China’s treatment of Uyghurs may amount to genocide, museum report concludes

The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s report is a rare, unequivocal indictment of Chinese government practices from the cultural sector

A billboard in Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, featuring an image of Chinese president Xi Jinping and text in Mandarin and Uyghur Photo by Kubilayaxun, via Wikimedia Commons

A billboard in Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, featuring an image of Chinese president Xi Jinping and text in Mandarin and Uyghur Photo by Kubilayaxun, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide released the 60-page report, “To Make Us Slowly Disappear”: The Chinese Government’s Assualt on the Uyghurs, which offers a harrowing compilation of publicly available data on the treatment of the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. The report outlines the mass incarceration of between 1 million and 3 million people, as well as practices including “forced sterilization, sexual violence, enslavement, torture and forcible transfer”. Multiple times, its authors express “grave concern” that “the Chinese government may be committing genocide against the Uyghurs”.

Using recent reports in the English-language media, from human rights organizations and in scholarly articles, as well as statements from government officials and first-person narratives of Uyghur survivors, “To Make Us Slowly Disappear” serves as an accessible and comprehensive reader on the history of discrimination and increasing state violence against the Uyghurs. The report’s title quotes the words of Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur woman who spent two years in one of the so-called “reeducation camps”: “I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.”

According to the report, these “slow” methods—of which the camps are only one element—include government incentives to attract Han Chinese to Xinjiang; encouraging Han men to intermarry with Uyghur women (preserving the patrilineal Han bloodline and erasing the Uyghur one in the process); portraying the Uyghurs as a security threat to the Chinese nation; restricting Uyghur travel; imprisoning Uyghurs for years for “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” for something as minor as talking to others about Islamic law; using biometric technologies to construct databases of Uyghur biometrics without their consent; demolishing mosques; and permanently placing “orphaned” Uyghur children, whose parents have been detained, into state institutions. In the camps, Uyghurs have reported being brutally punished for speaking their own language, used as free labor, tortured, placed in solitary confinement and sexually assaulted with electrified sticks. Some have died while in detention; others have attempted suicide after release.

Perhaps most insidious of all, the Chinese government has been controlling the Uyghur birthrate—through the sterilization of some Uyghur women, while forcing IUDs (intrauterine devices) on others, which can only be removed by surgical procedure. As a result, the birthrate in the Uyghur community has plummeted in recent years.

Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center, says the information publicly available about the treatment of the Uyghurs in China “likely just scratches the surface” of what’s really going on. “Perpetrators go to great lengths to hide the extent of their crimes,” she added. “Even with the Holocaust, we’re still learning of new mass graves today.” The museum has been looking into the plight of the Uyghurs for the past two years as part of its work on contemporary issues, an effort to “do for communities today what wasn’t done for the Jews during the Holocaust”, she said.

“The significance of this report is that the Holocaust Memorial Museum used the word ‘genocide’, a definition that’s been debated,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. The fact that a major museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust is chiming in on the issue of the Uyghurs, she added, “carries quite a bit of weight and adds further moral chorus to the pressure on the Chinese government to stop these abuses, and pressure on governments around the world to take action”.

Although many  political leaders across the globe have condemned the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs (and some countries, including the US, have imposed travel and economic sanctions on China), there has been little international direct action. The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s report ends with policy recommendations including a UN-mandated inquiry and fact-finding mission, more targeted sanctions and import/export restrictions, expediting Uyghur refugee protections and, perhaps most importantly, weaving human rights interests into the larger web of international policies with China.

“It’s heartbreaking that we have to make arguments for human rights,” said Kikoler. “In the context of the Holocaust, we now in hindsight know there were many warning signs that went unheeded. That’s also happening now.” She said she hopes the museum’s report “elevates Uyghur voices and situates conversation about what’s happening”.

As to why the museum didn’t call this an outright genocide, the report notes that an important aspect of genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the protected group”, and that “there is insufficient evidence at this time of the intent of the Chinese government to systematically kill living Uyghurs”.

“The determination of intent is a very hard and high bar to cross,” said Kikoler. “Our key message and concern is that once you call it genocide, the crime has already occurred.”