Sadam Abdusalam is a 30-something-year-old man, with a peaceful semblance and what could be called unremarkable features, a person no one would think twice about seeing walking on the streets of Sydney with his wife and two children. His freedom, however, hides a tragic story, a tale of loneliness, oppression, and, most of all, voices that are being silenced by a government and muffled for the rest of the world. Abdusalam is an Australian citizen with Muslim Uyghur heritage, one of the most populous ethnic minorities of the Chinese population. He married his wife, Nadila, in 2015, but their plans to establish a life together after months of a long-distance relationship were abruptly cut short by an unprompted house arrest she was subject to in Xinjiang, China - the government had taken her passport. Sadam could not be there for the birth of his oldest son, Lufti, in 2017. They continued their lives hundreds of miles apart: her, having to take care of a baby on her own and living in a constant state of tension, fearing for what authorities might do next; him, in agony at his impotence of reuniting with his family. They had to spend 1338 days apart, against their will, but in 2020 Nadila and Lufti were able to join Sadam in Sydney. It was his first time meeting his son. Lufti was three and a half years old and referred to him, for weeks, as shu shu - uncle.
Sadam Abdusalam and his family.
Abdusalam’s family’s situation had a happy ending, one that took an unimaginable effort to become reality; however, most stories similar to his aren’t receiving a satisfying closure, and, even worse, aren’t being told to begin with. Beyond that, Abdusalam’s case is, as horrifying as it sounds, one of the “lesser” ones: it does not even begin to encompass the thousands of people currently trapped in internment camps or the women who have gone through forced sterilization. The fact is that millions of people are facing unthinkable tragedies merely because of their ethnic roots, seeing their loved ones and themselves in grave danger of having their basic rights - and lives - completely obliterated. A government is currently unrestrictively suppressing millions of people, citizens they were supposed to protect in the first place, and despite the gruesome conditions to which Uyghur rights are being subjected in China, the international community has not found a way to interfere or at least offer relief to citizens whose individual liberty and personal safety are as endangered as they can get, in what has been recognized now by several countries, as genocide. But to fully grasp the troubling and obscure reality of Xinjiang, it is important to understand what that word means, one that is surrounded by a dark historical charge that could be repeating today.
What does ‘genocide’ mean, and why is the term so controversial?
Genocide’s relatively easy-to-understand definition, “the mass extermination of a particular group of people”, fails to encompass both the somber context it entails and the tremendous controversy that has surrounded the word since its creation. Its crafting, surprisingly, is fairly recent: the Polish Raphael Lemkin combined the Greek “genos” (race) with the Latin “cide” (to kill) in 1943, in an effort to create a term that would encompass the horrors of the Holocaust - tragically, almost his entire family passed away in concentration camps. As a result of his efforts to give a name to this atrocity, the United Nations Genocide Convention was created in 1948, with the goal of never repeating World War II and its harrowing unfoldings. Since then, however, the Convention has suffered heavy criticism for both the narrowness and the vagueness of the definition of ‘genocide’: there is no way of quantifying it (no “death count”), no direct way of proving intention beyond a reasonable doubt, and there has been hesitancy among UN member-states to directly confront another nation under suspicion of committing genocide, as can be inferred from the lack of international action in Rwanda. Because of these issues, the opinions as to which events can be considered genocides vary: some believe the only one ever carried out was the Holocaust, and some include under this term events such as the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the beginning of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge killings in 1970s Cambodia, and the Tutsi massacre carried out by Hutus in Rwanda during the 1990s.
The terror of World War II prompted the creation of international regulations to avoid humanity's greed for power from ever generating similar circumstances; the UN itself was proposed after the end of the conflict. In this honorable but rushed call for action, however, much was left in a mist of uncertainty that has led to corresponding indecisiveness as to how to act upon them - a situation that has ramifications until the present day.
The Uyghurs and the fight for information
In the latter years of the 2010s, doubt began surfacing regarding the conditions under which the Muslim Uyghur minority is being forced to live by the Chinese government. Separatist movements and conflicts between both groups date back to the 1980s, but officials have consistently taken advantage of that narrative to justify violence against the Uyghur, claiming that the group is a threat to national security and that action has to be taken - claims that have origins at least dubious. International authorities have gradually begun cementing the resolution that this, indeed, is a modern issue that must be addressed by global coalitions, one that could signify the endangerment of basic human rights and the very lives of more than 12 million people, mostly residents of one specific province, Xinjiang - a concentration that makes of this a localized group much easier to target. The dissonance between the dubious governmental capability to ensure dignified lives for all its citizens and the country’s rising global economic influence has left the international community at an impasse, one that has led astonishing lack of action in a situation that is a potential genocide in the making.
Tackling the doubts surrounding Xinjiang is difficult because going against such an important global power could, quite catastrophically, end the extremely delicate post-Cold War “peace”. This global impotence is further deepened by a troubling lack of access to information in the first place: the Chinese government is firm in rebutting any attempts of journalists and media vehicles of reaching Xinjiang, actively stating that there is no violation of human rights currently taking place in Chinese territory. Furthermore, when access is allowed, the stiffness of reports makes it more than clear that they serve merely as untrustworthy propaganda, with statements that were most likely carefully approved by the government beforehand.
