The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China scrubs evidence of Xinjiang clampdown amid ‘genocide’ debate

People line up at what the government calls a vocational education center in China's Xinjiang region in December 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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As Western governments assess whether the crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in China’s Xinjiang region constitutes genocide, Beijing has slowed the information flow from the area to a trickle, obscuring conditions.

The restriction of information — coupled with inaction by intergovernmental organizations — has left individual countries to make determinations as best they can.

Surveillance and censorship have long hindered a full view of conditions in Xinjiang. But last year Beijing locked down borders, citing the coronavirus; expelled foreign journalists who reported on Xinjiang; and scrubbed information off websites across the region.

“Regimes committing these kinds of crimes typically try to prevent damaging information from getting out,” said Deborah Mayersen, an Australian expert on genocide.

A “genocide” designation would be an indelible stain on President Xi Jinping’s legacy. It also could galvanize European nations to join the United States in imposing economic sanctions and fuel calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

The State Department, which started calling the Xinjiang crackdown a “genocide” in January, has said senior Biden administration officials will raise Xinjiang when they meet Chinese counterparts on Thursday in Alaska.

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Beginning in 2017, Xinjiang’s government carried out a massive political “reeducation” campaign against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. Scholars estimate more than 1 million people were detained in camps, with some released, some transferred to prison and others pressured to work in factories.

Gene Bunin, a researcher who documents Uyghur testimonies, said he does not know of a single former detainee who managed to leave China in 2020. Coupled with harsh restrictions on Xinjiang residents communicating with outsiders, that means scant new first-person testimony for a year.

Another Xinjiang expert, Timothy Grose, said that because of the dearth of new details, he recently ended a multiyear project to tally detention numbers in Xinjiang.

“The places I was getting current information, since covid, they’ve not gone silent, but their content has changed,” said Grose, a professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.

Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based Xinjiang researcher, said much of the recent scholarship has become “semi-historic” as it has grown more difficult to research current conditions.

The effects of this vacuum are becoming more pronounced. Human rights activists are frustrated by the drift of discussions toward the abstract and historic. Meanwhile, Chinese propaganda outlets are seizing on vague or outdated information circulating in the West to try to discredit the broader evidence.

Zumrat Dawut was placed in an internment camp for Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang and was forcibly sterilized, but she made it out of China. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Is this a genocide?

The most authoritative type of genocide determination would come via an international tribunal. Investigators could unearth fresh facts and punish culpable officials.

These systems went into motion in 2017 after violent persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar. The U.N. Human Rights Council appointed a fact-finding mission, which found there was “genocidal intent.” The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court opened cases, both ongoing.

None of this happened for the Xinjiang crackdown. Activists attribute the inaction to China’s political sway.

An ICJ case requires a country sponsor, such as Gambia in the case against Myanmar in 2019. Nury Turkel, the first Uyghur American commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said no country is risking Beijing’s ire by sponsoring an ICJ case.

“There is no Gambia for the Uyghur people,” Turkel said.

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As for the ICC, China is not a member. ICC prosecutors declined to investigate in December, citing lack of jurisdiction. Attorneys representing Uyghurs are still pursuing a case based on the deportation of Uyghurs to China by Tajikistan and Cambodia, countries under ICC remit.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for a Xinjiang investigation in February, but prospects are complicated by China’s recent election to the council for a three-year term.

Questions remain about what access international investigators would receive: Xinjiang officials are known to take foreign visitors for staged tours, sometimes with officials pretending to be villagers. In January, World Health Organization investigators probing the origins of the coronavirus in China were taken by their hosts to a propaganda museum.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China welcomed a visit from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, saying there had never been “genocide, forced labor and religious oppression” in Xinjiang. After initially denying the camps’ existence, Beijing has switched to defending detentions of Uyghurs as an anti-extremism initiative.

With international institutions declining to investigate, individual countries are left to make their own, inherently weaker judgments.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called events in Xinjiang “genocide” on his last full day in office. The Biden administration has continued to use the term.

Canadian lawmakers also declared a “genocide” in February, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the term was “extremely loaded” and required further examination.

The designation remains controversial among Xinjiang scholars in the West. There is widespread agreement that China’s treatment of Uyghurs constitutes “crimes against humanity” but disagreement over whether there is sufficient proof Beijing harbored an “intent to destroy” Uyghurs as a group — key to the genocide definition under international law.

Mayersen, the genocide expert, said that the available evidence has to be balanced against the imperative to act.

“Waiting for conclusive, overwhelming evidence can also mean waiting while people are experiencing genocide,” she said.

Hunt for evidence

Understanding of Xinjiang is hampered by a grim reality: Since the crackdown began, few Uyghurs have been able to leave China or communicate with the outside world.

Bunin, the researcher compiling Uyghur testimonies, estimates that only a few dozen Uyghurs have managed to leave China after detention in a camp, plus several hundred ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang.

That is a much smaller pool of first-person testimonies compared with Myanmar. After the 2017 crackdown, more than 1 million Rohingya refugees fled into Bangladesh, where researchers could interview them.

It has made it challenging for Xinjiang researchers to prove systemic implementation and intent for the most explosive allegations, including torture and rape in the camps.

Western activists and researchers have been trying to piece together shreds of information into a fuller picture. One result was a report from the Washington-based Newlines Institute this month outlining evidence that could support a genocide designation.

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While this push has filled some of the gaps, much remains unknown, including whether the camps are still open.

In December 2019, under international pressure, the Xinjiang government announced that it had closed its camps. (In the government’s words, all Vocational and Educational Training Center students had graduated.)

It is unclear if that happened. Journalists were able to approach a small number of lower-security camps in Xinjiang last year and verify they were empty. In other cases, roadblocks around camps prevented approach.

“Can we say all the camps have been closed?” said Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “I’m not entirely confident about that. There are a lot of people whose whereabouts are unclear.”

The lack of clarity has hampered activists’ calls to action. Some are pushing for a boycott of the Olympics, with the slogan “Close the camps or lose the Games.” Others hesitate to adopt this call, in case the camps have been closed, making the demand moot.

Scholars note that full investigations are sometimes possible only if a regime falls — as with, most famously, the Nuremberg trials over the Holocaust and other Nazi German war crimes.

“You can never really get access to the information in Xinjiang unless there was a new government to give you all that evidence,” said Julian Ku, a professor of international law at Hofstra University.

To prevent and to punish

Signatories of the 1948 Genocide Convention, including China and the United States in addition to 150 other states, pledged to take actions to prevent genocide, not just punish it.

Some activists criticize the recent policy focus on punishment for China rather than preventive actions that could immediately help Uyghurs.

“Uyghurs’ lives are not a subject for academic debate,” Turkel said. “We need urgent action.”

Yet it has been difficult to identify what outsiders can do. Beijing rebuffs Xinjiang advocacy as interference in internal affairs. The measures Western governments are discussing — such as sanctions or an Olympic boycott — would pressure Beijing but would not immediately aid Uyghurs.

Wang, of Human Rights Watch, said countries could grant asylum to overseas Uyghurs, many of whom live in limbo after leaving China. They could also help stretched nongovernmental organizations gather evidence, she said.

Bunin argues that greater transparency in Xinjiang is among the most urgent issues. It would help clarify whether camps still operate, whether Uyghurs are still forced into factory jobs and what evidence was used to sentence many people to long prison terms.

“The most reasonable thing to demand is transparency,” he said.

Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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