China’s Xinjiang Actions Could Be Crimes Against Humanity, Says Rights Group

On 19th April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report claiming that the Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Northwest Region of Xinjiang. The crimes involve systematic policies of mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution, among other offenses, that the Chinese claim to be re-education efforts.

According to the HRW report Ben Van Schaak, a faculty affiliate at the Stanford Center for Human Rights & International Justice, asserts that “it’s increasingly clear that Chinese government policies and practices against the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang meet the standard for crimes against humanity under international criminal law.” 

Since 2017, some eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained in detention camps located in Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Outside of the camps, the eleven million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decades-long crackdown by Chinese authorities.

Most detainees have never been charged with a crime before, and it seems that their “crime” is mostly based on being Muslim. Based on the Council on Foreign Relations, the detainees are often targeted for “traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, including Turkey, for attending services at mosques, for having more than three children, or for sending texts containing Quranic verses.” Additionally, many Uyghurs are labeled as “extremists” for simply practicing their religion, and they are sent to the detention camps for “re-education.” Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and renounce Islam, as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin.

One of the primary motives behind the crackdown on Uygurs is China’s concern of the “toxicity of religious extremism” and resulting separatism sentiments and movements, as per the words of President Xi Jinping. Since the 2009 riot in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, where demonstrators protested against state-incentivized Han Chinese migration in the region and widespread economic and cultural discrimination, the CCP has tightened its grip on the region to prevent further political and social dissent. Under Xi, the CCP has pushed for an atheist doctrine in line with the customs of the majority Han-Chinese society; consequently, they have set up the detention camps as a method of eliminating “extremist” threats to the CCP’s sovereignty. 

Even though human rights organizations, UN officials, and foreign governments around the world are urging China to stop the abuses, Chinese officials maintain that these “vocational education and training programs” do not infringe on Uyghurs’ human rights. In fact, in March 2019, their official name became “vocational training centers” with the mission of teaching Mandarin, Chinese laws, and vocation skills, and to prevent citizens from becoming influenced by extremist ideas.  However, the Chinese leadership has continuously resisted international pressure to allow foreign investigators to freely tour the region. As a result, many foreign nations, including the US and the European Union, have imposed sanctions in opposition to human rights violations. Furthermore, in January 2021, the US became the first country to apply the terms “crimes against humanity and genocide” to the Chinese government’s abuses. 

Overall, the Chinese government’s failure to stop these crimes shows that current sanctions prove to be ineffective. There is a dire need for a stronger and more coordinated international intervention.