Genocide committed by the Chinese government in the Chinese province of Xinjiang is a commonplace narrative that gained speed over the past year or so, and it deserves closer examination. Genocide is the highest crime in the international crimes category, which itself is the highest category of crimes. Genocide accusations should never be made lightly, yet the word genocide creeps in everywhere in relation to Xinjiang – in the mainstream media, in formal accusations at the highest level by various governments, in academic and Twitter debates, and in the American government propaganda machine.
On its border with Afghanistan, China faces Uighur jihadists who are affiliated with Al Qaeda. Hundreds of Uighur jihadists fight with ISIS in Syria and across the region. Uighur jihadists are a part of the global jihad movement. It’s the same people that the US government fought after 9/11. Yet, the US government is more than happy to stoke the radicalization forces in Xinjiang, so that the Chinese government cracks down on the population even more, and the US government can point the finger to a cruel, authoritarian regime committing genocide.
To answer the question whether China is committing genocide, it has to be acknowledged that many things are going on in Xinjiang: counter-terrorism against Uighur jihadists, fighting a separatist movement and sentiments, resettlement and deportations, fear-based and fear-inducing crackdown on the local population, detention in camps, political repression, cultural and religious pressure, unjust persecution of innocent people, and many other things that are in-between all that, and perhaps a lot more that we in the West might not be aware of.
What’s missing from the analysis of the genocide narrative is the element of the intent to destroy the group – the decisive element that makes genocide very difficult to prove, uniformly, time after time. You might remember that the genocide case at the International Court of Justice against Serbia showed that there was genocide committed in Srebrenica, and the state was guilty of not preventing and addressing it, and for not punishing the criminals. It could not be proven that the state itself committed genocide, even in that clear-cut example where it was proven that genocide took place. That’s as close as we ever got to seeing what a genocide case would look like in the court room, and the standard indeed is very high. This is not knit-picking or just semantics – this is the center of gravity in the international crime of genocide.
Hitler’s genocide against the Jews had the intent to end them as a group – full extermination, so that they no longer exist. That’s a clear-cut case of genocide in the legal sense, not just anecdotally to denote something very horrible. Turkey’s genocide against the Armenians during the First World War has also been recognized by the American government. Saddam gassing the Kurds is similar – he wanted to destroy and get rid of the Kurds as a group, so that they didn’t exist in Iraq.
What’s happening in Xinjiang can be compared to the Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor. It was not genocide directed to exterminate the Japanese population in the US because the US government hated Japanese people and wanted to end them as a group. Instead, it was over the top, heavy-handed suppression, repression and revenge on people from the same group as the military enemy. It was a way to make sure that people from the enemy ethnic group won’t pose a threat, as the US was fighting Japan externally. I think it’s safe to say that the Chinese regime does not intend to destroy the Uighurs as a group – it’s carrying out a number of systematic human rights violations against the population in order to suppress them, scatter them and diffuse the movement and the dissent, not to destroy them and exterminate them as a group.
States are always very careful when they utter the word genocide. You might remember that there was a lot of hesitation at the UN level to pronounce the genocide in Darfur as genocide. The reason was that once you make the determination that the highest of the highest international crimes is taking place, the UN and the international community have to step in. So, there are situations where the assessment errs on the lower side, failing to brand a genocide genocide. Other times, countries err on the opposite side – they exaggerate a human rights situation into genocide in order to tout the horn for political reasons. The Biden administration pronouncing the situation in Xinjiang genocide in 2021 is a clear example of that, and in time, history will also judge the US government’s assessment as an error. But that doesn’t matter because the US government needs the genocide narrative, now, in the context of hardening the Cold War rhetoric against China.
Jeffrey Sachs argued recently in Project Syndicate that the genocide accusations against China are unjustified, and I agree. That doesn’t mean that nothing is happening there. It simply means that the highest of the highest international crimes is not taking place.
You have to take a look at the US government’s treatment of the issue on the practical level. The US government hasn’t admitted any Uighur refugees over the past years. Generally, Chinese refugees seeking asylum are not accepted into the US. Also, zero Uighurs were accepted in the United States, even though they were designated by Biden himself a priority refugee group in 2021, and the Biden administration claims genocide is taking place.
The zero number simply shows that the US government is itself not convinced. It knows very well that hundreds from the group are engaged in jihad and it will be difficult to determine who is who. The US government itself fears this Chinese minority group and it doesn’t want to open its doors even to a small number for the worst, clear-cut cases of persecution. In the same time, the US government scooped up and accepted indiscriminately thousands of Afghan refugees in 2021, without any vetting. So there is something much bigger behind the zero number of refugees fleeing genocide. The US government itself is not buying its own narrative, aware of the reality on the ground.
In terms of what can be done to help the situation of the Uighurs in China, you can’t make terrorists not want to be terrorists, you can’t make people who want to separate from China not want that, and you can’t make a government not crackdown on a group of people. What can be done, however, is to not support Uighur terrorist groups in and outside China, and to prevent a military escalation of the situation, which is something that the US government could be entertaining as an option, behind the scenes. There is nothing worse for innocent people from the same ethnic group than a government facing an actual terrorist or military threat.
With jihadist groups in the region, and around and inside Xinjiang, the most important priority for the international community right now is that the situation doesn’t grow into actual military hostilities, or worse, a civil war that draws in all kinds of forces. After Syria, the global jihadist movement could be eyeing Xinjiang to be next.
Iveta Cherneva is an author and commentator in the fields of international relations, security and human rights. Her most recent book is “America in free fall: the 2022 and 2024 elections and Trump’s return”. She writes on US-China-EU relations, among other geopolitical topics. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.