Is genocide taking place in Xinjiang? Are there really concentration camps, re-education centres, torture chambers and forced sterilisation? Or can we take the Chinese government at its word and accept that China has done nothing but take the necessary security measures to combat terrorism?
On the surface, the opening question appears to hold great moral significance. After all, the evil of genocide is one of the few principles the international community can nominally agree on. Although the UN and other international organisations won’t necessarily lift a finger to stop a genocide in progress, there is universal agreement that it’s bad. Even regimes engaged in genocides have to pretend otherwise, and if atrocities still happen too frequently, it should be remembered that genocide, this new and negative term, has only recently become taboo. By painfully small steps do morals make progress.
Usually, I would be glad to see greater scrutiny put on China vis-à-vis Xinjiang, for even Beijing’s rulers are less bold in daylight than in darkness. Unfortunately, recent arguments over whether Xinjiang can be synonymous with genocide have been disappointing because, in broader terms, the appropriateness of the appellation is irrelevant.
I’m not saying that putting Muslims into concentration camps should lack consequences or that this isn’t a tragedy for those behind bars. Rather, the international community’s confusion regarding Xinjiang has highlighted just how low the tides of human solidarity can ebb, for it will presumably require nothing less than signed confessions by the perpetrators of abuses for the world to act. Even then, only a few meaningless sanctions would result. The gears of international capitalism do not want China shunned from the global economy, and it’s hard to convince people of facts when it’s not in their interest to be convinced.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the discussion around genocide reveals that any abuse that does not definitely qualify as genocide is to be tolerated. China’s dictatorship is treated as a perfectly normal entity, despite being functionally almost identical to Nazi Germany in 1938. Policymakers and captains of industry debate the possibility of genocide in Xinjiang so intensely because genocide, only genocide, and nothing but genocide is truly taboo.
Consider the following. What if China was exonerated of genocide? What would it mean? If we found that forced sterilisations were mythical and that the camps only aim to reform Islamists or, better yet, actual terrorists, what then? Would China be less of a dictatorship? Would it have comparable freedoms to Norway or Canada? Would it mean China hadn’t smashed Tibetan society, Hong Kong too, or that they don’t arrest trade unionists and journalists, or harvest Falun Gong organs, or disappear their dissidents calling for democracy? Would China be less of a threat to Taiwan, to freedom, to the human rights of billions? Of course not.
Genocidal or not, China is a dictatorship. It suppresses all manner of freedoms at home and is now providing a model for dictatorships abroad. That cannot be contested. That is what matters. Genocide or not, China has embarked on what amounts to colonialism in Xinjiang, and even if it was not colonialism, the limits to freedom in mainland China would not be easily borne by liberal-minded Westerners. Some semblance of human solidarity should make us hold China to higher standards than genocide’s mere absence, yet it does not.
The Chinese police state manifests itself in endless checkpoints, in copious cameras, in monitoring apps, in facial recognition software, ideological instruction, and in the faces of scared citizens who refuse to speak with carefully chaperoned foreign journalists. This is visible. This is reality, genocide or not. This is China, not just Xinjiang, where all (limited) freedoms are supplied only on one condition — the Communist Party rules. This condition is at once banal and abhorrent, for it pretends that it’s only by yearning for more than can be supplied that the state’s heavy hand falls upon the average Chinese, thereby making the victim a culprit, and the abused an ingrate.
Indeed, it is with indignant pride that China advertises how much they have helped Xinjiang’s women, the local economy, its jobless masses too, as if providing jobs or healthcare to anyone who isn’t a political dissident should absolve the government of the need to hold elections. Likewise, China prattles on about anti-terrorism, as though anyone should think it best practice to combat terrorism with mass incarceration.
But here, regrettably, China has found some support, for many countries have struggled against terrorism, and even liberals view some civil liberties as expendable when faced with jihadists. Thus, China has found useful idiots, the ones who believe that Muslims in camps or the surveillance state are necessary evils, or just necessary. But they are mistaken.
Liberalism will not benefit from a totalitarian regime engaging in the mass incarceration of minorities. This is dangerous, not the least because many of us are minorities when compared to the Han, but also because China’s aims are inherently illiberal. China’s plan is to strengthen an already dangerous and ambitious regime. Anti-terrorism is just another byproduct of strict social control, and it makes no sense to cheer the peripheral successes of tyranny.
To be clear, if Xinjiang’s Muslims were to have more freedoms, there probably would be more Islamist terrorism. And if Xinjiang was offered self-determination, it would probably fall to some form of Islamism, as Muslim-majority democracies tend to do. Rather than suddenly becoming an open and secular society, Xinjiang would struggle. It would make mistakes. Its leaders would have a long way to go to learn good governance, democracy, human rights, and the meaning of freedom. An independent Xinjiang would be flawed for now, certainly, but it would be no less flawed than Beijing’s master plan.
If liberalism is to flourish, it is unlikely to grow from Chinese prison camps. That is no place to learn liberalism. Therefore, the camps serve no good, with or without genocide, and that should be stunningly obvious. Gulags do not produce freedom for anyone. They do, however, normalise abuse.
China has also been accused of using Uyghur slave labour, and dozens of Western brands have grudgingly decided to look into their supply chains, just in case their non-unionised, government-controlled, non-voting workforce isn’t working willingly in inhumane conditions. The fact that multinational companies appear to have so much trouble determining whether or not their cotton is picked by slaves should be a major warning sign, yet the debate goes on, as if the confusion itself isn’t a damning indictment.
As with genocide, it seems one must prove that slavery is taking place by eliciting confessions from the slave-masters. But what else could we expect, given the high stakes of forcing people to pay a few dollars more for a cotton shirt, if we are to go slave free, that is? Clearly, something is very wrong with our unverifiable supply chains. But, again, this has always been the way in China. Secrecy has become tacitly accepted.
And so, the great distraction of Xinjiang casts a long shadow over Chinese industry, human rights, and its police state. Only by the proven physical extermination of a people can we determine trade with China to be immoral. Only by the enslavement of those same specific people can we judge our products to be tainted. In the West, there is no solidarity for the average Chinese worker, whatever their ethnicity, or for the activists and common dissidents who fill Chinese prisons. “If it isn’t genocide, then just ignore it” could very well be a bumper sticker approved by Beijing.
With the tides of human solidarity at such a low ebb, we continue to board the grounded, immovable ship. And, in this way, we will all one day be stranded. But fear not. There probably won’t be a genocide. Probably.
Simon Leitch is a former lecturer in international politics. He earned his PhD at Griffith University, where his thesis focused on China’s use of political rhetoric in the post-Cold War era. He resides in Brisbane, Australia.