterilization of Uyghur women and the rapid decline in Uyghur births, the key mechanism of the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. Despite President Biden reiterating that China is committing genocide, the United States has not admitted a single Uyghur refugee in more than a year.
One thing the United States can do immediately is to designate Uyghurs and other Chinese Turkic Muslims as Priority 2 (“P-2 status”) refugees. This would enable them to bypass the long, drawn-out process of proving individual persecution before applying for resettlement in the United States. It would also allow them to apply for asylum from anywhere in the world. There are bills before both houses of Congress that would provide this P-2 status, but both have been stalled since their introduction last spring. President Biden, who could also designate P-2 status for Uyghurs under the Refugee Act of 1980—much like he did for Afghan refugees last August—seems unlikely to do so.
Almost monthly, social media explodes with stories of Uyghur refugees who managed to escape China, but are now stuck in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. They remain there in a kind of legal limbo, at the mercy of countries whom the Chinese government regularly pressures for repatriation. Their safety should not depend on advocates picking up their cases through Twitter. So why won’t the international community act?
The answer is simple: China is immensely powerful, and many countries depend on its cooperation for trade or to achieve other priorities like fighting climate change. Take recent developments surrounding the Beijing Olympics. In January, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) made another request for the U.N. to issue its report on the human-rights violations in Xinjiang before the beginning of the games. Instead, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that he would attend the opening ceremonies of the games and a welcome banquet hosted by Xi Jinping. China has become a powerful force on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and Guterres is keen to maintain a close relationship with its president.
A similar reluctance to confront China exists in the Muslim world. Aside from Turkey, not a single Muslim nation has publicly criticized the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Some, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, have even defended it. These countries’ ties to China are not just economic but also political. Like China, these countries’ governments are authoritarian, actively committing human-rights violations of their own. In that sense, a win for China is a win for them, even if it comes at the expense of other Muslims.
Because China is so powerful, the global community’s failure to hold it to account for the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs could have serious repercussions. Thus far, China has waved away criticisms with renewed assertions of absolute state sovereignty within its own borders. But that idea was rejected with the creation of the United Nations, when member states, including China, agreed to relinquish some of that sovereignty in favor of international human rights. China must be confronted for its betrayal of that principle. Its ongoing impunity threatens not just the Uyghurs, but also anyone in the world who believes in human rights.