“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state”. This is a statement on behalf of former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during January this year shortly before he left his institutional position. Genocide, systematic and destroy, are respectively a noun, an adjective and a verb that, inserted in the same sentence, takes the listener back in time, to a time we know and keep alive in our memory so that the horrors of the past ought not be repeated. A time when a certain population tried to annihilate another and managed to take out an approximate number of 6 million human beings – the Shoah.
What the former Secretary of State suggested was that something similar is happening once more, in China where various minorities have allegedly suffered arbitrary arrests, forced sterilisations, torture, children separated from their parents, forced labour and restrictions on freedom of religion, expression and movement. He was accusing Chinese officials of being engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable minority ethnic and religious group.
The territory in question, which is the focus of the international community’s attention, is Xinjiang – a region of China located on the border with Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. This broad region is inhabited by 22 million people, most of them ethnic Uyghurs, a Turkish-speaking minority of about 12 million people of Sunni Islam, with their own traditions and their own writings. The Uyghurs are one of the 56 ethnic groups acknowledged by the Chinese Communist Party. Historically, they were the largest ethnic group in the area until the central government had decided to encourage the settlement of the larger Han ethnic group, thus breaking the Uyghur supremacy.
For more than 50 years, the people of Xinjiang have been demanding independence, but the Chinese government has been reluctant to open up to them, presumably for reasons related to culture, the pursuit of uniformity and political control. This is due to the fact that the Chinese authorities consider the area to be of strategic importance both from an economic point of view, due to its rich energy resources, as well as from a geopolitical point of view, since it interfaces the Middle East and Central Asia.
China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests is unshakeable.
Xinjiang has been by all means a police state for the past six years. The official motive is based on the need for a stricter control of the area in question, considering the fact that some terrorist cells, including the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, have been created and organised within jihadist groups. However, what does emerge is that not only the members of the terrorist groups, but the entire Uyghur population is subjected to strict surveillance through forced installed applications on their phones in order to check navigation, and facial recognition cameras in the area, as well as mass telephone wiretapping.
The motivation adduced by Beijing is the necessary fight against terrorism; yet behind this facade, there seems to be a broader process of sinicization of the region, through the de-Islamisation of the local population that leads to the de facto cancellation of the people themselves. This is corroborated by various journalistic investigations that have revealed the existence of detention and re-education centres where about a million Uighurs are allegedly imprisoned, forced to work in cotton fields and indoctrinated with Chinese culture as part of a progressive de-Islamisation process. Therefore, while the central government justifies these places on the international scene by defining them as “professional education centres” to eradicate extremism and terrorism, ordinary citizens with a clean criminal record, whose only fault is being born into the wrong ethnic group, are in fact imprisoned here.
To make the overall picture bleaker, the Chinese government is becoming more conscious of a sort of plan to reduce the Uighur birth rate, aimed at causing their eventual extinction. This concept is defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as demographic genocide, and is carried out in Xinjiang through mass sterilisation, induced abortions, the imposition of contraceptive methods and, in the worst case scenarios, the killing of babies.
Consequently, China has been the subject of accusations by NGOs, activists and human rights experts at the UN, which has recently led the US, Canada, Europe and the UK to announce sanctions against Chinese officials. It is interesting to notice that the business branch in the fashion industry is also contributing to the cause by taking a firm stance on the situation in Xinjiang. H&M, Nike, Adidas and Burberry have all taken a stand, with H&M declaring that it will no longer buy cotton from Xinjiang, that has prompted a reaction from China’s state-run Cctv, which has called on consumers to boycott the Swedish brand.
It will be interesting to see how the international balance of power and the “cold war alliances”, as defined by Russia’s Foreign Affairs minister Sergei Lavrov, will evolve in the coming months. As of today, China portrays itself as a victim of the mistakes made in the unfolding narrative of the situation in Xinjiang and classifies the unilateral sanctions against it as unacceptable because they are based on lies and false claims, urging the US and EU to recognise the seriousness of their mistakes by stopping the confrontation to avoid causing further damage.
Regardless of the truth of each one, among the multitude of words expressed by all the parties involved regarding the Xinjiang issue and its international consequences, one concept stands out. As simple as it is revealing, at the end of his public speech, when the European ambassador was summoned to Beijing on 22 March, Foreign Minister Qin Gang stated: China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests is unshakeable.