Despite that obstacle, however, the fight of the Uyghur people has been gaining recognition: testimonials of individuals who escaped now provide the international community with horrid details about life in the so-called “re-education camps”: conditions seem to include torture, coerced labor, medical experiments, sexual crimes, interrogations, subhuman living conditions, and brainwashing. The few who escape and bravely tell their stories for the world to hear are some of the only first-hand witnesses to what is taking place within the guarded walls of these compulsory installations. There is no way of knowing for sure how many people are inside those walls in the first place, but specialists estimate that from one to one and a half million people are being subjected to these recurring crimes. To back those testimonials activists and organizations all around the world have been finding ways to read between the lines of data collected in the region. The use of satellite imagery is an example of a predominant method through which the developments within Xinjiang have been observed and studied. A picture from an area near Dabancheng, for example, shows the area completely unconstructed in 2015, but several buildings in the space five years later. Specialists have concluded, upon further examination, that this is likely a detention and labor camp for Uyghur individuals.
The camp in Dabancheng.
Beyond that, the ramifications of these acts go beyond the camps: families are being torn apart and prevented from being created in the first place. Thousands of children are being forcibly separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools, as reported by Emily Fang for the Financial Times: when parents are detained, the children are being taken from their remaining free family members and sent away to state-run schools and orphanages. The placement of children is also accompanied by another violation of Uyghur family structures: there has been proven serial forced sterilization of thousands of women. The 2020 report “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birth in Xinjiang”, by Chinese scholar Adrian Zenz, shows that between 2015 and 2018, populational growth in the predominantly Uyghur areas of Kashgar and Hotan fell by 84 percent, while the national population growth rate in China in those same years was positive and close to zero, according to data from the World Bank. Furthermore, an exiled Uyghur doctor reported in 2021 that “On some days there were about 80 surgeries to carry out forced sterilization.” The human rights-threatening coercion techniques being widely applied against the Uyghur women are concerning not only because of the violations themselves, but also the nature of this coercion: it entails the attempt of the government to restrict the number of children the Uyghur can have, thus hindering their ability to pass their ethnicity onward to the next generations. This type of violence is characteristic of ethnic cleansing - that is, the attempt by a group in power to “get rid of” a minority that is under their rule.
The international response - or lack thereof
Despite proof that unacceptable acts are being carried out on Chinese soil, which not only sound absolutely absurd to the modern context - after all, how can things such as these happen today? - but constitute breaches of several fundamental international agreements, there has been very limited action in the international community to aid the Uyghur population and rebuke the Chinese government. First of all, to tax it as genocide is not only difficult because of the lack of agreement on its very definition, but also because it would bring looming consequences that some countries are not willing to or even not able to account for. The international indecision as to how to refer to the mistreatment of the Uyghurs has led to a variety of nomenclatures and definitions. The Canadian and UK Houses of Commons, the US Department of State, and the French National Assembly, among others, have recognized Chinese action against the Uyghur as ‘genocide’; other nations, such as New Zealand and Belgium, have addressed the situation as “severe human rights abuses” or crimes against humanity; and others have relucted to recognize it in the first place. That is not to say there hasn’t been any international concern at all: many countries are mobilizing to try and help, passing laws to provide relief to Uyghur individuals and imposing sanctions on China, but the courses of action available are restricted precisely because of Chinese international influence. Several nations, especially those with less robust economies or lower levels of development, heavily rely on China to provide cheap goods that they are not able to produce nationally; thus, when a situation such as this comes along, most countries find themselves at an impasse because they have their hands tied by Chinese dependence cultivated throughout the years. This situation is similar to the current energy crisis happening in Europe, as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war and the dependence on Russian gas in the continent.
Beyond the individual countries, the UN has also been placed under heavy scrutiny for not having yet recognized Uyghur treatment as genocide. The “OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the People’s Republic of China”, published by the organ in August 2022, recognizes that “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups [...] may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” (page 46) However, the word “genocide” is not mentioned once, and the hesitant language predominant in this extract shows international reluctance to stand up to China, a rising power that has great influence within the organization and has support from equally powerful and ambiguous allies, such as Russia. More recently, a debate was requested by the United States in the UN Human Rights Council for whether the topic of the Uyghurs in China should be brought to discussion in the group, but the motion was defeated by 19 to 17 votes, with 11 abstentions. This reluctance to act even by the United Nations - the organization that was supposed to be neutral and act in the best interest of the maintenance of peace and the granting of basic human rights to all citizens - sadly portrays the reality of how the world currently views the topic: as something that is not as urgent as other more “global” issues.
International neutrality and lack of action are understandable, to a certain extent, because of the potentially catastrophic consequences a more incisive action could bring. However, to ignore the heartbreaking testimonials of those who escape - and the ominous presence of the millions who haven’t - is to send a message to the Chinese government through lack of accountability. The government is carefully testing the waters, bending the limits of to what extent it can go unpunished if carrying out illicit activities in the semidark, and countries are feeding into its sense of invincibility by allowing them to do just so, forced into a position of compliance because of the imperial dominance the country holds over the global economy.
The solution the international community must find to this issue is unbeknownst to me, but what is a certainty is that the search for it needs to start now. Until there is a multinational effort to punish the Chinese government for its unprovoked brutality against the Uyghur - whether that be through intervention, economic sanctions, or any other means -, there will be no true safety for the Uyghur minority. What we can do right now, however, is to increase visibility on the topic, bringing attention to this issue within our families and communities. The media sensationalism and the quick character of current communications, in a world of shorter attention spans and more available content, means that this situation is not nearly as much in the public eye as it should be anymore. Simply because this reality has been in place for years now does not mean that it is any less relevant than it ever was; on the contrary: with every passing minute, it becomes more and more important that this issue is solved or at least relieved. 12 million people are in danger today and most of us did not know about it. Let’s start by changing that reality.