A 21st century holocaust: Why China's actions in Xinjiang are being called genocide

In the last month, a

series of bipartisan declarations

have emerged from the United States accusing the People’s Republic of China of perpetrating “genocide” in its treatment of Uyghur minority populations in the country’s northwest. While a parliamentary subcommittee has urged in recent months that Canada follow suit, there have been no such declarations from the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Below, a quick primer on what China is doing in its northwest, and why international observers are calling it one of the most systematic attempts at state genocide since the Holocaust.

‘Largest mass incarceration of a minority population’

Starting in earnest around 2017, the People’s Republic of China has been opening a vast network of “re-education centres” in Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest. Between one and two million mostly Muslim Xinjiang residents — ethnic Uyghurs most prominent — have been forcibly sent to these centres for “crimes” as simple as

going to Mosque or texting a relative in Turkey

. A

2018 statement

from the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China called the system “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”

China has persistently referred to these facilities as “

boarding schools

” or “vocational training centres,” even when they clearly include guard towers and high walls topped with razor wire. A leaked

2019 video

showed large groups of blindfolded, freshly shaved Uyghur men being forced to kneel on the ground to await processing at a Xinjiang train station.

Using satellite imagery, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has

meticulously assembled 3D models

of nearly 400 Uyghur detention facilities in Xinjiang. A

2018 Reuters investigation

analyzed local government construction tenders to confirm that these facilities were designed to be fully equipped with prison-like surveillance and security systems.

Former detainees, some of whom have

recently testified before a Canadian House of Commons subcommittee

, have reported being subjected to brutal regimens of indoctrination, with torture and sexual abuse of dissenters. In recent years, evidence

has also emerged

of Uyghur detainees being used as forced labour in Chinese factories.

‘In the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning’

When it comes to regions bristling under Chinese rule, Tibet generally gets most of the world’s attention. But Xinjiang has had an uneasy relationship with Communist China from day one.

The region is heavily Muslim with ethnic and cultural origins that are much more in line with neighbouring Uzbekistan. The region only became viewed as a definitively Chinese territory upon its conquest by the Qing Dynasty in the 1870s. In the 1930s and 1940s, the region twice capitalized on political instability in China to break away as an Islamic republic, and pressure to do again was

re-ignited by the 1991 collapse of the neighbouring Soviet Union

. The interim three decades have seen incidents of

ethnic riots

in Xinjiang and violence from Uyghur separatists, such

as a 2010 suicide bombing that killed seven.

 One of the most widely circulated images depicting conditions within the re-education camps. Taken in 2017, it was originally part of a post touting government “deradicalization” efforts.

The presidency of Xi Jinping saw an immediate ramping-up of repression in Xinjiang with the launch of the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.” Even before the opening of re-education centres, Xinjiang residents had their passports confiscated and saw their cities peppered with police checkpoints.

The deadliest genocides of the 20


century were carried out with punch cards and paper ledgers. A particularly chilling dimension to China’s actions in Xinjiang is how authorities have fully mobilized the resources of a 21


century surveillance state. Between 2016 and 2017, roughly the entire population of Xinjiang was required to turn over biometric data such as DNA samples and iris scans in a program dubbed

Physicals for All


Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, who fled Xinjiang in 2017 after being accused of “separatism,”

told Human Rights Watch

that the ultimate goal is to thoroughly purge Xinjiang of all inkling of distinct identity and “identify with the country, such that, in the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning.”

‘They have some problems with their thoughts’

Chinese authorities have been quite explicit about branding Uyghur’s culture and their Islamic faith as a mental illness or an “ideological virus.” In a

Tweet earlier this month

, China’s US Embassy claimed that by “eradicating extremism” in Xinjiang, Uyghur women were “no longer baby-making machines.”

Internal Chinese documents

leaked to the New York Times

reveal that when Uyghurs inquire about relatives who have gone missing at the hands of authorities, they are told to “treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills.” When BBC investigators asked residents in the Xinjiang city of Dabancheng in 2018 about the emergence of a new high-security “re-education” centre in their midst,

one replied

that it was for the tens of thousands of Xinjiang residents experiencing “problems with their thoughts.”

One pro-internment article aimed at Uyghur readers


that “being ‘infected’ by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology but not receiving immediate ‘re-education’ is similar to contracting an illness but not seeking a cure, or becoming a drug addict but refusing treatment.” A counsellor at one of these facilities told Chinese reporters that once detainees “study well and their mental state is healthy, they will be able to live happily in society.”

In December, 2019, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir held a

news conference

in which he praised the “graduation” of Uyghurs from the centres, saying “with the help of the government, stable employment has been achieved and their quality of life has been improved.”

‘They want to destroy us as a people’

From the available evidence, China’s actions in Xinjiang lack the targeted mass-murder that characterized genocides such as the Holocaust or the Holodomor, the Soviet Union’s engineered starvation of several million Ukrainians. The

United Nations Convention on Genocide

, drafted only months after the liberation of Nazi death and forced labour camps, characterized genocide as any deliberate attempt to inflict “physical destruction” on a people. In this, the convention’s framers saw fit to also characterize a genocidal regime as one “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

An AP investigation last year found that China’s Xinjiang crackdown

has been accompanied

by a wave of forced sterilization, birth control and abortion. The Xinjiang birth rate is now indeed in freefall, with population growth in some regions

falling by more than 80 per cent

. .

The AP interviewed Gulnar Omirzakh, who was slapped with exorbitant fines and ordered to insert an Intrauterine Device after she had her third child. “To prevent people from having children is wrong … they want to destroy us as a people,” she said.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques