“Never Again?”: Responding to China’s Uighur Genocide

To the list of all the genocides of the last hundred plus years – Armenia, the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda – another entry should be added: the genocide of the Chinese Uighurs.

According to legitimate international researchers and tribunals, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is currently committing cultural and physical genocide against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province. This population, both ethnically and religiously a minority, has been surveilled by the Chinese government, placed into ‘re-education camps,’ and forcibly sterilized. These deeds fall directly under Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide: China is both “causing serious bodily or mental harm” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births” within the Uighur population, “with intent to destroy” it. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government is denying all claims of atrocities. To their credit, many Western governments, including the United States, have properly labeled these abuses as genocide. Now they must act accordingly.

Unlike the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, and more recently in Iraq against the Yazidis, the perpetrator, China, is a nuclear power that cannot be deterred through military intervention. Yet, there are several ways that the United States can impose significant costs on Beijing and make it harder for China to continue committing these crimes against humanity.

The first step must be a major public relations campaign to educate the American people about the Uighur genocide and how it reflects a broader policy of human rights abuses undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party. From the moment it seized power in 1949, the CCP has been a repressive regime that sees dissent as intolerable. Although this attitude softened in the 1990s and 2000s, under the leadership of Party Chairman Xi Jinping – the de facto dictator of China – this trend has reversed entirely and persecution has accelerated. The Uighurs of Xinjiang are the primary target of Beijing’s repression, but abuses against minorities have occurred throughout the country. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy advocates have been abducted and their press organizations shuttered, all under the auspices of a National Security Law that criminalizes political disagreement. Members of the Falun Gong religious group have been persecuted and jailed, and there have been credible reports of organ harvesting by the Chinese authorities. Tibet has been a major target of CCP repression for decades, and this has not stopped. The regime is destroying Tibetan culture and torturing dissidents, especially those who dare practice their religion. Similar crackdowns are also underway in Inner Mongolia, where non-Chinese-language education is forbidden and  journalists critical of the regime are detained.

All of these abuses are linked by the ideology of Han supremacy, which asserts that China was, is, and always must be a homogenous ethnostate under the majority Han Chinese group. Despite the ahistorical nature of its claims, Han supremacy has become a key governing ideology under Xi Jinping. This hyper-nationalist philosophy was first promoted by state-run education campaigns in the 1990s, but took deeper root in society and government with the maturation of those students and the rise of the Internet and social media. The targeting of minority groups for persecution and destruction feeds into this ideological framework, operating in a similar way as other cultural chauvinist movements which inspired the genocides of the 20th century. For these reasons, the United States must not shy away from exposing these truths and labeling the Uighur persecution for what it is: an act of genocide that has no place in the modern world. Politicians and pundits should make the public aware of these crimes. The US President should consistently speak out on the Uighur genocide and China’s myriad other abuses, and explain the need for a strong American response.

Alongside this rhetorical strategy must be a major reassessment of American moral standing in the world. It has become popular in prestigious outlets like The New York Times to denigrate America as systemically racist and imperialist. The fact that this criticism exists, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, is a hallmark of a free society. But there are consequences when denunciation goes too far, especially with respect to foreign policy. When activists move from basic criticisms of the United States to comparing it to truly oppressive countries like China and Russia, those regimes use that rhetoric as a cudgel against the US, as well as an excuse for their own repressive behavior. China commonly employs this tactic, producing spurious anti-American human rights reports in order to impugn evidence of the Uighur persecution. The United States, despite its flaws, is light-years ahead of China on human rights, and needs to have the moral confidence to say so. A more unapologetically pro-American outlook is needed to build back America’s moral standing and project it abroad. America’s self-confidence in its own moral superiority was a major factor in its victory in the Cold War. By acting as a “shining city on a hill” and promoting an image of freedom and progress, the US won the ideological battle against Soviet communism. That same approach can prevail in the 21st century, as the country is once again faced with critical challenges from authoritarian rivals. China’s cultural confidence, as exemplified by Han supremacist ideology, must be countered by a reinvigorated American cultural confidence. Reclaiming America’s moral high ground and boldly calling out the perpetrators of the Uighur genocide are mutually reinforcing actions which will bolster the US in its broader geopolitical struggle with the Chinese Communist Party.

A Chinese ‘re-education’ camp in Xinjiang province.

More concrete actions in the realms of international politics and economics are also needed to respond to China’s atrocities. First, the United States needs to seriously revisit its participation in many international institutions that have been captured by Chinese government interests. Organizations like the International Olympic Committee, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) have chosen to ignore these abuses due to China’s power and influence. The UNHRC is one of the worst offenders, consistently re-electing China to its membership and refusing to investigate or condemn the Uighur genocide. The United States is a major funder and supporter of these international bodies and should reorient its involvement to focus on groups that refuse to countenance authoritarian abuses. If the current crop of organizations fails to remove such bad actors, the US should leave them and create alternative institutions which will exclude these regimes.

Economic penalties are also crucial. The US should penalize China economically by forbidding all Xinjiang-made products and sanctioning Chinese industries and individuals. The recently-signed Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act does prohibit certain Xinjiang-made products, but enforcement needs to be ramped up. The US must penalize any company, foreign or domestic, which traffics in these goods. In addition to enforcement, there must be a concerted effort to shift supply chains outside of China both to avoid forced labor and as a punitive measure. This does not necessitate bringing manufacturing to the high-cost United States, only moving it out of China. Firms which take concrete steps to move their supply chains to alternative countries like India, Bangladesh, or Vietnam should receive favorable tax treatment or incentives, including write-offs and subsidies. Painful economic sanctions should also be imposed on Chinese businesses and individuals, focusing on government officials, corporate leaders, and others involved in the atrocities. The legal framework for these sorts of sanctions – freezing assets, revoking visas, etc. – already exists in the Magnitsky Act, a law passed in 2012 which allows the US to sanction human rights abusers. Given its global reach, the Magnitsky Act can and should be applied to Chinese officials. Additionally, Chinese companies which use forced labor should be excluded from the world banking system, a sanction which could be fatal to their operations. These efforts should be multilateral and involve American allies around the world.

Finally, perhaps the most impactful and meaningful action the United States could take in response to the Uighur genocide is to increase the admission of refugees fleeing totalitarianism. American liberty has always been a beacon of light to the world, attracting freedom-seeking peoples from all over the globe to come and make a life for themselves free of political persecution. Opening America’s borders to large-scale immigration of Uighur and Chinese dissidents would help reclaim our moral standing, present a positive example to the world, and prove that the United States not only seeks to harm the perpetrators of genocide, but give succor to its victims. This would be not merely a sign of goodwill, but a commitment to rectify the mistakes of the past, when America too often turned a blind eye to genocide and the fate of its victims. “Never again” is an oft-repeated phrase; it is time we made it a reality.

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