A new report tests the evidence of China’s persecution of the Uyghur people against the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.
Article II of the Genocide Convention 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.”
The report finds the Chinese state responsible for violating all five.
The Chinese state is not, so far as we can tell, attempting systematic physical murder of the entire population of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim-majority indigenous groups that would be comparable to the Nazis’ death camps. However, the report sets out the state’s campaigns of mass incarceration in camps and prisons (where abuse, torture, death and suicide are at least frequent); imprisonment of cultural, intellectual and religious leaders; cultural, political and linguistic repression and re-education; forced contraception and sterilisation; family separation; and the taking of indigenous children into “orphanages” for culturally Han upbringing.
Taken together, the report argues that these constitute an intentional project to destroy the Uyghurs as a group. A mixture of suppression of births, suppression and replacement of culture and language, damaging and killing individuals, and dispersing families and communities, destroys their ability to renew themselves as an ethnic group. (To which we as socialists should add — as a national group, deserving of the right to self-determination).
It is right to approach this and similar reports with a sceptical eye. The report comes from the Newlines Institute, a US-based think-tank which describes its purpose as “enhancing US security and global stability”. However, it took contributions from a (politically broad) range of researchers, Uyghur exiles, and human rights jurists and campaigners. More importantly, it points to an enormous evidence base of both leaked and public state documents and statistics; large numbers of eye-witness testimonies; and open-source information like public satellite imagery. Just because it serves current US foreign policy interests, doesn’t mean it’s not true.
The US, Canadian and Dutch governments have all recently officially recognised that this is a genocide, and debate continues at Westminster over proposals (opposed by Johnson’s government) to create a path for the British judiciary to rule on allegations of genocide and potentially to block or cancel trade deals on this basis.
Understandably, many Uyghur activists and allies have looked to states around the world for help in this desperate situation. Consequently, many have focussed much energy into campaigning for official recognition that this is an ongoing genocide, hoping this will activate states’ Genocide Convention obligation to take action to “prevent and punish” genocide.
In the Uyghur Solidarity Campaign UK, we have warned that these are not forces in which we can place trust or reliance. The British, American and similar states will only act on the world stage insofar as it serves their material interests in their superpower rivalry with China. If they intervene, they could even do so in such a way as to make the situation worse, not better. The clashes of a new Cold War will benefit neither the people of East Turkestan, nor the working classes and oppressed people of either China or its Western rivals.
Formal rulings or recognitions that the situation constitutes genocide — whether on a national or international level — will not flip a switch putting otherwise rapacious imperialists onto a humanitarian footing. The “international community” is at base a system for various ruling classes around the world to negotiate and arrange their own interests. Despite the rhetoric, humanitarianism is incidental at best.
More than bourgeois legal processes or action motivated by the rival interests of big powers, what we need is grassroots international solidarity.
We have already seen outcries of grassroots sympathy for the Uyghurs and other indigenous people of East Turkestan in reaction to reports of the atrocities. A particular example has been the strength and breadth of feeling among Jewish people, responding to the parallels many of us perceive with our own history — even if there are significant differences too.
It is right and important for us to recognise this situation as an ongoing genocide. We must acknowledge the overwhelming evidence, not simply declare the opposite of whatever the big powers say on any given day. And we must work to rouse sympathy in the left and labour movements, and from that to rouse meaningful solidarity action, by telling the truth. To paraphrase Trotsky, we must call on our movements to face reality squarely, and call things by their right names.
• Ben Tausz is an activist with the Uyghur Solidarity Campaign, writing here in a personal capacity