LChinese and American leaders seem nostalgic for the worst aspects of the 20th century. Following recent revelations about forced labor, family separation and the suppression of Uyghur births, there should be no doubt that the policies inflicted by the Communist Party of China (CCP) on the natives of Central Asia it rules respond to. to the UN definition of genocide. While the Trump administration belatedly began imposing sanctions for these atrocities, its overall policy in China is driven by selfish, not humanitarian, motivations. It is clear that after appeasing Xi Jinping for the first time, Trump is now hoping that a new Cold War will cover his own failed response to Covid-19. How, then, should other countries respond to the Xinjiang crisis amid dangerous Trumpian provocations? It helps to understand what is going on in Xinjiang on its own, outside the context of the superpower.
What the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is doing in Xinjiang has little to do with fighting terrorism. It is the culmination of a ten-year campaign to develop the territory of northwestern Xinjiang by making its landscape and its people appear more “Chinese”. The PRC has reversed what were once relatively pluralistic diversity policies in favor of assimilationism, aimed at creating a homogeneous “Zhonghua” people: a nationalist and unitary Chinese identity envisioned in Secretary General Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”.
After a peaceful Uyghur protest in Urumchi in 2009 was quelled by police with lethal force and turned violent, the party increased its investment in the region by forcing wealthy provinces and cities in eastern China to build industrial parks and commercial zones in Xinjiang. As labor costs rose in the rest of China, the state shifted low-value cotton production and manufacturing from coastal China to Xinjiang. The aim was to provide manufacturing jobs for poor Uyghur farmers and cheap labor for Chinese manufacturers.
Along with this process of transforming Uyghurs into “Chinese” factory workers, the party has attacked the symbols of their identity. He razed the old towns of Kashgar and Hotan; he sanctioned, then outlawed, veils and headgear for women and beards on young men; he opposed public prayer, Ramadan fasting and abstention from alcohol; this discouraged Uyghur language and culture, to the point that Uyghur students in the last Uyghur language class in Xinjiang schools study Chinese classics in Uyghur translation, rather than Uyghur classics (early Uyghur texts are older than Beowulf) . The party sent police and inspection teams to search and even live in Uyghur homes to look for signs of “religious extremism,” such as mere possession of the Koran. In response, the unrest only increased.
After four relatively modest terrorist events in 2013-14, a new party secretary in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, set up high-tech surveillance and a “police network,” an intense deployment of checkpoints and police stations. police around areas deemed suspect. A new artificial intelligence system has relied on a large behavioral and biological database to assess, screen and submit some 2 million people deemed likely to have “extremist thoughts” to imprisonment or internment arbitrary. Children of detainees were sent to orphanages and boarding schools to be brought up in Chinese. Simultaneously, the CCP has started suppressing Uyghur births, while encouraging Han (China’s ethnic majority) to have more babies. Through forced IUD insertion (80% of all IUD placements in China in 2018 were in Xinjiang, which has only 1.8% of the population), sterilizations and mass detentions, the CCP has reduced population growth rates by 84% in Uyghur. population areas between 2015 and 2018. Forced transfer of children and measures to prevent births are two of the five elements of the United Nations definition of genocide.
Since 2019, the party has moved hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other peoples of Xinjiang from internment camps and villages to factories located in these industrial parks built by provinces, cities and businesses in the east of China under the development project. It also transferred tens of thousands of Uyghurs to factories in eastern China, housing them in barracks subject to military-type discipline. In doing so, the PRC made Chinese provinces, cities, and hundreds of companies that invested in Xinjiang and built and supplied internment camps, partners in the Xinjiang gulag system. Recent investigations have involved at least 83 global brands in supply chains linked to this forced labor regime.
The United States is right to investigate and block the importation of products from these supply chains, and any company sourcing from anywhere in China, not just Xinjiang, should do more due diligence. Likewise, using the recently passed Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (UHRPA) and the Global Magnitsky Law, the United States recently sanctioned Chen and other officials in Xinjiang. He put Chinese security agencies and companies on the list of entities that restrict their access to American technology. These are positive developments. The UHRPA, which Trump delayed for a year and a half, apparently in the hope that Xi would offer him a trade deal to help him get re-elected, is a precise and calibrated tool for targeting human rights atrocities. man in the PRC.
Its application and that of the Magnitsky comprehensive sanctions could not be more different from other needlessly antagonistic actions of the White House against China and the Chinese people: broad tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods; using a racist term to refer to Covid-19 rather than collaborating to defeat a global pandemic; the cancellation of Peace Corps and Fulbright exchanges; calling Chinese students and academics “spies”; threatening to block CCP members and their families (a group estimated at over 200 million, the vast majority having no role in policymaking); or the closure of the PRC Consulate in Houston, Texas, at short notice.
While there are certainly structural issues underlying the US-China rivalry, we should not overlook the extent to which the takeover and sheer madness at the top needlessly exacerbated tensions. The United States and China are better than their current leaders. Other countries, multilateral organizations, NGOs and people outside of the United States and Chinese governments must therefore think and act with agility to help stop the genocide but also avoid a cold war. Supply chain investigations, shaming and punishment of companies and officials linked to the Xinjiang Gulag and similarly targeted measures will be important. It is essential to provide support and legal refuge to Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other exiles from Xinjiang.
A number of democratic nations have already denounced the Xinjiang atrocities to the UN Human Rights Council – a body from which Trump has brutally withdrawn the United States, paving the way for the cynical perversion of the PRC to the United Nations. with regard to the objectives of the board. Although those 22 countries (including Britain, much of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) were outnumbered by a cadre of states lined up behind Beijing, the joint statement condemning the mass detentions in Xinjiang matters, as does the future of such measures.
At the same time, anything that can be done to slow the runaway train of Trumpian politics on China more generally and resolutely oppose racism and indiscriminate denigration of China is also needed. If the UK, EU and other democratic allies are caught at the start of a US-China Cold War, Huawei’s tiff will only be the beginning. Maintaining cultural and academic relations with the PRC is now more important than ever, as xenophobes in the White House seek to exclude Chinese from American soil. And while the president himself is not known to have listened to wise advice, the words of warning from friends of the pre-Trumpian United States can still influence the wider conversation and prevent the Sinophobic binge from developing with the coronavirus.
• James Millward is professor of history at Georgetown University and author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang