When one hears the word genocide, one is immediately drawn to images of murder en masse – perhaps soldiers torching houses, lining their terrified inhabitants up for execution. Throughout history, senseless killing has been the solution when one group grows to despise or even fear another. Rarely, however, do such actions go unpunished in recent decades. Although international response is seldom sufficient, regimes accused of human rights violations often face severe sanctions and intense scrutiny from the UN at the very least, and are occasionally dealt with militarily, as was the case with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. That does not mean, however, that the world has put an end to genocide – just that it’s not as easy for nations wishing to commit it. To this, China posed a question: Can you destroy a people without killing them?
The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group living in China’s Xinjiang province, a land consumed almost entirely by the Gobi desert. Since the 18th century, the stateless people have suffered under constant Chinese invasion and have revolted against Chinese rule nearly fifty times, although the majority of these came before the consolidation of communist power in the nation. The Uyghurs are a religious minority as well- they practice Islam- something that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used as a justification for ruling them with an iron fist. Much of China’s oppression has come with the casus belli of destroying radicalism.
Although “Orwellian” has become a phrase too oft used when describing domestic security measures used by contemporary governments, China’s administration of the region where more than ten million of the Muslim minority live certainly qualifies for the description. CCTV cameras litter their cities, trained not only on public areas where rebels could potentially meet, but on their homes as well. Uyghurs are forced to provide the CCP with iris scans, voice clips, and even DNA samples so that any actions viewed as threats to the state can be exterminated at the root. Under the constant eye of a government hostile to their existence, the Uyghurs fear their every action.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 58 ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs who managed to flee from Xinjiang.The results were harrowing, with people imprisoned or sent to reeducation camps where they were tortured or killed for seemingly random infractions ranging from talking about moving away to simply owning a tent. The vast majority of these, however, have a clear aim: eliminating any aspect of Uyghur culture that differentiates it from the Chinese status quo. Uyghurs who pray, fast, listen to Islamic lectures, wear hijabs, speak their native languages in school or wear shirts with Arabic script, have full beards, perform traditional funerals, or tell others not to sin are placed on watchlists and often sent to reeducation camps. The meaning of these laws are clear: The Chinese Government would prefer the Uyghurs to not exist. They would certainly appreciate being able to harvest the region’s abundant natural gas and mineral reserves without dealing with separatist dissent and religious conflict. As numerous as the Uyghurs are, it is simply not feasible for them to just disappear, and it is certainly impossible for China to take the route of mass killing or expulsion. They therefore have chosen to make it too dangerous for the Uyghurs to exist as they always have. Following the traditions of your ancestors, worshipping your god, refusing to submit to government propaganda, or even being related to a person who does any of this may result in your imprisonment or even death. Encouraging them to drink alcohol and violate their religion would destroy their identity and leave them weak in the face of Chinese pressure. It is impossible for the Uyghurs to be Uyghurs – not just in the face of the government and their omnipresent surveillance cameras, but around their friends and loved ones as well. A common tactic employed by the CCP since the 1940s has been the public struggle session, in which individuals are forced to confess their crimes to a crowd of people as a form of public humiliation and discouragement of “wrongthink.” Xinjiang’s inhabitants are also encouraged to report the transgressions of their family members, as if a family member is caught, their relatives are held liable for sheltering them.
Meanwhile, the CCP encourages members of China’s majority ethnic group, the Han, to migrate to Xinjiang in an attempt to convert it into a less hostile region. The Uyghurs are now a plurality rather than a majority in their homeland – the end goal being for them to be so outnumbered that their land is no longer theirs in any way.
While China’s war against the Uyghurs is backed by the threat of force, it is waged most heavily in the minds of Xinjiang’s inhabitants. If the Uyghurs cannot trust those closest to them, how can they unite against the CCP? They will find no guidance in their religious texts or Imams – the only code they are allowed to follow is that of the Han who push them into submission. To destroy a people is one thing; to instead force a people to suffocate slowly is something that the world is much less likely to act against you for.