The genocide in Xinjiang cannot be overlooked

On 22nd March 2021, Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, announced that the United Kingdom (UK), working with international partners, was imposing targeted sanctions in response to widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Coordinated announcements by the UK, Canada, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) the same day included asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities considered to be involved in human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minority groups.

On 19th April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report summarising and assessing recent evidence of abuse in Xinjiang against criteria laid down in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and on this basis, categorised this abuse as Crimes against Humanity. Concerning the question of whether genocide was taking place, HRW’s China Director stated that HRW ‘had not documented the existence of the necessary genocidal intent at this time’, but emphasised that nothing in the report precluded such a finding, were such evidence to emerge.

On 22nd April, the UK Parliament unanimously passed a resolution stating that in its view, Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang were suffering Crimes against Humanity and genocide. In the debate, evidence was presented indicating that the Chinese authorities had carried out all of the five acts deemed individually to constitute genocide under Article II of the United Nations Genocide Convention; namely killing members of a group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting on them conditions likely to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcibly transferring their children to another group. 

Challenged to accept the categorisation as genocide and fulfil the UK’s international responsibilities accordingly, Britain’s Minister for Asia, while explicitly supportive of the debate, held to the government line that Crimes against Humanity and genocide can only be determined by competent national courts and international courts including the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

By passing this motion, the UK Parliament joined the Belgian, Dutch and Canadian parliaments in deeming the Chinese Communist Party-state guilty of genocide; the previous and present US administrations have taken the same view. 

Commenting on the 22nd April debate Benedict Rogers, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), commented that ‘the Uyghurs are facing genocide’, while other religious minorities in China ‘certainly…are facing crimes against humanity and very grave human rights violations’. Fleur Anderson, a Member of Parliament who spoke in the debate, said that ‘language is a powerful tool, and we need to start calling the (Xinjiang) situation what it is: a genocide’.

One of the most profound Confucian principles, known as the ‘Rectification of Names’ (正名 / zhèng míng), describes the crucial importance of accurate terms of reference. In James Legge’s renowned translation of the Analects of Confucius, this passage is rendered:

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

Evidently, whether or not to use the intensely emotive ‘name’ of ‘genocide’ in the context of Xinjiang has become a cause célèbre in which Confucius’s moral principle might well be worth considering.

On the strength of evidence marshalled in the UK parliamentary debate in regard to the United Nations (UN) criteria, there is an apparently robust case for naming the persecution of Xinjiang Muslims as genocide carried out by degrees using a range of lethal, violent and coercive means. The HRW China Director’s comments above refer to insufficient evidence of genocidal intent. It is manifestly difficult to collect pre-emptive evidence of such intention in ‘real world’ contexts, since regimes engaged in genocide are likely to keep such aims and planning secret. The CCP will not allow external observers to collect evidence freely in Xinjiang and will veto any UN attempts at holding an international court hearing. It follows that international supporters of universal human values and rights, in default of an impossible ‘best’ scenario, must have recourse to other approaches. 

This burden of proof begs a compelling question – whether it is good enough for free and open countries to reserve judgement until sufficient reliable data leaks out, as eventually it probably would – to cross a nominal boundary between, say, ‘many extra-judicial killings’ and ‘enough killings to resemble other genocides’. The UK Government’s adherence to legal formality may perhaps not provide a sufficiently credible policy response in this situation, not least since it has already taken the high-profile step of imposing sanctions for the same abuses, and is thus already committed to taking tangible action. 

There is in fact every reason, in close cooperation with international partners, to increase the scope of sanctions and other measures to disrupt and deter the CCP’s human rights abuses, not only in Xinjiang but also in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In particular, as several speakers in the 22nd April debate and other commentators have noted, the unexplained omission from the list of officials sanctioned by the UK of Chen Quanguo, now CCP Committee Secretary in Xinjiang and formerly holder of the same function in Tibet, should be rectified, given his leading role in human rights abuses in both regions.

In any case, now that a significant number of free and open nations have de facto ‘named’ the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang as genocidal – however symbolic and limited the immediate practical effects of this may be per se – the issue will have risen to the top of the CCP aggressive/defensive agendas. Since both are major external challenges to the CCP’s self-realisation as a sovereign power, ‘interference in China’s internal affairs’ in the form of accusations of genocide will likely be regarded by the party leadership as on a close par with Western support for Taiwanese independence. 

It is not clear how far free and open nations, with their very different sense of democracy-driven political risk, grasp the likely intensity of CCP existential angst and fury in response to these developments. Concurrent Western economic and political sanctions linked to human rights abuses and plans for large-scale demonstrations of Western military strength in what Beijing claims as sovereign maritime space may well result in existential pressures on the PRC leadership.

These could well lead to increased division and disquiet within the party about the impact of Xi’s zero-sum authoritarian rule. In the context of imminent nationalistic and triumphalistic celebration of the CCP’s centenary in July, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s plans to consolidate his personal control of the party and state, these pressures are likely to prove even greater – and potentially more dangerous. 2020-2021 is turning out very different from a smooth glide-path of a ‘win-win’, peace-loving PRC towards the throne of world supremacy. 

Instead, Xi has presided over increasingly fraught international interactions on a broad front- in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Covid-19, the Indian border, the South China Sea, as well as setbacks in core Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agendas (including proliferating of Huawei and other technological instruments of virtual hegemony). The result is a global environment increasingly filled with alarm, disapproval and mistrust about the PRC and its leader, in which Cold War-like atmospherics are distinctly palpable. 

While it seems that Xi Jinping remains the PRC’s unchallenged paramount leader, the projection of his authority seems to have shifted from a benign, visionary pioneer on the road to ‘shared global destiny’ to a dictator running an expansionist imperium by secret police and military fiat. However much the UK, EU and US – and others of their allies and friends – may want to achieve instrumental relations with the PRC that combine positive economic ties with more robust political engagement, hard questions should now be asked about whether Xi’s CCP, with its strident single narrative of competition through ‘unrestricted warfare’, is at all inclined to play along with any such formula. 

It may be time to recalibrate existing – or, in the UK’s case, emerging – China tactics and strategies accordingly, especially the lamentable notion that playing down the significance of human rights abuses could be justified, if it assured better cooperation on climate change. If consistent and coordinated national policies are not forged and if naïveté and inertia concerning CCP intentions prevalent in some Western political circles persist, the danger of miscalculating how to manage the CCP’s increasingly zero-sum ‘systemic competition’, in particular over Taiwan, could be grave indeed.

Matthew Henderson is a James Cook Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He studied China at the universities of Cambridge, Peking and Oxford, before serving as a diplomat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for nearly 30 years.

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1 thought on “The genocide in Xinjiang cannot be overlooked”

  1. Matthew Henderson’s focus on the definition of ‘genocide’ is apt and useful in moving on the debate over abuses in Xinjiang and Beijing’s long-term intent. The Council for Geostrategy might wish to examine two issues further. The first is that the five point United Nations legal definition of genocide does not match the general public perception that lies in mass killings in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and so on. The Xinjiang camps are horrific. But, as of now, appear more closely to resemble gulags or concentration camps rather than extermination camps. This disconnect between the political argument and public perceptions hamper debate. The second is Britain’s own track record, particularly in supporting the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s against Vietnam whose invasion had ended the killings. Britain and the United States downplayed the Khmer Rouge genocide and emphasised Vietnam’s one-party state communism for strategic reasons. Are they now doing the same with China over Xinjiang, deploying a human rights issue against a Marxist-Leninist regime, while ignoring similar abuses among their allies? If so, is this the best way to help end suffering and discrimination in Xinjiang?

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