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Once Again: The Genocide of the Uyghur People

Once Again: The Genocide of the Uyghur People

In case you haven’t heard, China is currently facing global accusations of genocide against the Uyghur people of the country’s Xinjiang region.  We want to draw attention to what’s going on in China and question what action, if any, the West can carry out.

What have we already done? And what more could we do? What historical parallels are there in Western responses to genocide? And what does this mean for the future of Western-Chinese relations? These are all lofty themes and questions, and I doubt I’ll give them the full justice they deserve.

But what we must not forget is at the heart of this is the suffering of a whole people; a people enslaved and having to endure the worst crimes known to man. This is the reality of genocide. This article will be addressing the systematic persecution of a people by an authoritarian regime. If you have the time, and if you want to understand what’s being carried out on our shared earth, then we suggest you read on (and watch). 

Understanding genocide is vital to protecting all people across the world. it is hard to contemplate its impact due to the evil nature of the act itself. Even the word’s backstory has its roots in tragedy. After the holocaust killed many of his family members Dr Raphael Lemkin launched a long, hard-fought campaign to have genocide recognised as an international crime. He succeeded. The United Nations Genocide Convention came into effect in 1951.

Article two defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The convention also expects states who are signatories to ‘prevent and punish’ genocide.

Who are the Uyghur?

There are 11 million Uyghur people who live in China. Ethnically, the Uyghur people are tied to central Asia. They are primarily Muslim, and their language is similar to Turkish. They make up over half the population of the Chinese region of Xinjiang, which produces 20% of all cotton in the world.

Uyghurs have felt under threat ever since China’s largest ethnic group – the Han – began to move to the region. The Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) believes that Xinjiang is home to Islamic terrorists.

What is happening to the Uyghur people?

Accusations of genocide have been levelled in China over the past few years. Concentration Camps have sprung up around China, and some estimates place their population at as much as a million Uyghur people.  The C.C.P. claim these camps are purely for re-education and have even let documentary crews in to film eerie, seemingly staged videos. Even in this relatively civilised façade, the C.C.P. is attempting to indoctrinate the Uyghur people. From their language to their culture, their very identity is under threat from the oppressive Chinese government.

There are even more grave allegations. Stories have also recently emerged of the forced sterilisation of women and their systematic rape. Upon entering the vicinity, the women’s jewellery was confiscated from and their earrings ripped out of their ears. In their cells, they were stripped naked and handcuffed, with witnesses describing the experience of being removed from their cells every night and raped by one or more suited men. Some women have even described being bitten all over their body during the act. In a move meant to curb the Uyghur population, the women in these camps are forced to wear I.U.D.s.

In response to criticisms, the Chinese have claimed they are trying to root out evil. Even after having left China, women continue to fear being sent back and feel that the government continues to spy on them.

What is the role of technology in this?

The New York Times has said that under Xi Jinping, the government has used artificial intelligence to profile its citizens racially for the first time in history. Facial recognition technology is used in large Chinese cities to identify Uyghur people, and police documents obtained by the NYT suggest that this is only going to increase. 

Machine learning has enabled A.I. to distinguish between an image of Uyghur people and Han Chinese people. Machine learning works through the supply of thousands of pictures of Uyghur people. With exposure, it becomes able to sort between different groups of people. This is insidious on several fronts. For one, it suggests that the separation and observation of Uyghur people in camps could contribute to future mass segregation within the wider Chinese population. It also suggests the capacity for weaponised technology coming from the Chinese government is substantial. Their illiberal use of A.I.’s potentially emancipatory power reflects the danger of a technological realm with no ethical core.

As questions over the 5G roll out become more politically contested, the West now faces one central problem: Can they keep up? And are there any means of counteracting a superpower that has come to use technology for its own nefarious ends?

What reaction has there been globally to what’s happening?

During the final moments of Trump’s reign, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China was perpetrating genocide against the Uyghur. This was a political declaration, not one found in the court of law.

There have also been some independent bodies corroborating this claim. For example, the non-partisan (but US-based)  think tank the Newlines Institute found that the C.C.P. had violated all acts constituting genocide and accused them of possessing the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Why has no action been taken then?

The problem with the US’s declaration is that it was political. Normally, genocide would be recognised through international legal mechanisms. One way would be through the United Nations Security Council. But the problem with this approach lies in the fact that China is one of the permanent sitting members on the security council, which gives them veto power over any potential genocide declaration. There is another mechanism: a ruling of the International Criminal Court. However, the I.C.C. only has jurisdiction over signatories to the Treaty of Rome. China is not a signatory.

Are there any ways around it?

On the face of it, getting an acknowledgement of genocide seems a complex process. This is not unusual, as different countries have historically reached different conclusions over what is and what isn’t genocide. Within Europe, for example, some countries acknowledge that the Armenian Genocide was a genocide. Others, such as the UK, still don’t recognise the Armenian Genocide. One solution identified is the genocide amendment to a trade bill being presented to parliament at the minute.

What is the UK trying to do?

The U.K. has taken a tough stance on China, in wake of both accusation of human rights abuses against the Uyghur and their violation of the joint Sino-British Declaration on Hong-Kong. The U.K. has opened a path to citizenship to people from Hong Kong and placed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials. The government has also updated the modern slavery act to try and stop UK companies relying on cotton cultivated by Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The removal of China from critical infrastructures such as 5G has led to criticisms of the UK government, but it should be noted that China are still involved in the UK’s nuclear power stations.

What is the Genocide Amendment?

The Genocide Amendment would give UK courts the power to determine if a genocide was being perpetrated. The UK government doesn’t support the amendment, claiming that the High Court doesn’t have the capacity – a claim that was disputed by many campaigners.

The new bill would ensure that if the High Court did find a country with whom the UK had a trade deal guilty of genocide, parliament would have to vote on how to proceed with that specific foreign relation.

To try and stop the amendment from passing, the government have put forward the Neil Amendment. The Neil Amendment, instead of giving authority to the courts, gives it to parliamentary select committees. This is problematic. For one, Select Committees have indicated they are not satisfied that they have the capacity to investigate charges of genocide. The circumstances of assessment also means the Neil Amendment falls into the trap of being a political – not a judicial – declaration of genocide. Unfortunately, this amendment was passed instead of the genocide amendment. This means that Select Committees do now have the power to investigate countries for genocide.


What do we know? We know that over a million Uyghur people are being forced into re-education camps. We know Uyghur Women allege that they are being systematically raped by Chinese government officials. We know that most of the cotton that goes into our clothes most likely comes from forced labour in China. We also know that all too often we have turned away from people suffering genocide. What can we do? Educate ourselves. Campaign. Lobby our MPs to stand up in the face of genocide anywhere in the world. One thing remains clear: we cannot let the Uyghur people down, as so many victims of genocide have been let down in the past.


Written by Ruairidh Maclean.

Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska.

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