Shouting out at China for the alleged genocide of the Uyghurs won’t help – instead, the West must find a way to work with them
July 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. This occasion reminds us that beneath the glitzy modernity of Chinese cities, ultramodern infrastructure, the army of affluent foreign tourists and the legion of billionaires, there is a country ruled in the name of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The old assumption that it would go the same way as the Soviet Union has been debunked by events.
China is now an economic superpower, in some ways bigger than the United States. It is technologically sophisticated and is approaching parity with the United States in some key core technologies. Chinese “state capitalism” has so far proven to be very effective in economic development, raising living standards and accelerating poverty reduction. Unlike the former Soviet Union, the Chinese state and the Communist Party are formidably competent.
President Trump has effectively declared economic war on China through tariffs and the exclusion of Chinese tech companies. President Biden continued where he left off, but added a political and moral dimension: attempting to create an alliance of democracies against President Xi’s autocratic regime, to “expose” human rights violations in China.
The centerpiece of the Western human rights offensive has been the human rights violations in Xinjiang, among the Muslim Uyghur population. The specific genocide allegation was echoed by the US administration and endorsed by its allies, resulting in sanctions against Chinese officials and counter-sanctions against Westerners, including the British, politicians and academics.
There is no doubt that serious human rights violations have taken place in Xinjiang, as in the rest of China. But the genocide allegations are particularly gruesome because they put the behavior of the Chinese regime on the same moral plane as the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and Pol Pot’s murderous Killing Fields.
There is understandable outrage at such activity, and those who have advocated closer engagement with China find themselves in the dock as peacemakers or apologists for the modern equivalent of the Nazis. By creating an atmosphere of hostility towards China and helping to mobilize a united front against the Chinese “threat”, the use of genocide allegations has been a very effective amplifier of anger against “the Chinese virus”.
A certain skepticism is in order. The alleged “genocide” carried out does not involve evidence of mass killings, let alone wholesale “ethnic cleansing” of minorities (as can plausibly be argued in other places like Myanmar with Muslims. Rohingya). A much broader legal construct is used to justify the charge of genocide. For those of us who are not lawyers, it sounds a bit like trying to craft a crime that is suitable for the accused. Suffice it to say that the US State Department attorneys advising the Trump administration when it launched the charges are known to have had serious doubts about the court case.
It is also striking that while Western governments have followed the American example in repeating the accusations, non-Western governments have not. One would have thought that democratically elected governments in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan could have joined in quickly. But they declined and, in some cases, highlighted what they see as the worst abuses in the countries currently aligned. West.
There is also a fundamental question of motivation. The accusations are that China is trying to erase the identity of the ethnic groups. There has long been a debate in China about the extent to which to promote a sense of separate and multicultural identity among its minorities – Mongols and Tibetans as well as Uyghurs – and to what extent to try to assimilate them through, for example , language and mixed marriages. Chinese assimilation, as in Tibet, was repressive. But China maintains that its current actions in Xinjiang are motivated by something quite different: its “war on terror.”
China had its own experience of terrorist bombings a decade ago and there is a large group of Uyghurs – several thousand by most estimates – who have been active in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. , through the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, classified by the United States as a terrorist group from September 2002 to October 2020. Just as the West has responded to such groups with some repression – Guantanamo, renditions, torture, as well as intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Chinese have had their own harsh crackdown on what they see as ” terrorism ”. Bad guy: yes. Counterproductive: probably. Genocide: hardly.
We are also witnessing the emergence of a serious questioning of the factual evidence on which accusations of genocide are based. I have never been to Xinjiang, and like most people commenting on the subject, I have only seen the conflicting claims. The stories of refugees are compelling and often heartbreaking, as are, unfortunately, the stories of refugees from many regimes and conflict zones.
But much of the “genocide” evidence base consists of a handful of plausible academic researchers’ reports. These have been contradicted by other plausible academic researchers. Worryingly, skeptics refused to identify themselves for fear of intimidation (such as threats of loss of tenure in universities). They published their views in a detailed document online. I do not know the authors and cannot vouch for them, but readers can draw their own conclusions about their motives and credibility.
The main bone of contention is the claim that “a million” or “millions” of Uyghurs are being held indefinitely in what amounts to concentration camps (or “vocational training centers” in the official version). The figures are hotly contested. More importantly, the main source cited by Western accusers actually refers to an average stay in camps / centers of around four to twenty days. These short periods of detention (apart from what the Chinese consider to be the “hard core”) are somewhat short of indefinite duration.
Another central element of the charge of “genocide” is the evidence of the use of pressure on women to accept sterilization, as part of China’s birth control policy. Such abuses have undoubtedly taken place but are not specific to Uyghurs; Indeed, the Uyghurs were until very recently exempted from the national program, which is why the population growth of the region has been particularly rapid. In recent years, the national policy has been extended to the province and birth rates have fallen sharply as a result. Pro-life groups and others have long pointed out that one of the ugliest features of the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, was the pressure on women to agree to abortion. or sterilization. But it was a problem all over China and was dropped in any case (the policy is now three children).
The same remark can be made about “forced labor”: an accusation used to dissuade British companies from investing or doing business with Xinjiang. There are around 250 million migrant workers in China who move in large numbers around the country and do not have the rights of sedentary urban workers. There are abusive labor practices all over China (although this may improve with tightening labor markets). The government has undoubtedly facilitated large-scale movements across the country to promote economic growth. But the evidence that this is a phenomenon specific to Xinjiang seems rather thin.
China’s considerable achievements certainly do not include upholding human rights standards considered acceptable in the West. A ranking compiled by the NGO Freedom House puts China at the back of the pack (but not as bad as Saudi Arabia with whom we happily trade and to whom we sell weapons in large quantities).
But there are compelling reasons nonetheless to engage with China to address common issues such as the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, pandemic control and vaccination, and the rules of the trading system. It is unlikely that this process will be helpful in accusing the Chinese of crimes comparable to those of the Nazis, on the basis of questionable evidence. Instead, we have to work with the reality that the Chinese Communist Party might still be 100 years older: yelling at it probably won’t get us very far.