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How Will China Avoid Consequences for Its Uyghur Policy?

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How Will China Avoid Consequences for Its Uyghur Policy?

The international toll is growing. But the domestic consequences are what Beijing should truly fear.

How Will China Avoid Consequences for Its Uyghur Policy?

A woman wears a face mask reading ‘Free Uyghurs’ as she attends a protest during the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

In 2020, nations around the world intensified their criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other mostly-Muslim minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. To cite just the example of France, November 2019 headlines such as “French President Silent on Rampant Abuses During China Visit“ had evolved to “France to continue pressure on China over Muslim Uighur minority“ by September 2020.

In the United States there is a vast ideological gap between the former Trump and the current Biden administrations, yet the China policies created under President Donald Trump are so far holding fast under his successor. Former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s determinations that China has not only committed “crimes against humanity” but has also “committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang” were quickly and firmly given affirmation by incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken. If it holds, this astonishing confluence of policy between two such dissimilar American political forces must be maddening to China’s Communist Party leadership. They’ve been hoping that new President Joe Biden would bail them out.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won’t show how much that genocide designation hurts them. For all of China’s bluster, however, Chinese leadership does care about international opinion, and, counterintuitively, it cares very much what the United States thinks of it. America is the standard that China wants to beat, commercially, militarily, and in some ways, politically. Even while competing directly with the United States, Beijing has always yearned for its respect – and that seems less and less forthcoming in recent years.

On top of the indictment of genocide, talk of boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in China is increasing. “More than 180 organizations have called on governments to boycott Beijing 2022 because of reported human rights abuses against ethnic minorities,” the BBC reported earlier this month.

“The World Uyghur Congress described the event as ‘a genocide Olympics,’” the BBC said.

Minorities and Ethnic Groups Don’t Forget
Given that China’s leadership lives in a thick-walled echo chamber that constricts the inflow of outside perspectives, it is probable that they hear these messages with a considerable mix of anger, contempt, and frustration.

China’s mission to counter the “danger” to the Chinese state which the Uyghurs supposedly represent depends on erasing the identity of the Uyghurs as a people, and ensuring that their future generations are imbued with that new identity, as well.

As history shows, fat chance.

Hundreds of minorities and ethnic groups around the world have faced cultural, political, religious, and actual extinction through the practices and policies of a more powerful state. Of particular relevance to China should be the experience of the former Soviet Union, communist China’s original mentor, with its numerous minorities and ethnic groups. How they were treated, how those minorities reacted, and the state of their existence today could be edifying for Chinese leaders who believe that tactics designed to, for example, “de-Islamify” millions of people can actually work in the long term.

The experience of the former Soviet Union’s Baltic republics is an object lesson. In Latvia, Ilmars Mezs wrote in 1994 that “The Latvian population underwent fifty years of Soviet rule, with deliberate policies to dilute the homogeneity of Latvians through Russification, immigration, and political dominance… Latvians in particular feared ethnic and cultural extinction. The process of ethnic dilution and mixing under the Soviets” impacted Latvians “in terms of rural-urban contexts, the workplace, employment, housing, and education.”

Closer to China’s neighborhood, “The collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed a flood of religious activity in parts of Central Asia. Along with the moderate and traditional forms of the Islamic faith, radical Islam reemerged in the Muslim communities of the Central Asian republics,” Mariya Y. Omelicheva writes.

Why? Omelicheva continues, “Poverty, discrimination, and other kinds of distress… compel people to seek out and embrace alternative views on the nature and causes of their problems. In the absence of other viable means of expressing dissent and effecting change, people can turn to radical Islamic groups that provide easy answers and simple solutions to social and individual concerns.”

In other words, the very policies that China is practicing on the Uyghurs and most of its Muslim population leads to an increase, not a diminishment, of adherence to radical Islam, worsening the problem Beijing purports to be solving.

China, usually pragmatic, and, it believes, scientific in its approach to problems, would be well-served to look at broad examples such as these with a dispassionate eye and consider whether or not they offer guidance for the present. When people are forcibly confined without due process of a reasonably just legal system; when their families are torn apart and children are removed from their parents; when women are beaten, raped, and sterilized; when people are forced under threat of torture and continued imprisonment to renounce their religion; and when people are forced to stop speaking their language in favor of using the language of their oppressor, something quite predictable happens.

Those people learn to loathe their oppressors. They, and their generations of descendants down the ages, will never believe in a future decided by people who imprisoned their grandfathers and raped their grandmothers.

A major plank of China’s plan for the Uyghurs seems to depend on literally breeding out the “problem,” in what can only be called a ghastly form of eugenics. Do Chinese leaders think that they can breed out memory, as well? Have they themselves forgotten the traumas they and their families suffered during the Cultural Revolution? Hundreds of conversations over the decades with people at various levels of leadership in China tell this author that the answer to that is a definitive “no.” In fact, those memories are generally seared into their consciousness, as they would be in the minds of any human being.

Adopting Western Terms for Sympathy and Acceptance

China has for several years been trying to sell their Uyghur policy with language that they believe the West will understand. Just as with the language of contract law that China leveraged in wholesale form in order to be able to successfully interact with international business, the Chinese government has also found it useful to adopt the language of Western governments, diplomacy, and media as a means of sympathetically characterizing its actions in terms that resonate with foreign readers and their leaders.

One such phrase is the “War on Terror.” Chinese leaders know that that particular designation carries deep significance around the world, particularly in the United States, where the phrase was coined in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

As Huang Wei wrote in 2005, “As we know, China is an authoritarian state whose information and archives are under rigorous control, especially those related to state unity and security. This situation is also applicable to the East Turkestan Movement in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities used to tightly control all information and depict a picture of a firmly stable society.”

“However,” Huang continues, “things have changed since the event of September 11th, when many regimes of the world have seized on the US Global War against Terrorism to justify their crucial repression of Muslim or some no-Muslim minorities. Beijing adopted similar strategy: it planned to crush the East Turkestan Movement under the name of anti-terrorism and began to provide evidence that points to the movement as a terrorist one. The information about the East Turkestan Movement was then made known to the public.”


Historical experiences highlight one common outcome: repressed and suffering minorities remember their misery, over generations, not only in spite of efforts to eliminate and silence them, but because of them. Not only do such groups remember when their ethnicity and traditions have been functionally silenced for generations, but the experience of elimination becomes a part of that ethnicity, informing it indefinitely.

China is driving that lesson home in Xinjiang. As the perpetrator of its own policies, however, China also has the power to change course.